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dropping, cameramen for a Japanese newsreel agency went to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima to film the destruction as a historical document.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

Wild Grass (Les herbes folles)


Wild Grass

Sabine Azema realizes that she’s lost the winning lotto ticket.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Sabine Azema, Andre Dussollier, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Vuillermoz, Edouard Baer (voice), Annie Cordy, Sara Forestier, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Vladimir Consigny, Dominique Rozan, Candice Charles. Directed by Alain Resnais

 

There are those that say things happen for a reason. Others say that life is a series of happy (or unhappy accidents), that everything is random chance. For them, life is a series of small miracles of cause and reaction.

Marguerite Muir is a dentist who has unusually sized feet. Finding shoes in her size is for her a bit tricky and often painful. She stops in a shoe store while on a lunch break and discovers, wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, a pair that fits. She is so giddy when she leaves the shop that she fails to notice what’s happening around her and her purse is snatched.

Georges Palet is closer to sixty than to fifty and is unemployed. His life has been colored by a dark secret in his past, one that haunts him in everything he does. While he is married to Suzanne (A. Consigny), there is something missing. He finds Marguerite’s wallet with her ID. He wants to return it to her personally, but that proves to be too much of a logistical difficulty. He winds up turning it into the police from whom she picks it up.

Feeling a bit guilty at her ingratitude, she calls up Georges to make amends. A series of awkward conversations follow and soon the two begin to feel more comfortable around each other. Georges has a thing about aviation. She’s an amateur pilot. Soon, a kind of friendship ensues. Suzanne is pulled into the maelstrom, as is Marguerite’s closest friend and business partner Josepha (Devos).

Director Alain Resnais, one of the greatest of all French directors and auteur of such classics as Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima mon amour  and Mon oncle d’Amerique, was 87 when this was filmed and hasn’t lost a beat. There’s nothing stodgy here, although one figures that in another epoch Resnais might have used younger actors. Both Georges and Marguerite are in their 50s here and the viewpoint is different than might be if the characters were in their 20s or 30s.

This is in some ways a maddening film. There is much left unspoken – what event in Georges past haunts him so much in the present day, for example and yet there is an intrusive voiceover by Baer that sometimes goes in a whimsical direction, changing mood and one suspects, the storyline itself. In fact, there is a sense that the narrator is making things up and not necessarily telling us what really “happened.” That gives the film the sense of a story someone is telling you, brought to life. That’s an interesting sensation, but ultimately unsatisfying from a cinematic viewpoint.

On the plus side, this is one of the more beautifully filmed movies that I’ve seen recently. Ranging from pleasant home gardens, slick neon-lit cityscapes and barren landscapes, every image seems to reinforce the mood of the film. Mark Isham’s jazzy score also nicely reinforces the mood.

Azema and Dussollier are both veterans of Resnais’ films, and both seem to know instinctively what their director wants of them. The two have a comfortable chemistry, no doubt fostered by the director who lets the two actors inhabit their roles nicely.

Unfortunately, the movie also illustrates one of my pet peeves about auteur cinema – the tendency to sacrifice story for form. The movie then becomes about the packaging and not what’s inside it; when art becomes Art, it usually means that there is some self-indulgence going on.

This isn’t the easiest movie to sit through. It tends to give you too much detail about things you don’t care about and not enough about things you do care about. That can be frustrating for the viewer. Are the rewards worth the frustrations in the end? That really kind of depends on how much of an investment of time and thought you want to put into the movie, and that kind of depends on how inspired you are by the characters and the story. In my case, not really as much as I wanted to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed and well-acted. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overbearing narration. Sometimes too artsy-fartsy for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the mature side. There are also a few bad words scattered throughout as well as some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Roger Pierre appeared in a cameo role as an elderly dental patient, espousing that this would be his last visit to the dentist that he’d ever need. The actor passed away shortly after filming was completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette about production designer Jacques Saulnier.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on a $14M production budget; unfortunately, the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Valet

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Mother and Child