Atomic Cover-Up

The serenity of absolute destruction.

(2021) Documentary (Exposed Films) Osamu Inoue, Dennis Predovic, Rob Burgos. Directed by Greg Mitchell

In August, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They remain, to this day, the only places on this planet where atomic weapons have been used. Images of the devastation caused by the bombs have been widely available for decades, but the human toll has never been documented effectively – until now.

Within days of the bombs dropping, cameramen for a Japanese newsreel agency went to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima to film the destruction as a historical document. They also took plenty of black and white footage of the human suffering, of people hideously burned and deformed by the radiation. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army sent cameramen Daniel McGovern and Herbert Sussan to take color footage in both locations, mainly to be used for scientific study. Under American supervision, the footage from both the American and Japanese cameramen were edited into a single 2 ½-hour documentary, with voice-over narration. The Japanese news agency was distressed over the way the documentary was presented and purposely put inappropriately light-hearted music over some of the footage to express their disdain.

While McGovern was eager to have the film seen as a means of impressing that peace was now more vital than ever, the Army decided to go the other way; all of the footage was confiscated and stored away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Despite the efforts of both Sussan and McGovern to get the footage into the eyes of the public, it remained there gathering dust until the late 60s when it was declassified. Eric Barnouw, a Columbia University professor and documentary expert, assembled some of the footage into a documentary that aired on PBS. Bits of the footage were used in the 1959 Alain Resnais film Hiroshima Mon Amour; when the Army had seized the footage, Nippon Eiga Sha secreted a copy of the original film in the ceiling of an editing bay where it sat for years.

Mor recently, author and filmmaker Greg Mitchell (who wrote a book on the history of the footage) has now created a documentary about the cover-up of that footage which premiered March 20th at the Cinequest Film Festival in my old stomping grounds, San Jose, California. The footage has been restored to 4K specifications and looks about as pristine as it did when it was first shot. The documentary is not narrated, but in Ken Burns fashion the words of the various cameramen involved with the footage were read by voice actors over the footage. Some additional newsreel footage was also included.

As McGovern pointed out, most of the film shown to the American public about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of the bombs concentrated strictly on the damage to buildings and infrastructure; the human cost of the radiation sickness and the massive number of deaths from the blast itself were largely hidden by the Army. The reasons for this are not really explored; I get the sense that the Army didn’t want the public upset at the horrific nature of the injuries and illness that followed the bombings, in order to maintain America’s image as white knights, I suppose. Personally, that seems short-sighted to me; perhaps it might have been more effective to show that footage and proclaim “this is what happens when we use these weapons, which we still have. Please don’t give us an excuse to use them ever again.” But again, that might have tarnished America’s image and worse, our self-image.

In may ways this is a distressing film. Some of the images of burns and death are almost sickening to look at; I strongly recommend that those who are sensitive to such things think very hard before viewing this film. The movie, though, is a very important document of footage that has been kept secret from Americans for decades; even though it aired on PBS in 1970, I would wager most modern Americans don’t even know it exists. Now, you do.

REASONS TO SEE: Short (only 52 minutes) but extremely powerful. Historical documentation of one of the most awful events in history. Encompasses both American and Japanese points of view. Uses the words of the cameramen who shot the footage effectively.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can be disturbing for sensitive viewers. Could have explored the reasons for the cover-up more thoroughly.
FAMILY VALUES: There are lots of disturbing images of the effects of radiation sickness and of the devastation of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including human remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former president Dwight Eisenhower noted that he felt that Japan was already on the verge of surrender and that the use of atomic weapons was unnecessary.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through March 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message from Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The United States vs. Billie Holiday

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