What to say if you liked it
An all-too-rare-these-days serious documentary about an important, complicated subject. Not only was it intelligent and well-made, it was also given a proper 90-minute slot in prime time too.
What to say if you didn’t like it
A disappointing documentary that favoured the use of reconstructions and dramatic representations above hard analysis behind the reasons for dropping the A-bomb.
What was good about it?
• ‘Good’ is probably the wrong word, but some of the small details given were fascinating and terrifying: that Japanese medical orderlies were trained to strap bombs to themselves and blow-up tanks; that Japanese schoolgirls were trained to attack invaders with bamboo spears; the story of drunk Dr Hida being taken by bike at night to treat a girl with heat-stroke – because of this he was out the city and survived the blast; that it took several seconds for the Dr Hida to feel the blast after seeing the light and the mushroom cloud and much more besides.
• The information that ‘Enola Gay’ was Commander Tibbetts’ mother’s name. I bet she thanked him for that.
• The disturbing fact that the bomb could have been dropped on a different city had the weather conditions been poor on the day.
• The fact that the Americans were so concerned at the unreliability of their planes (more than one had crashed on take-off) that the bomb was actually fully armed once take-off was complete.
• The unbelievably shocking and moving stories of the survivors. On the happier side we had the story of the eight-year-old saved by a soldier and carried across town where, miraculously, his father saw him. On the truly heart-wrenching side was the dramatisation of the woman who lost her husband and children in the blast, her writings telling of how she was forced to listen to her own child burn to death as she was unable to free her from the debris. It was a huge credit to the programme that the reality of the horror was not shied away from and that they were dramatised and discussed without a sense of mawkishness.
• John Hurt’s narration possessed gravitas, consistently refused to state the obvious and moved the narrative along, as a good voice-over should do, rather than being too overbearing.
• The dramatised scenes were a mixed success – some worked very well and, in the obvious absence of archive, enhanced the programme as well as at least giving some indication of the horror of the bomb. Other times it was a little superfluous, such as an early dramatisation where an actor playing Robert Oppenheimer moved thoughtfully away after the test of the bomb as if he was readying himself to deliver his famous remark (which was shown as archive anyway).
• The superb, but terrifying, special-effects.
• This was simply a fascinating, horrifying programme – both from the point of view of the devastation of the bomb itself on a scale we can hardly imagine (thousands of times worse than 11th September terrorist attacks, for example) and from the human stories of the people that flew the Enola Gay to the people who survived by pure chance or astounding determination. It’s not often that a programme leaves our living room in complete silence long after it has ended.
What was bad about it?
• The information that the US had avoided firebombing Hiroshima as they wanted to measure the full effects of an A-Bomb on an undamaged city.
• The unsettling moments before the Enola Gay took off – “It was like a Hollywood premiere,” said one of the soldiers on the mission. Photographers, cheers, a party atmosphere, just hours before tens of thousands of innocent people were going to die seemed wholly out of place.
• A usual complaint this – but the use of music seemed ill-judged on occasion. As the programme discussed the last few moments before the bomb the editing became quicker and the music louder and more dramatic, building to a real crescendo. This was needless. Why does this extra ramping-up of the drama become necessary? Isn’t the fact that the first atomic bomb is about to be dropped enough?
• Japanese soldier Terasawa admitting that as he walked among the suffering he didn’t give them any of his huge flask of water because the soldiers had been told if they did so, burns victims would die.
• It was disappointing that there wasn’t more time given to the reasons for the bombings and the other options that could have been explored before such a last-ditch decision was taken. The only people who really had views on this were George Elsey, an aide to Truman, the Japanese doctor and Commander Tibbetts. Although it could be argued that the programme was about the devastation of the bomb and the bomb itself, rather than the politics.
• But if it was more about the bomb than politics, some standard details were sadly lacking in the programme: that the people of Hiroshima refer to the bomb as ‘Pika-don’ – which means light-sound; the name given to A-Bomb survivors is ‘hibakusha’; the astonishing fact that, within just three days, the city had some trams running again. Within two months, most were running; it was mentioned that the temperature at ground level was 4000 degrees Centigrade. But it was not mentioned that the epicentre held temperatures of several million degrees centigrade, that the pressure on the ground was 35 tons per square metre and that it caused winds of 440m/sec; the fact that a documentary made by scientists on residual radiation was confiscated by the US until 1967 and was only fully revealed in 1973 and that the A-Bomb effect studied by US scientists is still yet to be made public; the fact that many children had been evacuated to the countryside before the bomb, so thousands were orphaned; that the makeshift barracks built after the bomb were then disastrously swept away by the Makurazaki Typhoon that autumn; there was no mention of A-bomb microcephaly – this was the disease that was inflicted upon unborn foetuses – they were born physically and mentally disabled as a result of the bomb.
• While the programme revealed that those who, in desperation, drank the black rain were poisoning themselves, it made no mention of the many people who jumped into the river to relieve their burns and drank that water, which was also poisonous. Many died that way too.