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Development of The Bomb: Casting a Long Shadow : CBS’ ‘Day One,’ TNT’s ‘Nightbreaker’ Relive Moral Dilemmas of Atomic Age

Time Television Critic

When humans are incinerated, only their shadows remain.

It’s something to contemplate while watching “Day One,” a terrifically good, finely acted, strikingly detailed and inevitably horrifying account of the race to develop the atomic bomb. The three-hour Aaron Spelling production airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

And arriving at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday on the new TNT cable network are consecutive showings of “Nightbreaker,” a devastating new movie about American soldiers victimized by the Army’s atomic testing program in the 1950s.

“Day One” and “Nightbreaker”: both historical dramas directly relating to the present, both excellent reasons to watch TV this week.

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The CBS work is a highly successful collaboration by writer/producer David Rintels and director Joseph Sargent on a story based on Peter Wyden’s book, “Day One: Before Hiroshima and After.” It features superb performances by David Strathairn, Brian Dennehy and Michael Tucker.

“Day One” may offer no significant new insights--PBS viewers gained more intimate knowledge in 1982 from the British series “Oppenheimer"--but it does compellingly relive the passions, enigmas and complexities of the Manhattan Project, which joined thousands of scientists, engineers and craftsmen in a quest for a superweapon that would quickly end World War II.

It also acutely and eloquently articulates the moral and political dilemmas underpinning the development of The Bomb. And in doing so, it dramatizes the sometimes conflicting goals of science and humanity.

An impressive package.

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The setting for most of the story is Los Alamos, N.M., in the early 1940s. The state of mind is worry that Germany may be ahead of the United States in atomic development.

The main protagonists are J. Robert Oppenheimer (Strathairn), the brilliant physicist from Berkeley, and Major Gen. Leslie R. Groves (Dennehy), the blunt, forceful, overbearing head of the Manhattan Project who hires “Oppie” to direct the Los Alamos bomb laboratory because he’s virtually the only scientist he trusts and can communicate with.

Meanwhile, the atomic research itself is at times drowned out by a rising buzz of bickering inside the White House and the divided scientific community. The deafening sound of clashing egos, agendas and ideologies is ultimately exceeded only by that first atomic explosion in the desert on July 16, 1945, as Oppenheimer equates the terrifying majesty before him with those oft-quoted words from the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”

This seemingly lamenting thought about the bomb from Oppenheimer is in conflict with the political player, ambitious opportunist and centered pragmatist we see earlier. When fellow scientist (and future Nobel Prize-winner) Enrico Fermi suggests that the United States somehow drop atomic material on Germany to contaminate the food supply, Oppenheimer coolly adds that the plan would be impractical if there were fewer than 500,000 casualties.

The question of whether to measure weaponry by the territory it obliterates or the humanity it kills or maims is ever-present--and unanswered--in “Day One.” The arguments for and against dropping the bomb on Japan--and by what method--spill out in fascinating White House dialogues that broadly define a morality debate that endures even today.

The strongest dissenting voice in “Day One” is that of physicist Leo Szilard (Michael Tucker). He is the Hungarian refugee whose relentless second-guessing about the bomb and warnings of a future destructive arms race earn the wrath of the seething, tyrannical Groves and put him in conflict with hawkish Secretary of State James Byrnes (Hume Cronyn).

By this time, however, the race to complete a bomb has taken on a separate life--a weapon for its own sake--with Groves worrying that the war will end “before we are ready to drop it.”

The setting for “Nightbreaker” is hardly more than a decade later, in Camp Mercury, Nev., where the Army had been exposing GI volunteers to “low-level” radiation in nuclear bomb tests since 1948.

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Inspired by the book “Atomic Soldiers” by Howard L. Rosenberg (no relation to this reviewer), “Nightbreaker” stars Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez in an angry, disturbing story of betrayal.

The betrayers are the government and the Army. The betrayed are the soldiers who volunteered for the tests and were misled about the dangers they faced (“Soldier, you’ll be OK”), which were intended to gauge the impact of nuclear blasts on combat troops.

Sheen and Estevez (who are father and son) are excellent as older and younger versions of fictional neurologist Alexander Brown, whose participation in these tests with troops--many of whom later suffered sterility, amputations and even premature death--comes back to haunt him. He gets romance and morality lectures from government worker Sally Matthews (Lea Thompson).

Writer T. S. Cook and director Peter Markle bring a controlled rage to this material. The story is suspenseful, provocative and excruciatingly real, with one of the characters, Sgt. Jack Russell (Joe Pantoliano), based on real-life Camp Mercury veteran Russell Jack Dann, a central character in the Rosenberg book who suffered multiple amputations and cancer.

Unlike elements of “Day One,” the tightly focused TNT movie doesn’t indict the bomb, only the government for deceiving American soldiers about potentially lethal fallout and then not accepting responsibility.

Yet there are some sequences here, showing the effects of a blast on mannequins and then live pigs, that speak for themselves. They are absolutely harrowing, recalling the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and also that first fateful detonation at Los Alamos.

Shadows.


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