Movie Times Vault

The Forgotten Bomb


by Richard von Busack

At the San Jose Peace and Justice Center 7pm, 48 S. 7th in San Jose, 7pm.

Aug 6 and Aug 9 are the 61st anniversary of two world shaking calamities. Commemoration can be found in Stuart Overbey and Bud Ryan’s documentary The Forgotten Bomb.
Far from being mere history, the threat of nuclear war is as strong as ever. It’s been mere chance that the 32 “Broken Arrow” incidents of dropped bombs weren’t worse, and the “Mutually Assured Destruction” system of the Cold War is still firmly in place: “a very unstable arrangement,” former Secretary of State George Shultz tells the filmmakers. It’s a situation unchanged by the fall of Communism.
Overbey and Ryan take us to Hiroshima, flattened by a relatively small and primitive nuclear weapon on August 6, 1945; eyewitnesses Emiko Okada and Sakue Hinohira (among the shunned “hibakusha” who survived the bombing) tell their stories, and it’s not at all prettified. Former Los Alamos National Lab director Dr. Harold Agnew, who gets testy as he’s questioned, is still ruffled by the time he was confronted by bomb survivors on a trip to Japan: “I told ‘em ‘remember Pearl Harbor.'”
It’s one thing when old veterans say that kind of thing. But Internet trolls still love to take that line; it makes them feel like they’re part of the war effort against the Axis. The necessity of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is bolstered by dubious statistics of how many soldiers would have been killed occupying Japan. Let’s be more cold-blooded than the filmmakers are and split the difference. Going along with the thought that Stalin’s declaration of war on Japan was caused by Hiroshima…then the later bombing of Nagasaki was an example of what subsequent generations of nuclear weapons had built into them: overkill. The Forgotten Bomb’s directors remind us of what Admiral Leahy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1942-49 wrote: by the time of Hiroshima, the war was already over and that the use of atomic weapons was “barbarous.”

The 61 years since the debut of atomic weaponry and atomic power have been marked by systematic lying, sometimes through blatantly childish informational films: here, meet ‘60s spokescartoon “Ion Fleming”, voiced by Mel Blanc.
There are laughs here, hard laughs: Archival footage showing the swingin’ side of ‘60s fallout shelters, and staged scenes of a  ‘50s Los Alamos (home of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory) where suburbanites who aren’t disturbed from mowing their lawn when they hear a bomb being tested.

When the filmmakers go for the technique of animated photos to make up for the interviews they couldn’t get with politicians, you wish they’d left that kind of attack to South Park. The interviewees include everyone from Schultz to author Jonathan Schell, to historian Barbara Rose Johnson, who is devastating on the subject of the birth defects caused by H-bomb testing in the South Pacific.

New Mexico, one of America’s poorest states, has been hit hard by the atomic age, as a testing site and as the location of toxic uranium mines. Some of the most novel material here is the local reporting: the subject of lasting radiation in the area of Los Alamos. Once employees dispersed of waste through the “kick and roll” method (kick over a barrel and watch it roll into landfill). Sometimes they spilled acid in which radioactive materials were refined directly into a canyon; a local watchdog group proposes that the four different cleanups there haven’t been enough to make clean up the waste.

The downside of this documentary is the emphasis on the moral horror of nuclear weapons, which should have been obvious. While there are articulate spokespeople here (Jesuits, Zen Roshis and even Rabbi Michael Lerner), what’s less obvious is the salient point. Nuclear weapons are less an effective policy than they are an unthinkable accident waiting to happen. One is moved by the peace activists seen in Los Alamos on Hiroshima Day, penitents dressed in sackcloth as an apology; moved because this gesture of self-humiliation seems unlikely to move the proud politicians who need to do something…or the people whose life and happiness depends on moving the movers and shakers.

Co-director Overbey will be on hand tonight.