Fat Man and Little Boy


In 1988-89 David Brainard, Allen Poirson, and I were invited to be in a movie produced and directed by Roland Joffe called FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY. The movie is about making the bomb at Los Alamos. The text below is from an article I wrote for a campus paper describing what my experience was like.

Love ya baby, really mean it

Pugsley sneared at me. “Look, rookie, you don’t know when you got it good. This film is big, I mean BIG, epic, man.” We were lounging over breakfast in a hotel in Durango, Mexico, a day off. Pugsley was also shouting at Dwight Shultz, who sat at the table drinking his third gallon of coffee. We were acting in a movie called Fat Man and Little Boy. Dwight plays one of the lead roles, the physicist-politician Robert Oppenheimer. Pugs plays the military driver for the other lead, General Leslie Groves played by Paul Newman. I have a part as an experimental scientist at Los Alamos.

Don Pugsley is a tall, strong, bald man with an adequate number of tatoos. He earns some of his living as a registered nurse. On weekends he serves as a Green Beret in the reserves. He tries to earn most of his living as an actor and screen-writer. The Pugs often shouts when he is excited. Dwight uses masterful mimicry, of a kind I will never capture on the written page, to persuade. But just watch him on the A-team as the crazy guy. I argue using a professorial approach, and I am usually a straight man for the two of them. This particular morning Pugsley’s shouting method was working best.

“We’re sittin’ around talkin’ politics, history, and science, and we are GETTING PAID, money in the bank. And Roland gave me a thumbs up, ‘Good work Don’, he said. The only time any other director ever talks to me is when someone gets killed. He finds out I am registered nurse, and then it’s always the same question: ‘Hey Don, is that enough blood?’ ”

Dwight waved dismissively. “It’s the same with Roland. He may ask you whether you’ve got the right buttons on your uniform. But he’ll never ask you whether your portrayal of the military is fair.”

The issue being debated this particular morning, like most mornings on a day off, was whether the scene we shot the day before was any good. The previous day we had all been in a common scene, but from very different points of view.

The film is about the people who made the first atomic bomb, at Los Alamos, during the second world war. The film’s writer, director, and co-producer, Roland Joffe, wrote the scene like this. The senior scientists at Los Alamos have climbed onto on an army bus to drive through the desert searching for a test-site to explode the bomb. The bus gets stuck in the mud. General Groves (Paul Newman), along in his own jeep, driven by the Pugs, motions for Oppenheimer (Dwight Shultz) to leave the bus for a conversation. The two meet and the audience overhears their conversation. In the background the world’s leading physicists are leaning out of the bus windows, waving their arms, baying instructions at the soldiers who are trying to dig them out of the mud.

In my years as a scientist, I don’t recall any occasions where my colleagues and I have hung out of a bus window screaming at people trying to do their job. I thought the image of a group of howling scientists was silly. But I knew I had no chance of influencing the director on this point. So I spent the day sitting on the side of the bus away from the camera, working on material I had brought on my portable computer.

The Pugs, on the other hand, had a different experience. In one of the many takes, he jumped out of the car and instead of walking to Groves’ door, he ran. Roland loved it, thinking that is how the military driver would act. Roland’s agreement excited the Pugs. From Pugsley’s point of view, the actors had access to power. From my point of view, I had access to the back of a bus.

As filming began, I was hopeful that I could influence the movie’s message. I thought this would be an important film on a topic that matters greatly to me. On a personal level, my parents were Jewish refugees in the second world war, and my grandparents, uncles and aunts were all murdered during the war.

On a professional level, the work at Los Alamos is an important part of scientific folklore. The physicists who worked at Los Alamos, their habits and insights, are legendary among scientists in all disciplines. The scientists were a remarkable collection of brilliant international scholars, many of whom became Nobel Laureates. They helped save the U.S. when it was confronted with the twin threats of German and Japanese militarism, and many of them played a role in trying to reduce the risk of war in the years following.

When I thought there was a chance for me to participate in the movie acting the part of one of them, I spent nearly all my free time reading historical accounts of the period. Upon receiving the script, I enthusiastically — if naively — wrote a letter to the director filled with suggestions about how some of the scenes might be improved.

By the time Don, Dwight, and I had our argument over breakfast, just a week into filming, I realized that no scientist or actor would have an impact on the message communicated by the film-maker.

First of all, I hadn’t appreciated the strength of Roland’s negative views about science and the U.S. role in developing and using the atomic bomb. While Roland invited a number of scientists to the set to help establish the film’s realism, he maintained his critical message fiercely.

Second, as a scientist I had never received a dramatic license. As I was to learn, it is very difficult to navigate through a film like this without being able to wave your dramatic license at key moments. But I am getting ahead of myself. It is time to explain how I came to act in the film.

In May of 1988 I was working in my laboratory, doing what I usually do: scientific research on human and computer vision. A Hollywood casting director, Nancy Foy, called. She introduced herself as a friend of friend, and she asked me if I knew any scientists who might be willing to play a role in a new movie. The director, Roland Joffe, was making a movie tentatively entitled Fat Man and Little Boy, starring Paul Newman. Roland likes to use people with no acting experience in his film, she explained. The film’s focus is on the relationship between the head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves and the director of the Los Alamos laboratory, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

By chance, I was due for my sabbatical leave in the Fall. I told Nancy that I would be interested and gave her the names of several colleagues to contact. Several weeks later I drove to Berkeley with two graduate students who work with me, David Brainard and Allen Poirson, to meet with Nancy and Roland.

Roland began our interview by defining his view of the history related to this film. Roland said his next film would chronicle the construction of the first two atomic bombs, dubbed Fat Man and Little Boy by the physicists at Los Alamos. In his view, Oppenheimer and Groves had made a Faustian bargain. The film would study the conditions under which the scientists entered a pact to have their work supported by the scale of funding only the military can provide. I demurred, arguing that complex interpretations weren`t necessary in this case: fear of world domination by the Nazis seemed adequate motivation for the physicists at Los Alamos.

Despite my contentiousness, Allen, David and I were invited to participate in the film. In October, we flew to Durango, Mexico to begin filming. The actors with leading roles had arrived earlier to begin rehearsal.

Immediately upon arrival one of the young actors, John Cusack, came up to us ready to talk science. Cusack plays a young scientist and love-interest in the film. He is a very charming young man, and upon our arrival he bounced over to us and wanted to talk about physics. John announced that he had been studying physics for a month. He now understood everything up to Planck’s constant, a universal constant discovered by the German physicist around the turn of the century. But things were getting harder and he wanted to ask us some questions.

We were momentarily taken aback that John could master so much material so quickly. As we sat over dinner discussing nuclear physics, we came to realize that perhaps John hadn’t developed an intuition for the discipline quite yet. David Politzer, an eminent physicist from Cal Tech who plays Robert Serber, spent some time assuring John that there was no fundamental difference between the chemical energy in coal and nuclear energy in the atomic bomb.

As an illustration of the similarity, David offered an example. He said comparing coal and nuclear energy was like comparing dollars and pesos. You need more pesos to buy a beer (the exchange rate is about 2000 pesos per dollar). But just as money is money, so too energy is energy. After several attempts, Cusack exclaimed, aha, so that’s why numbers don’t mean shit to physicists. David took another sip of his beer and decided to try again.

In the early days of filming, we spent a lot of time talking to the actors about physics. That Cusack and others worked at it persistently was a sign of their excellence and commitment to their craft. It also reflected Roland’s judgment that to act the part of a scientist one must understand something about science.

For some of the scientists, of course, the idea of acting was as foreign as the idea of physics was to some of the actors. And just as we probably failed in turning the actors in physicists, I know they had some misgivings about the us as actors. Cusack’s charming and boyish point of view was summarized by a reporter who quoted John as saying, “If you give the scientists some wire, math and concepts, they can do a lot. But could they act in a big scene? I doubt it.”

The brilliant stage director, Donald MacKechnie, acted as a mentor for those of us with no acting experience, Along with Joe D’Angerio, a street-wise New Yorker who plays the role of the Los Alamos physicist Seth Neddermeyer, Donald kept an eye on us an was a source of suggestions and insights. After about a week of teaching the scientists about acting,

Donald suggested that the scientists teach the actors something concrete about experimental science. We spent several days collecting spare parts from around town and the movie set to build an experimental apparatus — a beer-can crusher. The device was inspired by the apparatus used to implode the plutonium in the core of one of the two bombs. In the end, we managed to illustrate the concept of implosion by symmetrically crushing some beer and soda cans using weights, batteries, and strings.

During filming there were several occasions when Roland sought advice from Allen, David and I. For example, there is a scene where Cusack’s (fictitious) character receives a lethal dose of radiation in an experiment gone wrong.

When we arrived on the set to shoot the scene, the apparatus looked phoney to me; David, Allen and I helped the set-designer and Roland rig up a more realistic experiment. We were delighted to discover later that our set-up happened to be fairly close to the set-up that led to the accident.

At moments like these we felt that we made a contribution to the movie, though plainly our contribution was to the visual details rather than to the message. And though there is some truth in the details, I fear that the scene as a whole does more to mislead than inform. First, the scene is based on an event that took place after the war, not during the war. Second, the apparatus, although apparently realistic, is very dangerous. No reasonable scientist would work with such an apparatus. Indeed, in some of the histories of the accident we are told that Fermi considered Slotin, the scientist who was killed in a similar accident, to be somewhat deranged. Fermi would take his group on long walks away from the lab whenever Slotin conducted his experiments. But in the movie, it is the hero, the heart-throb, who works under these dangerous conditions. On the set one day Roland expressed concern that the editors of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN might dismiss the movie because it lacked scientific realism. The issue of appearing technically correct was very important to him. Over the course of the film I realized that Roland wanted us involved in the project only to obtain a plausible scientific appearance of the movie. By making the scenes look real, his views on science would be taken more seriously. He had a message, and he struck a Faustian bargain with a group of scientists to help him communicate his message.

No one could have much influence Roland’s critical opinions about science and U.S. policy manifest in the movie, but some compromises could be struck. The script contained a scene that nearly everyone in the cast thought a loser. It was a party scene celebrating victory in Europe. People were scripted in flamboyant costumes. Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) goes to the bandstand, wearing a huge Indian headdress, and suggests that the soldiers and scientists dance together to celebrate the victory and honor their collaboration. He begins the dancing by striding over to Groves and asking him to dance. Roland loved the scene because it represented the courtship of the military dollar by scientific ambition.

Gossip had it that Newman thought the scene particularly stupid. On the day of the party scene, a choreographer, Marilyn, took me to the rehearsal to help her demonstrate various dance steps to Roland. When the usually genial Newman arrived and saw us, he growled in our direction. I beat a hasty retreat against a nearby wall and out of harm’s way.

No one was sure if Newman would do the scene. Roland told the first assistant director, Bill Wesley, to begin the rehearsal. Roland did not speak directly to Newman, as he might have during a calmer moment. Bill looked at Newman, who glared back at him in disgust. Bill hesitated. Roland said start. Newman glared at Bill. A long moment passed, Bill said, “OK lads, strike up the band.”

Dwight Shultz, appearing very tall in the Indian head-dress, approaches a much shorter Newman. Newman sits hunched at a table, sullen and apparently drunk. Oppenheimer puts out his hand to lead Groves to the dance floor, but Newman steps away and places a chair between them. He suddenly steps up onto the chair, reversing the situation and towering over Oppenheimer. Newman steps down from the chair, pressing Oppenheimer backwards, and then starts a circling, aggressive, war dance.

The dance movements were adapted from steps Marilyn had suggested in her choreography, but they were stronger. Oppenheimer and Newman moved together to their first camera mark, and then to everyone’s surprise Newman grabbed his partner and threw him around. As he released Dwight, the other scientists and soldiers moved towards the dance floor.

A compromise was reached. Roland keeps his metaphor and message. Newman played Newman. I didn’t get to play myself, however. I spent six hours and twenty takes dancing with a Mexican extra who played the part of US solider. But that part of the scene was cut before release.

Like the dance scene, much of the film is simply made up. To most of the audience it will be impossible to distinguish which scenes have a strong historical foundation and which scenes were inserted to persuade the audience to accept the director’s opinions.

One of the scenes that generated the most heated debate among the actors, but I never had a chance to hear Roland’s view, involved medical experiments. The movie was scripted and shot with scenes that depict medical doctors, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project, injecting highly toxic substances into unwitting patients. The material in these scenes is not historically precise. These scenes were edited out of the movie but a vestige of them is left in a dramatic scene when a medical doctor shouts at Oppenheimer in the rain. He tells him “I know about the experiments at Oak Ridge,” and then advises Oppenheimer not to play God.

Like the film Mississippi Burning, many will ask whether the movie accurately portrays either the actions or the intentions of most of the scientific and military staff at Los Alamos. The answer is no. The movie portrays the writer and director’s opinions of science and medicine. The film’s realism and historical base are used to persuade you to take his opinions seriously.

As a university teacher, I would prefer that the audience be given more guidance about the accuracy of the scenes. Allen Poirson suggested to me that a colored light, indicating green for a particular accurate rendering and red for total fantasy, should be overlaid on the print. Dwight Schultz says he hopes that no one will take this film seriously as history, but that the film will motivate the audience to read the scholarly history. But, alas, I have already seen a review of the film in the Stanford Daily where students are encouraged to see the movie to learn about the Manhattan Project.

When a movie mixes truth and fantasy, the audience can’t distinguish between the facts and the director’s opinion. Defining the lines that separate truth, fantasy, and propaganda, in a precise way, is surely difficult. But wherever those lines may fall, they aren’t merely crossed in this film; they are painted over. And a policeman who suggests that the lines have been improperly crossed certainly will be shown a dramatic license.

Joe D’Angerio, Nancy Foy, and Don Pugsley told me that there have been some test screenings of the film. In the first test of the film, younger members of the audience were confused by the film, since most of them didn’t know why the U.S. was in the war, or that the war in the Pacific ended with the dropping of an atomic bomb. As Pugsley puts it, the high school students asked, “Pearl Harbor, wasn’t she a blues singer out of Detroit?”

Dwight Schultz has gone off to make another film about racism in the deep south. Joe D’Angerio and Nancy Foy have been raising their new baby. Don Pugsley is busy sending out chain letters that guarantee you will receive 216 t-shirts by mailing out six letters. I am at Stanford, working on my computers, and the proud father of a beautiful eight month old son. Perhaps one day he will see the movie. As some minor scene flashes by I will quickly point and say to him, “Look there, near the oscilloscope, just behind Paul Newman.”

This text was translated  into Romanian by Radu Popescu.