World history’s first – and, to date, only – nuclear weapon attacks were the atomic devices the United States exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. Frustrated by the intransigence of Japanese leadership and desperate to use any and all possible means to forestall a costly invasion of Japan’s home islands, American president Harry Truman authorized the bombings. The attacks killed outright, perhaps 100,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and about another 50,000 at Nagasaki. Thousands more have since died from the lingering effects of the bombs’ deadly radiation. Initially widely celebrated in Allied countries for helping bring history’s most destructive war to a close, the attacks began to receive criticism almost as soon as the disturbing images of the bombs’ Japanese victims were widely circulated. At the 50th anniversary of the bombings in 1995, the smoldering controversy flamed into a nation-wide, very public debate in the US focused on plans by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to display an exhibit that many veterans and others who staunchly support the bombings considered one-sided and unfair. Such criticism, however, cannot be leveled at Hiroshima, BBC Video’s outstanding new addition to its highly-acclaimed DVD series, “BBC History of World War II.” Without doubt, Hiroshima is the most fair and balanced comprehensive presentation yet produced of what has become one of history’s most controversial events. It is also a dynamic example of the inherent power of film media to inform and enlighten in an interesting and absorbing manner. All of the latest and most effective techniques in documentary film production – historical participant interviews, docu-drama recreation, archival film footage and state-of-the-art computer graphics (CGI) – are combined in BBC Video’s Hiroshima by a producer of skill and vision into a riveting film that captures viewers’ attention from the first frame and firmly holds it until the end. One might be tempted to call it “entertaining” due to the visual appeal of its colorful and expertly done CGI, but the film’s grim subject matter makes that term highly inappropriate. Producer Paul Wilmshurst explains in an on-camera interview – one of several bonus features on the DVD – that his goal was to present three things: the science behind the bomb; the history of the event within its political context; and the human impact of the attack. He succeeds admirably in each of these, including the presentation of one revealing segment that actually places viewers inside the bomb itself as it plummets toward the center of Hiroshima to show how a nuclear explosion works (via some extraordinary CGI). Immediately following that segment, Wilmshurst combines CGI with superbly-done, well-acted docu-drama to give viewers a realistic experience of the nuclear weapon’s three terrible effects: heat, blast and radiation. This chilling segment is as close as any of us will get – we hope! – to experiencing what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an atomic bomb attack. As dramatic and effective as is the DVD’s outstanding use of CGI and docu-drama techniques, Hiroshima’s most poignant moments are the numerous interviews of historical participants – and victims — in this tragic event. Although the high-level American and Japanese decision-makers have long since passed away, Wilmshurst was able to include several revealing interviews with, among others, President Truman’s US Navy aide-de-camp as well as surviving crewmen of the Enola Gay – the benignly-named B-29 Superfortress bomber that pilot Paul Tibbetts christened after his mother. The gut-wrenching testimonies of the several survivors of the Hiroshima explosion present an image of horror and unbelievable destruction that puts a tragic human face on a target that Enola Gay’s crewmen could only make out that day as a jumbled collection of indistinct buildings clustered around a “T-shaped” aiming point – the bridge near the center of town that became ground zero at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945.
Wilmshurst wisely avoids including a voice-over narration that is overly moralizing, a tendency that has marred presentations of this event in past productions. Instead he lets the participants and victims speak for themselves in their interviews, often placing their contrasting perceptions and opinions of the bombing in such a manner that the opposing positions are clearly evident to the viewer. Viewers hear both sides and can make up their own minds without attempts to sway them one way or the other by the all-too-typical, heavy-handed narrative of other productions preaching 21st century morality in order to second guess leaders and soldiers who sixty years ago were caught in the middle of history’s most brutal war. Hiroshima is refreshingly even-handed.
Yet, Hiroshima’s voice-over narration is an integral part of the film. It expertly weaves together the interviews, docu-drama, CGI and archival footage into a coherent, comprehensive story that flows smoothly, almost effortlessly, from beginning (the explosion of the Trinity Device, the atomic test on July 16, 1945) to end (the terrible aftermath – the human cost — of the bombings). Wilmshurst made an inspired choice as Hiroshima’s narrator – the marvelous dramatic actor, John Hurt. One of Britain’s most distinguished and accomplished actors, Hurt’s distinctive, deeply resonant voice perfectly complements the “action” in the film. His narrative performance in Hiroshima establishes Hurt as possibly the front-runner to assume the mantle of “top documentary narrator” that has been sadly vacant since the passing of fellow actor, Laurence Olivier (“the voice” that made watching the documentary series World at War such a stirring experience).
I am from Hiroshima. My father was 15 years old and was deployed as a student worker at a ship yard at the time. He does not talk much about his experience, but told me bits and pieces about what he saw. When I was an elementary school student, we had to watch the video footage of the victims that was extremely graphic. So nothing in this program was new to me, although it was very interesting to see how nuclear fusions started inside the bomb. Having said that, I think this program is a good overview for people who are not familiar with the event. It talks about how the bomb was developed, the political circumstances, the US military mission, GIs who engaged in the mission, and of course, the effect on the people in Hiroshima. There is little criticism or political overtones in the way the program was made, although it is clear that there were terrible misunderstandings between Japanese and US leaders, and that a handful of Japanese extremists led the country into ruins. I wish the program talked more about the way the atomic bomb affected people long after the event. There is one section that describes the “mistery illness” that plagued the survivers, but it did not talk about the deformed babies born to the mothers who were pregrant at the time, or the cancers that many of the survivers suffered later in their lives. The program also did not mention anything about the American POWs who were detained in Hiroshima at the time. They all perished along with thousands of people of Hiroshima. I am not sure how many Americans know this. My father is fine. His family lived in the suburbs so none died because of the event although some of the family heirlooms had burn marks that were visible even decades later. My mother’s grandparents, however, lived right by the T-shaped bridge that was used as a target so no remains were found. I remember my grandmother used to go to the annual memorial service every year. Although it was somewhat difficult for me to see the suffering of people reenacted in the program, the stupidity of the leaders, and the happiness and the joy that Americans were feeling after the bomb was dropped (not because I am bitter or critical of their actions, but because they really did not realize what was going on in Hiroshima and that they opened the door to a new era of nuclear threats), we need programs like this so we can learn from the history and remember that the war is savage, no matter what side you are on, and that the war should really be the last resort to resolve a conflict.
This incredible BBC production is truly a “must have”. Using unforgetable and often chilling first person eye witness interviews from some of the survivors, to the expertly re-created special effects and rare actual archival footage were are all taken and placed right there in 1945 to the very site of the blast. Wisely, the BBC let’s the viewer come to his or her own moralizing conclusion to this historical horrific event and fully takes into account both Japanese and American perspectives. Although I personally still feel the use of nuclear weapons was fully justified and ultimately saved thousands of both American and Japanese lives as a necessary way to put WW II to an end, it’s also clear beyond a shadow of any doubt that nuclear weapons can never nor should be ever be considered as an option to be used again in warfare.
PS : URSS was the second country to have the atomic bomb (1949)