A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that 1989's Fat Man and Little Boy looks at the real-life top-secret story of American and international scientists gathered by the U.S. military in 1942 to create the nuclear weapons that would kill more than 200,000 Japanese and end World War II. The movie outlines some of the technical challenges of unleashing and then harnessing atomic energy for the purpose of war, and raises the moral dilemmas some of the scientists and even some in the military faced as completion of the bombs neared. Massive human casualties were the goal of the weapon, so horrific violence is an underlying theme, which is amplified when one scientist suffers close-hand radiation exposure and dies a slow, harrowing death without any hope of treatment or cure. There will be much to discuss among teens regarding the good and evil that were created by this well-meaning team. Language includes "s--t," "ass," and "pecker." Military officers call Japanese "yellow monkeys." A married man carries on a long-term affair with a woman who is a Communist. Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes and cigars. A woman commits suicide offscreen.
What's the story?
FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY were the nicknames given to the world's first two atomic bombs created in a remote, top-secret military enclave in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II. General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman) is charged with assembling the best and brightest physicists, explosives experts, and mathematicians, including some refugees from Germany and Italy who deplored what their own countries were doing during the war. With less than two years to work and at a cost of around two billion dollars, scientists create massive weapons with the thought that deploying them can help end the war sooner and save countless lives. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz), a Berkeley physicist, is selected to run the project. He chooses to set competing scientists against each other to help move the work forward. Still, doubt remains strong that their goal can even be accomplished. At the same time, Oppenheimer's affair with a known Communist makes him a security threat. After he's forced to break it off with her by his military bosses, the woman commits suicide. The general chooses not to share confirmation that the Germans are far behind in the race to create a nuclear weapon, certain that the Jews and pacifists among his scientists will quit the work "if you take Hitler out of the equation." One young scientist dies of painful radiation poisoning after an accident during an experiment. Scientists don't start articulating their moral and ethical hesitations about the terrible repercussions of the project until it's nearly finished. Personal and political positions emerge among the ranks, but officers and government officials who want the weapon built suppress the protests. In 1945, after the Germans surrender, but with the war against Japan still raging, a demo weapon is successfully detonated in the desert. A few weeks later, the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and days later on Nagasaki. More than 200,000 Japanese are killed.
Is it any good?
The facts that underlie this film are fascinating enough to provide this otherwise plodding movie with narrative momentum and historical heft. There's plenty to think about. Was Oppenheimer really that arrogant and oblivious? Teens interested in history and science may want to discuss the way proliferation of nuclear weapons today seems to make the world a less stable place despite hope decades ago that their creation was supposed to make the world more stable and more peaceful.
Fat Man and Little Boy tosses about lots of technical terms as if to assure us that we're watching actual scientists. For example, "The spontaneous fission rate is way too high," and there's a need to "focus an explosive shock wave." Conversation between a scientist and his wife about the indecency of creating weapons of mass destruction also feels forced. The meatiest issues arise as if by surprise at the very end, as when a scientist bets that the test could wipe out New Mexico, even ignite the atmosphere and "finish off the planet." The television series Manhattan handles all of this far more believably. Understandably, many fascinating pieces of this complicated story are omitted, including how to create the necessary radioactive materials, competing methods of making the materials react, the infiltration of the American program by Soviet spies, and the role of British and Canadian collaborators.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about final arguments posed by both the scientists and some military officers regarding how to use the bomb. Why do you think some wanted to invite enemy Japanese officials to watch the demonstration of the weapon's first detonation? Do you think the terrifying power of the explosion would have made the Japanese surrender, leaving no need to actually drop the bomb, or do you think the war would have continued anyway?
Defenders of dropping the bombs in Fat Man and Little Boy say that thousands of American soldiers fighting Japan were saved by dropping the bombs, and that justified the mass destruction and killing. Do you agree or disagree?
Some scientists only began to worry about the damage such weapons could cause when the weapons were nearly finished and ready to use. Why do you think they delayed considering the moral implications of making weapons so late into the process?
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