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dropping, cameramen for a Japanese newsreel agency went to both Nagasaki and Hiroshima to film the destruction as a historical document.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

Quezon’s Game


Another scene of indifferent dramatic tension.

(2018) Biographical Drama (ABS-CBNRaymond Batagsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, David Bianco, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Tony Ahn, James Paoleli, Jeremy Domingo, Ross Barnaby McLeod. Directed by Matthew E. Rosen

 

It is to the world’s shame that when the unfolding horrors of the Holocaust were taking place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the world – including the United States – largely turned a blind eye. There were, however, some individuals who saw what was coming and took commendable action to save as many as they could.

One such was the President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon (Batagsing). A young, charismatic leader, he would be forever remembered in his home country as the man who negotiated his country’s freedom from being an American protectorate. His role in the Holocaust is a story that isn’t often told, not even in his native land.

He faced an uphill battle. In attempting to grant visas for 10,000 Jews trapped in the ghettos of Austria and Germany, he ran into all kinds of American red tape and resistance. He would be aided in his quest by Jewish-American businessman Alexander Frieder (Gallion), British diplomat Paul McNutt (Paoleli) and future American president Dwight D. Eisenhower (Bianco). He was also supported by his wife Aurora (Alejandro), despite whispers of an extramarital affair with a torch singer (for which there is little historical corroboration). He also did this while negotiating with the Americans for the independence of his nation – and battling the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him six years later.

This Filipino production has a bit of irony to it, considering the anti-immigration stance that has resurfaced in the United States in the lat few years. The current President of the Philippines also suffers in comparison to Quezon, not just in his hagiographic portrayal here but to the historical figure who did so much for his people. That the kind of political forces that Quezon fought have reared their ugly heads 80 years after the fact is not so much terrifying as it is disappointing.

Quezon’s story deserves to be told in a grand way, but the production is hampered by budgetary constraints. While the locations do a good job of presenting 1938 Manila, the script tends to have characters describing events rather than showing them onscreen. I’m not sure if this was a budgetary thing, but the color is often washed out to being nearly black and white, then reverting to full color without any rhyme or reason. It’s annoying and unnecessary.

With the exception of Batagsing who gives a decent performance as the late Filipino President, the acting is often stiff and uneven. It doesn’t help that the subplot of the affair that Aurora suspects her husband is having is shoehorned in and seems at odds with the rest of the film; the more than two hour length could well have been trimmed somewhat.

On the positive side, Dean Rosen’s Philip Glass-inspired score is quite haunting and serves the film well, but there is a bit too much speechifying and posturing to make this truly entertaining. It’s a real shame too, because this is a story that deserves to be told, especially in these times. I hope someday someone tells it a bit better than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Tells a story not often told in the West. The score is beautiful and seems to be inspired by Philip Glass. The actors resemble their historic counterparts keenly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Uneven performances throughout. The black and white and color imagery seems to be too arbitrarily done. Overly long and overly sudsy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quezon City, at one time the capitol of the Philippines, was partially designed by Quezon and bears his name.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
After Parkland