Monday, June 23, 2008

Beyond Belief: Trinity and Beyond

Around this time of year I always begin reading about the Manhattan Project. It enters my psyche this time every year as the date draws closer to July 16th, that fateful day in history when, in 1945, the world officially entered the atomic age. I have a small library of information, biographies and histories on the subject as it's fascinated me for years. Around nine or ten years ago I bought a DVD entitled Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie. According to the info on the back cover it won a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, the Gold Award at both Worldfest Houston and Worldfest Charleston (apparently Worldfest just couldn't get enough of it) and the Golden Scroll from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Pretty impressive, I guess. Upon finishing up my first viewing of it my immediate reaction was, "Wow, must of been a pretty damn weak year at the Worldfest." Ten years later, that reaction hasn't changed.

Trinity and Beyond is the work of Peter Kuran, special effects expert who has an Oscar for a color film restoration process he engineered and one he uses to great effect here. The problem with Trinity and Beyond is that's all it is, a restoration of nuclear bomb tests with William Shatner narrating, William Stromberg providing some of the most bombastic film music in history and dry, very dry, analysis. It offers no insight into the tests, no opinion on the decisions made, no social commentary. It's just... there.*

The problem with all of this is that the choice of music, narration and interview subjects makes the documentary appear to be pro atmospheric testing.

The documentary contains all of two interview subjects: Physicists Edward Teller and Frank Shelton. If you don't know who Edward Teller is (and I have no idea why you wouldn't) the following linked ad pretty much sums him up perfectly. It was taken out in The Washington Post after the Three Mile Island accident. I'd tell you the headline of the ad but it's too beautiful to spoil the surprise. It simply must be clicked on here. Teller has two interview clips in the documentary, both strongly in favor of nuclear weapons and testing and both letting the viewer know how why he was ahead of his time in his thinking (one does not go to Edward Teller for modesty or humility).

Then there's physicist Frank Shelton, who provides a very straightforward, cold description of the tests and their experimental results. Here is a man who in the face of all of the horrors of nuclear warfare speaks academically about pellets of tritium doubling yields. Nothing seems to excite him about the idea of nuclear weapons, rather, they are mathematical constructs to him. It's all yields and pre-cursor winds and how best to measure them.

In between Teller's ego rants and Shelton's academic explanations there's nuclear test footage, and lots of it. Beautifully (if that's the right word) restored footage of nuclear bombs blowing up. Footage of pigs and goats being fried in their wake. Footage of houses and buildings and buses imploding upon impact of the shock wave. Footage of bombs being blown up in space. Lots and lots of footage with no perceivable point of view. None. It succeeds in detailing decades of nuclear weapons testing without having any point of view about it. How can you not have a passionate point of view about it one way or another? Well, he doesn't. And then the movie ends. Ah, but that ending.

The finale is the only point where Kuran seems to be trying to make some sort of a statement but what is it? I don't know, I really don't. Maybe you, dear reader, can help me. I've put the finale up below. It starts by saying how many tests the United States did and how many countries signed the treaty to stop testing. Then it says "However" and shows scenes from China's Cultural Revolution followed by one of the most bizarre nuclear tests you've ever seen. But that's not all! The tests has been mashed-up by Kuran. Yep, I know my test footage (as I explained at the start I've been obsessed with this for a long time) and Kuran uses at least four separate tests as well as CGI created smoke effects. So what's his point? We shouldn't have stopped testing because China started testing? We should be prepared for all out nuclear war with China? Christ I don't know. I do know this: The footage you are about to watch from the end of the film is the only original and interesting moment in the whole movie. I've talked with friends who've watched it as well and that's pretty much all they remember: The Chinese soldiers shooting machine guns at the camera as they ride on horseback towards a nuclear explosion, with both themselves and the horses decked out in gas masks. It's quite a sight to see. The movie isn't.


* Further evidence that Kuran has never actually thought upon the subject of nuclear weapons and what they mean to civilization: The DVD I ordered from his company (this was in the days before Amazon had everything under the sun) came with 3-D glasses for a special 3-D explosion, a viewfinder reel of blasts and a little slide viewer with a picture of a detonation that you hold up to the light. Ugh. McDonald's must've turned him down on a tie-in deal.

**Shelton, Frank H. 1988. Reflections of a Nuclear Weaponeer. Shelton Enterprise Inc. pp. 6-13 to 6-14.