New York — "Why do people with kind hearts and humanist feelings go to work on weapons of destruction?" That is a question asked at the beginning of a superb "old-fashioned" (yet at the same time "newfangled") talking-head documentary about J. robert Oppenheimer and the development of the nuclear bombs.
"The Day After Trinity" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) not only asks the question, it seemingly comes up with the answer.
Originally a four-hour masterwork which took about ten years to complete by producer/director Jon Else for KTEH/TV in San Jose, Calif., "Trinity" investigates the origins of Dr. Oppenheimer as well as the origins of The Bomb. Utilizing old photographs, newsreel shots, and new archival footage, but mostly depending on the fascinating geography of the human face in close-ups, the film investigates thoroughly, even in this shortened form, major topics of morality.
Did Dr. Oppenheimer and his associates make a "Faustian bargain" (as is charged by one scientist)? Or was it the patriotic spirit of the country -- the totally united-against-the-enemy fervor -- that allowed all those who worked to produce the first atomic bomb to believe implicitly that what they were doing would simply end the war quickly and save American lives?
The film makes it clear that the party-time/work-time morale at Los Alamos didn't allow for much deep soul-searching about the long-range -- or even immediate -- consequences of their work. Hitler and Hirohito were closing in on our civilization, and it seemed all-important to do anything that would stop them. The gap between fantasy and reality, always a problem in science, closed in the enthusiasm of the moment. The line was blurred by world conditions and feelings of self-preservation.
What was real and what was imagined? Well, even the heretofore unreleased film of the actual first test at Trinity Cite seems more like an episode of "Danger UXB" than reality.
It wasn't until after the first bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without --warning, that doubts began. Recriminations, guilt, new resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation, refusal to work on new nuclear projects, all started manifesting themselves in Dr. Oppenheimer and those enthusiastic young scientists who followed his wartime lead.
But between the footage on Dr. Oppenheimer's origins and his final days as a grieving outsider, this documentary proves to be an important document, filled with tragic and mysterious material about the "father" of "the bomb," who lived long enough to question what he had wrought. Its content will be discussed, pro and con, for years to come, even as it inevitably wins prize after prize. It is a documentary that should not be overlooked this time around.
Aside from the fantastic first-time footage of early atomic blasts, I guarantee you that you will find it difficult ever to forget the face of this haunted man with the sad eyes when he looks directly into the camera at a congressional hearing and responds to a question asking him when controls on nuclear proliferation should have started. "The day after Trinity!" says J. Robert Oppenheimer.
"Trinity" is a film about the development of conscience in a man, in a nation , in the world.