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.


Hal9000 said...

I completely disagree with this review. This movie is the Holy Grail of footage on this subject - which is nuclear tests (not politics or philosophy). There is simply not enough time to go into philosophical ramblings. The narration is actually very informative (as well as accurate) with regard to the development and engineering of US nuclear weapons and I found the footage to be astonishing and have watched it time and time again. It's all a matter of perspective I suppose but this and Radio Bikini are among the best documentaries I've seen.

Greg said...

This movie is the Holy Grail of footage on this subject - which is nuclear tests (not politics or philosophy).

It's true, it is the Holy Grail of test footage. I bought declassified videotapes for years of much of the footage used here and it was in sorry condition. Seeing Kuran's restoration was an eye-opener.

But I disagree about the politics and philosophy. Any movie on nuclear test footage should deal with that because otherwise, it's just a bunch of tests strung together, like if Jurassic Park was just two hours of dinosaur effects footage with no actors or story. Wouldn't be quite the same. Kuran does provide some commentary on it so I agree I was probably being too harsh. It's just that I think this documentary could have been so much more and I guess I was let down. But as a bonafide fanatic on the subject I too have watched the footage in this over and over again.

I also have a review up here on Radio Bikini as well as The Day After Trinity and the docudrama Day One all of which I give great reviews to. I hope you can check them out.

nige said...

I do agree with your review in the sense that Peter Kuran's presentation of the nuclear test film footage was lacking in force. He chemically restored old films to high quality, and compiled the highlights without any agenda or political message.

What matters at the end of the day is how to minimize casualties if terrorists or dictators use nuclear weapons. Convincing as many people as possible that Hiroshima ended civilization in 1945 or that any nuclear explosion would cause a firestorm in concrete buildings and freeze the planet is just the kind of weapons effects exaggerations tried by loud media big shots in the 1920s, in the "belief it would prevent another war by making everyone disarm". Yeah, sure they disarmed, and then Hitler came along and rearmed Germany and they couldn't stop him (or wouldn't, because they had exaggerated the effects of bombing to justify their disarmament, so their lying web of deceit trapped them into doing nothing).

Glasstone and Dolan's "Effects of Nuclear Weapons" point out that in modern concrete buildings in Hiroshima, 50% mortality occurred out to 0.12 mile, while for the general population it was 1.3 mile. Taking cover in concrete buildings thus reduced the median lethal area by a factor of (1.3/0.12)^2 = 120. That would reduce 120,000 killed to 1,000 killed.

Mainstream opinion today ignores such facts, assuming falsely that there is no way of reducing casualties. This was like the gas warfare exaggerations of the 1920s (gas masks were issued to all in the UK in WWII, making tabun nerve gas bombing practically worthless to Hitler, who had thousands of tons of tabun nerve gas manufactured).

People assume that exaggerating the effects will promote disarmament, when actually it is fear-mongering which gives an incentive to terrorist states to acquire such weapons! If you want peace, don't make yourself vulnerable by lying to yourself about weapons effects. Be prepared to cut casualty rates with simple duck and cover countermeasures verified by nuclear test data - that's one way to reduce the terrorist threat. Exaggerating the effects just makes the threat bigger by (1) ensuring your people will not duck and cover, and (2) telling enemies that you are inviting an attack in which you will not take protective actions to mitigate effects.

nige said...

You mention Dr Frank H. Shelton, in a negative way as presenting "academic" nonsense about the precursor blast loading and tritium boosting (he actually says in Trinity and Beyond that tritium boosting doubled the yield, not increased it by "45%" as you claim).

Dr Shelton is author of the 27 July 1953 Sandia Corporation report SC-2850(TR), "The Precursor - Its Formation, Prediction, and Effects", which was the first detailed analysis of the situations in which a precursor arises from the thermal layer ablating or "popcorning" desert sand into a hot dust cloud, which increases the density of the blast wave, turning it into a dense hurricane-strength "sand storm" which greatly extends the damage radius for blast wind sensitive targets like vehicles, military personnel, machine gun emplacements, etc. He showed the burst heights and yields needed for air bursts to maximize the precursor effect while averting local fallout (because the fireball doesn't touch the ground). He authored the 1957 report "Physical Aspects of Fallout" summarizing the results from the 1956 Operation Redwing tests in the Pacific, and in co-authored the nuclear weapon Operation Teapot test report WT-1110, "Special Measurements of Dynamic Pressure vs. Time and Distance".

Shelton became the scientific director of the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) afterwards, in charge of preparing revisions to the secret manual, "Capabilities of Atomic Weapons", TM 23-200. This research was crucial during the Cold War to give the West the edge in being able to develop the military psychology to be able to threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons against military targets to deter an invasion of Western Europe by communists.

Greg said...

Nige, first off, thank you for the correction on the yields (double instead of 45 percent). I have corrected it in the review.

Second, I hope I haven't been negative but I can see where you're coming from. I simply felt that Shelton didn't provide enough personal reaction and feelings about the tests, the kind you get from Hans Bethe or Robert Wilson or Edward Teller whenever they show up in a documentary. There's a passion behind what they're saying because the subject is so passionately divisive. I just don't get that from Shelton.

Nothing against his credentials though. He was clearly an important and knowledgable figure and for pure info sake, he's invaluable to listen to. On the DVD's director's commentary, Kuran actually gives out Shelton's phone number (this is from 12 years ago). I often considered calling him to ask him some questions about the tests and his reactions but never did. Wish I had now.

I am with you entirely about the effects of weapons and have read "Effects of Nuclear Weapons" several times, though you seem far more knowledgable on the subject than I. I often tell people that the reason Hiroshima looked like it did was because of all the wood and paper in the construction and the ensuing firestorm that burned them to ashes. A hit on a major modern city with concrete and metal structures wouldn't look flattened afterward like Hiroshima did.

Anyway, thank you for the very informative and knowledgable comments. Much appreciated.