Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

Bombs Drop in a Smithsonian Documentary and NBC Sit-Com

The ravages of Hiroshima; the misery of unfunny summer comedies


Late in the morning of August 6, 1945, a military clerk finally got a phone call through Hiroshima's ravaged lines to headquarters in Tokyo. The officer in Tokyo was silent for a minute, then asked: "What do you mean, annihilated?"

That single sentence sums up the Smithsonian Channel's documentary The Day the Bomb Dropped, airing a few days before the 70th anniversary of the world's crash-course introduction to nuclear war. In the blink of an eye, 70,000 people died, most of the city they lived in vanished, and the curtain finally started to fall on a worldwide slaughter 14 years in duration.

That moment emerges clearly in The Day The Bomb Dropped, though it is neither encyclopedic nor particularly searching in its examination of the issues surrounding the decision to drop the bomb. Short (barely 46 minutes of running time minus the commercials; I can hardly wait to see which companies paid to have their products juxtaposed with photos of flayed skin and human charcoal) and briskly paced, it sacrifices nuance for impact, and it makes the most of the trade.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of participants, from the Manhattan Project scientists who designed and built to the bomb to the air crews that dropped it to the Hiroshima citizens who bore its ruinous brunt. The Day The Bomb Dropped is undoubtedly the last historical project that will attempt such a thing, given that almost everybody who appears on screen is in their 80s or 90s. (The witness whose interview provides the backbone of the American side of the story, mission navigator Dutch Van Kirk, died last year, shortly after providing his account.) Together they offer a vivid portrait of the climactic act of what narrator Dominic West calls "the bitter hostilities of a world at total war."

Their tales mingle horror and awe. A Japanese survivor recalls his wonder at seeing the bones of his hands like an x-ray at the moment of detonation. The crewmen of the American B-29 that dropped the bomb, who had only the crudest idea of the power of the weapon they carried, fell silent as they realized that they could still see its mushroom cloud 100 miles away.

Interestingly, there was a good deal of uncertainty on the American side about whether there would be any cloud at all. Throughout the development, testing, and deployment of the bomb, skepticism abounded about whether it would really work. As the first test detonation in the New Mexico desert neared, Manhattan Project personnel had a pool on whether the bomb would be a dud or set the entire atmosphere of Earth on fire. One scientist recounts how the test took so long to get underway that she concluded the bomb had fizzled and walked to her car to leave, only to be knocked head over heels when the explosion came. The Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb, had gone on two trial runs in the Mariana Islands with "pumpkins"—dummy bombs loaded only with conventional explosives—and neither of them detonated.

Compounding the technical uncertainties about the atomic bomb itself was the difficulty of the mission. The runways on Tinian, the tiny island from which the Enola Gay took off, were several hundred feet short of the specs for a B-29, and crashes were frequent. That the plane was 15,000 pounds overweight with the bomb aboard did not add to anybody's confidence.

A problem that goes unmentioned in The Day The Bomb Dropped is the notorious inaccuracy of strategic bombing during World War II, when aerial navigation was still primitive; crews often had trouble even locating the cities they were supposed to attack, much less hitting their targets on the ground. (In a U.S. raid on a large Japanese steel mill the previous year, only one of 376 bombs actually hit the factory.) That certainly doesn't seem to have troubled American military commanders. Van Kirk recounts getting chewed out when the Enola Gay returned from Hiroshima—his superiors were angry he was late arriving at the target. "Christ," the navigator grumbles, still nettled seven decades later, I was six seconds late."

The Day The Bomb Dropped gives short shrift to the ethical issues surrounding the use of the bomb, accepting at face value the military estimates of the day that an invasion of Japan could cost a million or more Allied casualties, and probably even more Japanese. (As the documentary notes, at least 100,000 Japanese—the vast majority of them civilians—had died in a conventional fire-bombing attack on Tokyo earlier in the year.) That will doubtless irritate revisionist historians and other critics of the atomic attack, who quibble with casualty estimates and insist the Japanese were preparing to make peace anyway.

Color me skeptical; after Hiroshima, it still took Japan 13 days to surrender, and only after a second atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki. Even then, Emperor Hirohito had to put down an attempted military coup before delivering his surrender broadcast.

To say Hiroshima was justified, however, does not mean it wasn't a horrifying step down the latter to a deeper circle of the manmade hell of war. Or that someday we may recognize it as a harbinger of our own future. One of the most eerie moments is The Day The Bomb Dropped is a glimpse of civil defense drills in Japanese schools early in World War II. The scenes of bewildered kids grimly duck-and-covering beneath their desks look hauntingly familiar, and terrifyingly useless.

The Day The Bomb Dropped.  Smithsonian Channel. Sunday, August 2, 9 p.m. EDT.

It would be tasteless and wildly exaggerated to compare NBC's wheezing new sitcom, Mr. Robinson, to Hiroshima (though I'll admit that didn't stop me from considering it), but the show does have some significance as a historical artifact. Which is good, because it has absolutely none as a comedy.

Starring Craig Robinson as a middle-aged George Clinton wannabe who teaches high-school music classes by day while dishing up funk lite in bars by night, Mr. Robinson has a definite whiff of a "what were we thinking?" network project that was quickly consigned to the dog days of August when whatever executive who conceived it was released from rehab. It's rarely funny (at least intentionally), never affecting, and has the narrative cohesion of a Dick and Jane reader minus the cute drawings of Puff the Cat.

It is, however, weirdly interesting. Mr. Robinson's school also has a math teacher who's a stripper; a principal who was once a legendary groupie known as Eileen Tight Fit and whose fondest memories involve snorting cocaine off the toilet seats at CBGB's; and guest speakers who say things to the kids like, "Please call me Neville—Mr. Rex is my penis." (If you are wondering how stuff like this is not funny, you're beginning to sense the amazing singularity of Mr. Robinson's writing staff.)

In short, it's the world that my parents' generation was pretty sure their Baby Boomer kids would devolve us into. Time to apologize, Greatest Generation. It wasn't your children who ruined America. It was your grandchildren.

Mr. Robinson. NBC. Wednesday, August 5, 9 p.m. EDT.