I love October – the cool, refreshing air and the colorful autumn leaves put us in the mood for a few ghost stories, a haunted house, and let’s not forget blood and gore and Scream Queens. This week our scary movie selection is not for kids or the squeamish. We promised to ramp up the terror quotient as the month proceeds, so it is time for a well done movie with some surprising guest stars – Cannibals in the jungle.
The Green Inferno 2013 horror adventure
The movie follows a group of naïve, do-gooder college students whose bleeding-heart Liberal activism takes them off to South America on an eco-terrorism mission to “Save the Amazon forest”. After a disastrous plane crash, the survivors (4 guys and 3 girls) are captured by a tribe of stone age, cannibalistic savages; proving once again that the most horrifying creatures on earth are the two-legged sub-humans capable of unspeakable cruelty to fellow human beings. This film has plenty of terrible realism but also some dark humor when you consider the eco-terrorists goal was to save the native tribe along with the forest.
The seven prisoners are frog marched into the native village, locked into a crude cage, and before you can say “Jack the Ripper” one of the male eco-terrorists, Jonah, is on the sacrificial alter. The remaining survivors watch in horror as the village erupts in gleeful cheering as poor Jonah is butchered by the tribe’s headhunter. Next the women of the village prepare the feast of Jonah with well-practiced cannibal cooking skills. How is that for gratitude?
The three girls surviving the plane crash are the best collection of Scream Queens I have ever seen, and for a bonus they are all very attractive, white revolutionaries, unlike in real life where we see fat, ugly female mongrels waving protest signs. Justine played by Lorenza Izzo (Miss Peru 2010) is a real beauty queen. The tribal high priestess/witch doctor loves Justine, so they strip her naked, stake her out spread eagle and do some serious, head-to-toe body painting on Justine. Form a queue ladies for those interested in vibrant, diverse, bone-in-the-nose primitive cultures. Justine of course is not interested and is quite terrified to learn she has been selected to be the lip smacking main course for a special religious ceremony.
The know-it-all “woke” leader of the climate hustlers, Alejandro, collapses like a two dollar suitcase when the going gets tough. He slumps in the corner of the cage like a defeated loser. He lacks the courage and toughness to lead an escape. When the mask drops we see Alejandro for what he really is – a selfish worm of a latte Liberal with a private agenda. He cares for no one but himself. Under the intense pressure of horrible death, Justine emerges as the new leader and takes charge. And this change in leadership was, to me, the most interesting part of the film, and makes her the only sympathetic character amongst the band of eco-terrorists. In the adventure movie universe, there are only two types of people in extreme duress – those who crumble and “wait to be saved”, and those who keep a cool head and devise a good escape plan.
“The Green Inferno” is not for kids or the faint of heart. But it is a tasteful, dark comedy of a cannibal flick with a very subtle conservative message. And who would have thought that a plane crash was not the worst part of your day?
I love October – the cool, refreshing air and the colorful autumn leaves put us in the mood for a few ghost stories and a visit to a haunted house. This week our scary movie selection is rather restrained, with mostly psychological tension, and little to no violence and gore. We promise to ramp up the terror quotient as the month proceeds with nightmarish results.
The Haunting 1963 drama horror
Still the template for haunted house movies, accept no substitutes for the 1963 original and avoid the clunky 1999 remake. The bulk of the movie takes place at the Hill House, an old and remote mansion with a grisly past. Dr. Markway, who has spent his career studying the supernatural, believes that he can prove whether or not the house is truly haunted. Off we go to Hill House to find an iron gated, huge, jumbled example of dark and dreary Gothic architecture. The well detailed interior can be described as cluttered Victorian, suggesting the owners collected everything and never threw anything out.
The four main stars of the movie take up residence in the spook house; Eleanora aka Nell (played by Julie Harris), Theodora aka Theo (played by Claire Bloom), Dr. Markway (played by Richard Johnson), and Luke (played by Russ Tamblyn). The acting is first rate, with Dr. Markway and Luke correctly underplaying their roles to allow the two ladies to take center stage. Both Nell and Theo are excellent. Nell is nervous, introverted and caught up in the atmosphere of the house, it's the pivotal role of the movie and Harris instills a heart aching fragility into her character. She is every inch a virgin-wallflower with a touch of madness. For the first half of the movie, Nell is a sympathetic character, but as the film progresses she reveals herself as quite obsessive and delusional. The look in Nell’s eyes says it all; she is a vulnerable and needy young lady, and I can’t picture anyone else but Julie Harris playing Nell.
Bloom, as Theodora, on the other hand has mystical qualities, a sexiness and a devilishly playful disposition, qualities enhanced by her bitch charisma. She is also obviously gay. The sexual tension is high anytime Theo is around, and she seems especially attracted to Nell while being indifferent to the two men staying at the Hill House. Theo seems capable of reading Nell’s thoughts and some of the bedroom scenes hint strongly at Theo’s lesbian nature. Keep in mind the time period and the Hay’s Code for movie censorship and you have a movie walking on egg shells quite effectively.
I think what makes the film work so powerfully at its core is the way we come to know all the main characters, and feel like they're real people. We don't like all of them all the time, but they all have unexpected virtues and flaws. The compelling power of the film resides in the intense emotions felt by these characters, and the way they relate to one another. When the Hill House starts to come to life, the four of them band together and soldier on. It becomes quite clear that the ghosts of Hill House prefer Nell, but why?
The sudden arrival of Markway’s wife, Grace (played by Lois Maxwell), really gets the pot boiling at the old Hill House. Everyone knows (or should know) Lois Maxwell as the one and only "Miss Moneypenny", but there's much more to her acting career than just Bond flicks. Grace Markway, tall and shapely, really knows how to make an entrance at Hill House. She is the Queen Bee and instantly takes command, and starts giving orders. Grace has zero time for discussing the supernatural and considers the subject to be utter nonsense. She is concerned that Dr. Markway’s reputation will suffer should the press discover he is out “chasing ghosts”. Any negative press on her husband, of course, would reflect badly on herself.
Darkness falls on the angry House, and the ghost rampage begins. I will not the spoil the ending. This is low-key, sophisticated psychological horror film with a powerhouse of underrated (and unknown by me) UK actors. This is not the type film to trigger nightmares, so hardcore horror fans will probably be left wanting. I can do without nightmares, so I consider the film a must see classic.
Chernobyl 2019 docu-drama, horror
HBO mini-series 5 one-hour episodes
'Chernobyl' is scarier than most horror movies in that it is a dramatization of the actual, real-life horror experienced by thousands of people on that fateful April 26, 1986 morning and the years that followed. This excellent series puts a human face on a deadly man-made disaster. The Chernobyl catastrophe has haunted Russia, Europe, and the rest of mankind more than three decades later. And that creeping dread permeates the whole show. It's difficult to watch knowing that so many innocent people are doomed. But it certainly makes it a must-watch, and is truly an exceptional, important piece of dramatized non-fiction.
Covered up by a secretive Soviet Union at the time, the true number of deaths and illnesses caused by the [Chernobyl] nuclear accident are only now becoming clear. A group who bore the brunt of the radiation exposures in the hours and days after the explosion were those living in the nearby town of Pripyat and the surrounding area. It took a day and a half before the evacuation began and led to nearly 50,000 people being evacuated. Later an additional 42,000 people were evacuated from another 80 settlements in a 30km evacuation zone around the power plant. For additional details, see the BBC report here.
Putting a figure on exactly how many deaths around the world may result from the Chernobyl disaster is almost impossible. But despite the grim picture much of the research paints, there are some stories of hope too. Three engineers who volunteered to drain millions of gallons of water from tanks beneath the burning reactor in the days immediately after the explosion waded through highly radioactive water and debris to reach the release valves. Their heroics are one of the most dramatic moments in this disaster movie. Astonishingly, the BBC reporters found that two of the three men are still alive (in June 2019) despite having minimal protection from the radiation during their mission. The third engineer, Borys Baranov, survived until 2005.
Is the TV series historically accurate? Why not interview a Chernobyl survivor, who also happens to be a nuclear engineer? That is exactly what the BBC did. You can read the June 12, 2019 interview with Russian engineer, Oleksiy Breus, here. I have summarized and recapped the article below:
Chernobyl survivor assess fact and fiction in TV series - Hours after the world's worst nuclear accident, nuclear engineer Oleksiy Breus entered the control room of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. A member of staff at the plant from 1982, he became an eye-witness to the immediate aftermath on the morning of 26 April 1986. The story of the reactor's catastrophic explosion, as told in an HBO miniseries, has received the highest ever score for a TV show on the film website IMDB. Russians and Ukrainians have watched it via the internet, and it has had a favorable rating on Russian film site Kinopoisk. Mr. Breus worked with many of the individuals portrayed in the HBO Chernobyl series, and has provided a few comments about the accuracy of the presentation.
For those readers interested in digging into a forensic analysis of the Chernobyl accident, I leave you with this link to The Chernobyl Reactor: Design Features and Reasons for Accident by Mikhail V. MALKO. I performed a technical literature search on the subject, and determined the Malko paper to be the best available in the English language. In any case, avoid the early studies submitted while the Soviet Union controlled the information flow. The Party Line was “Operator Error main cause of accident” and they stubbornly stuck to that false conclusion for years. Dr. Malko was free to make up his mind and came to some sensible and astonishing deductions about the shortcomings of the Soviet RBMK reactor design.
The ABC Murders 2018 crime, drama, mystery
(3 episode mini-series; stream via Amazon Prime)
One thing needs to be said at the beginning: Ignore the negative reviews by purists who have zero tolerance for any deviation from the Agatha Christie story. Question: I understand that, for many mystery readers, Agatha is the Queen of Whodunits, but since when did her fictional murder mysteries become sacred cows? She was a tier 2 mystery writer that I rank far below Robert Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler and Ross MacDonald. And I think Malcovich’s Hercule Poirot is the best ever. I always considered the David Suchet/Inspector Poirot to be effeminate and highly annoying. That said the mini-series is not for everyone. It's a kind of production one either loves or hates, with not much in between.
The thing that divides the viewers is the way Poirot was portrayed in the series, which is very different from what we are used to. Here we get a much darker and realistic version of this beloved character, and the whole world of the show is much more brutal as well. This is not the cozy, sanitized, light storyline shown in the old Masterpiece Theater versions. The new style and characterizations fit the dark story perfectly. The cinematography is a work of art and 1930’s England is faithfully presented.
I really enjoyed this new approach to the classic character. Otherwise it would be the same story with different actors, and I don't see the point in doing that. Resetting the story to a future point where Inspector Japp and Poirot are both retired gives the story a new perspective that I found to be brilliant. Gone are Poirot's silly, waxed mustache and oily, slicked down hair. The actors fit perfectly into this new "tougher, masculine Poirot". John Malkovich is brilliant as the shunned, half-forgotten detective dealing with past trauma, Eamon Farren is perfect as the confused Cust, Tara Fitzgerald nailed a complex, tragic character, and I even liked Rupert Grint even though he got off to a rough start.
To sum up, the 2018 ABC series is not for everyone. It's definitely not for the grannies, who want the show to stay rigidly truthful to the novels. Those types should stick with the Masterpiece Theater. But for people like me, who enjoy new tales about classic and intelligent characters and who love dark, hard-boiled stories, it is perfect. The next day I was thinking about how Poirot zeroed in on the real killer. It was so smooth and subtle – I had to watch it again the next day.
Top Gun 1986 action, adventure
I saw this film on the big screen when it was released over three decades ago, and was surprised to hear that a sequel will be released in late 2020. I was inspired to rewatch this movie and pen a review of this blockbuster (mild spoilers ahead). The premise of the story is very simple: Maverick (Tom Cruise) is a young hotshot Navy aviator who earns his chance to go to Top Gun, the most prestigious aerial combat school in the US military. Soon rivalries, friendships, and romance take hold along with really cool aerial sequences. The plot is simple; you could write it on the back of a stamp. The themes of American aviation superiority and the warrior ethos are hammered in. Of course, a romance subplot with Kelly McGillis is inserted for box office appeal, but it is the friendship between Maverick and Goose that really makes this film special. In military parlance, Goose is the Guy in Back (GIB). The GIB takes care of missile control systems, radar, and the ECM (electronic counter measures). With multiple instruments handled by the GIB, the pilot can concentrate on flying the F-14A Mach 2 jet fighter. In a recent contest ranking movie sidekicks, Goose (Anthony Edwards) was the winner; easily beating out second place runner-up Walter Sobchak (The Big Lebowski). Like all good sidekicks, Goose served alternately as a wingman, counselor, buddy and partner in crime. Goose snapped a Polaroid of Maverick flipping an upside down bird to a Soviet pilot, sang a duet of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” as part of Maverick’s wooing his new love interest, and took his share of the heat for Maverick’s fly-bys and other high-jinks. Goose was not only Maverick’s best friend, but also his only family. And the cherry on top: Goose also gets an emotional, heroic death scene. What more could you ask from a sidekick?
This film was a fantastic recruiting bonanza for the Navy in the midst of the Cold War. After this film premiered you could hear the noise of the competing Army, Marine and Air Force recruiters slamming their crew-cut heads against the wall in despair over the grand success of pro-Navy propaganda. An “AFTER ACTION PLAN” was set in motion throughout the armed services for the next terrific recruitment film. Keep in mind that Top Gun was Pentagon approved. If you, the Producer/director, want to play with the big military toys, you play by their rules. And that means a legal contract and script approval by Pentagon brass. Which brings me to the HARD question: How in the hell are they going to replace Goose in the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick?
From what I have read about the sequel, Maverick pilots single-seat jets, so the part for a GIB character does not exist. Goose may be gone, but remember he had a son that Maverick was very fond of, so expect an appearance of Goose Jr. Also Maverick has to have a love interest, right? The romance subplot will star Jennifer Connelly. In classic Hollywood fashion, Kelly McGillis (born 1957) was skidded for a sexier, younger actress. Raise your hand if that surprises you. As for our favorite high-flying Scientologist, he barely looks a day older when he climbed into the jet cockpit back in 1986. So with ageless Mr. Cruise heading up the cast, the sequel is a safe bet for financial success. I look forward to seeing Top Gun: Maverick, on the big screen (due to premier in December). Just remember you are watching sanitized, patriotic, pro-military propaganda, so just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
A few more thoughts about the original 1986 Top Gun:
Best quote: “I feel the need for speed”. [Maverick]
Best song on soundtrack: Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins
Wardrobe: Maverick’s leather bomber jacket.
Serenity 2005 sci-fi adventure
Serenity is the cinematic sequel to the short-lived 2002 science fiction TV series Firefly. I think it is safe to say that if you enjoyed the Firefly TV series, you will also like the movie Serenity. The actors, writers, director are same in both, and provide the essential blend of “Space Cowboy Si-fi” elements so stunning in the TV series. I also think that Serenity can be enjoyed as a stand-alone movie without watching the TV series, but being a big Firefly fan – I recommend binge streaming it before seeing the movie.
A brief review of the Firefly backstory goes like this: A giant civil war between the major planets erupts due to the Alliance forcing a “unification” of the free worlds, whereby they bend the knee to the Alliance. The Rebels or “brown coats” are defeated by the Alliance. The few surviving Rebels retreat to the wilder, remote “borderlands” of space that is under weak, or nominal, Alliance control. Certainly the most feared threat in the borderlands is the Reaver space ships. The Reavers are roaming packs of savage zombies who attack ships and raid settlements; torturing, and eating their victims, then paint their hideous ships with human blood. Don’t ask how stone-age cannibalistic barbarians can fly space ships. One of the mysteries left unsolved in the TV series is the origin of the Reavers. This movie provides the answers. The heroes are Captain Malcolm (aka Mal) Reynolds, a former Rebel commander, and the crew of his spaceship Serenity. Mal and his crew (also ex-Rebel soldiers) adopt the outlaw life as a means of survival by thieving and smuggling; yet they still maintain a chivalrous and disciplined code. The Serenity also discreetly hauls a few paying passengers; thereby, providing a steady stream of interesting new characters. Mal is a strong alpha male warrior and leader with a noble code of honor that values loyalty and social bonds. These bonds are often put to the test as the iron fist of the Alliance tightens and the crew of the Serenity is faced with higher and higher risk to avoid obliteration. Although Mal is a most wanted criminal by the Alliance, he is clearly the good guy of the story. End of Backstory.
Back to the movie (mild spoiler alert): The opening scenes revisit the escape of Simon Tam and his sister, River, from a secret, highly guarded Alliance medical facility. In the TV series, Simon and River are mere passengers and their backstory was shrouded in subplot mystery land. But in the movie, River Tam is a central character. We soon discover that she possesses psychic mental powers, e.g. reads people’s thoughts and can foresee future events. And when triggered by subliminal messages, she has remarkable hand-to-hand fighting ability. In other words, the quiet, reserved, bare footed River can suddenly transform into the ultimate bitch on wheels. Simon explains that the Alliance doctors selected River as a test subject for their ghoulish Nazi-like experiments to create superhumans and weaponized them. The Serenity crew, having seen River in action, is terrified to have her aboard. It also becomes clear that an Alliance task force is tailing the Serenity in search of River. The crew debates the wisdom of sheltering River and Simon, and decides it is time for the brother and sister passengers to leave the ship at the next port of call. Of course that does not happen with the Alliance battle fleet closing in on the Serenity. Mal refuses to turn over River to the Alliance and becomes increasingly determined to know the truth about River’s connection with the Alliance. Gradually bits and pieces of the truth emerge from River’s damaged, unstable psyche. The answers, River remembers, can be found on the planet Miranda. The pilot maps a path to Miranda and quickly discovers two big problems: the first being that Miranda is listed in the planetary database as a dead, or uninhabitable, rock; and the second being that the bulk of the Reaver space fleet is orbiting around Miranda. Mal has to make a tough call; pinned between Reavers and an Alliance task force, Mal decides to…
I will stop this review here. Highly recommended for fans of Space Cowboy films.
Passengers 2016 drama, romance, sci-fi
It's not a spoiler to say that you must watch this flick from the beginning. In the first minutes of the film we get a bird's eye view of a huge space ship, the Avalon, colliding head on with an asteroid swarm. Don't ask why this incredibly complicated ship couldn't/didn't attempt any evasive maneuvers. In any case the ship's automated systems are only partially successful in dealing with the asteroids, triggering a sequence of events ending with one of the passengers being awakened prematurely (by 90 years) from his hibernation pod. It's also important to know before the curtain goes up that the 5,000 passengers are not astronauts, they are pioneers on a space-borne cruise ship taking them, in suspended animation, on a 120-year journey to colonize a new world. There are a couple potholes in the story that I will mention below, but if you can suspend disbelief you will be very entertained by this movie.
A few highlights (No Spoilers). The production set designs are most impressive: truly a first class job. The space cinematography is jaw dropping and rivals some of the all-time great space travel films. Watch this on the largest screen possible. As expected from a movie starring two of the most popular, young male & female actors, the heart of the story is a romance. The space ship voyage provides the action, flash and tension. Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora) is the stunning sleeping beauty and love interest while Chris Pratt (Jim) again plays the heroic alpha male to perfection. There is no idiotic gender confusion here; the formula is normal and well understood. It is a boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and will they get back together (?) type of romance movie. Michael Sheen shines as the robot-bartender and adds plenty of much needed comic relief. Other than a brief (and mostly unnecessary) appearance by Larry Fishburne, the film has a minimalist three person cast. The sparse cast together with the thoughtful, lingering handling of the central moral dilemma may annoy some viewers, but it was engrossing to me.
The film is not without flaws. Common sense tells us that the super complex Avalon would require a small army of electro-mechanical technicians and computer aces working 24/7 shift work. In this flick the entire crew is dozing in the pods, so they are useless when TSHTF. But having the crew around would ruin the narrative of the film; let them sleep. Pothole #2 – Many viewers criticized the final action scenes as being over-the-top and unbelievable. Maybe so, but they had me on the edge of my seat. Finally, not to nitpick, but the sex scenes were too tame and brief. The lack of eroticism is another lame PC trend which encourages movie makers to play it too safe. A few nude scenes of Aurora would have spiced up the movie and transformed the film into a riskier, edgier classic movie.
Ignore the negative reviews. Passengers is something quite rare: a science fiction film that is entirely fresh and new, not part of a series, and not a reboot, remake, or rip-off of other films. Passengers has a unique visual style, first rate acting — and it tells a fascinating and conservative story.
The Gentlemen 2020 drama, crime
This new film by writer/director Guy Ritchie is his best movie in over twenty years largely because it is a return to his roots – a British underworld tale packed with a cast of colorful rogues. In this case, we have a gentrified, gleefully non-PC, full blown gang war in Merry Olde England.
The Gentlemen has A-list star power, and outstanding performances by lesser known actors. Matthew McConaughey plays the protagonist, Mickey Pearson, an ex-pat American weed kingpin, and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) play’s Mickey’s steely wife Rosalind. Mickey wants to retire and offers to sell his operation for $400 million in cash, but in a crucial scene, Mickey is warned by his wife, “The criminal underworld is a jungle, and it is dangerous for the king of the jungle to retire, for it signals weakness, and the jackals come running.” She, of course, is proven to be correct.
Mickey, however, is fortunate to have Raymond, his loyal, high IQ, right-hand man. Raymond, (well-played by underrated actor Charlie Hunnam) engages Fletcher, an evil tabloid journalist-cum-blackmailer, in a battle of wits akin to a chess match. The scenes with Raymond and Fletcher are tense, dark and strangely humorous. Veteran actor Hugh Grant plays Fletcher to perfection. Hugh Grant is noted for his trademark goofy charm in romance flicks; although, he's much better playing against type as a disgusting cad, and here he surpasses himself.
I won’t say much about the plot, because I actually want you to see The Gentlemen, but I do need to address the barrage of negative reviews by the PC media “movie experts” who were offended by this excellent movie. An entire Glee Club of SJW bullies pulled out the Race Card and sang “racist” and “anti-Semitic” in unison. Of course, the controversy this film has generated only makes it all the more enjoyable. The Jewish antagonist in the movie is not a good Jew; he is filled with Jewish greed and ambition. But this is a crime movie; what did you expect? Film critic Trevor Lynch sums it up best; “Ritchie has some plausible deniability on the anti-Semitic charges. First of all, there are no Good Guys in the movie, so the screenwriter [Ritchie] is simply being realistic when bad people say bad things. Beyond that, Guy Ritchie can probably say that some of his best friends are Jews, given that he and ex-wife Madonna were deep into Kabbalah [a mystic branch of Judaism] for several years. Also he speaks some Hebrew, and named his son Levi. I think Guy Ritchie [being a Jack Jew] is entitled to write a script with lines about Jews like they talk about themselves.”
I highly recommend The Gentlemen – it is without a weak link and the best film of 2020, so far. There’s a bit of ferocity but nothing too distasteful. Much of the violence occurs off camera. The clever script is a bit too vulgar for my taste, but my delicate ears have survived far worse. The plot has some surprising twists and turns, the performances are excellent, and the pacing never fails in this jolly good story.
Fat Man and Little Boy 1989 drama, history
This film is a forgotten gem that puts a human face on one of the most intriguing sagas in modern human history. It's the story of the Manhattan Project -- the massive Allied World War II effort to build the first atom bomb, featuring two key leaders who made it happen, Gen. Leslie Groves (Paul Newman) and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz). The title comes from the code names for the first, and thankfully only, two atomic bombs used in war.
This is a real grown up film that requires your close attention. Do not expect a deluge of advanced science and math, but rather a quick moving storyline about a fast tracked program made more intense by the urgency of world war.
Some comments about the film – 1) the movie ends rather abruptly after the Trinity Test. Just as well, we all know what happened with Little Boy and Fat Man, so the movie skips the August 1945 bombing raids on Japan. 2) The movie also does not address the very successful communist spy ring operating at Los Alamo Lab. Stalin would soon have his own atomic bomb; thanks to the American communists traitors. 3) The radiation accident depicted in the film is loosely based on the real life fatal accident on August 21, 1945 of Los Alamos physicist Harry Daghlian while performing criticality experiments. Just like actor John Cusack in the movie, Daghlian was doing a hands-on test when an error caused the plutonium core to go supercritical. Daghlian reached his hand into the intense radiation zone to stop the reaction, and received a massive radiation dose. He went into a coma and died 25 days later. 4) As suggested by the film, Dr. Oppenheimer was deeply troubled by the destructive power of atomic weapons. He resigned his position at Los Alamos Lab soon after the war ended. He later refused to work on the Hydrogen Bomb project, and lost his govt. security clearance.
On a personal note, I visited Los Alamos in summer 2019 and toured the excellent science museums. Do not expect to see the rustic, ranch style buildings and dirt roads presented in the film. In fact, all the original 1940’s vintage buildings were declared contaminated and unsafe. The entire town was demolished and sent to a waste disposal site. In the old photos you can see the central area surrounding Ashley Pond, and the pond is the only original landmark left in modern day Los Alamos.
To help the reader understand the historical arc of Manhattan Project I created a high level timeline, with a bare minimum of nuclear equations, to summarize the remarkable nuclear physics and chemistry discoveries from 1938 to 1945 time period. Keep in mind that the movie begins in September 1942:
Key Discoveries in Nuclear Physics
Preceding and During the Manhattan Project
By: Ben Clark, February 10, 2020
Part 1 – Nuclear Fission Discover
December 1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, after working for years firing neutrons at uranium, realize that neutrons fired into uranium do not just produce an isotope or transuranic element, but that they also split the uranium nucleus (fission) creating elements much lower in the periodic table. There had been signs of this for a long time, but everyone had rejected it as impossible. The discovery of fission by Hahn and Strassmann rocked the physics community to its core. The fact that fission was discovered in Nazi ruled Munich yet the two top scientists were permitted to publish their discovery was a godsend for scientific endeavors outside of Germany. Question: What if the Nazis had classified the fission discovery as Top Secret? Would the Allied powers have invested so much talent and money on the urgent development of an atomic bomb? It is unlikely this question will ever be answered.
January 1939 - Otto Frisch at Birmingham Lab, UK conducts an experiment confirming Hahn and Strassmann’s fission results, and calculates the energy released follows Einstein’s Law: E = mc2.
February 1939 - Bohr at Princeton Lab discovers that slow neutron (velocity< 2200 m/sec) fission in uranium is happening only in the uranium 235 isotope, not in the uranium 238 (raw uranium ore, or yellow cake, contains 99.3% U238 and 0.7% U235). The nuclear physics community becomes focused on the slow neutron fission because that is where U235 is so different from U238. The idea of isotope separation and concentration of U235 becomes of major focus of the Nuclear Chemists. There is no difference in the chemistry of the two isotopes. Some scientists still assume that isotope separation is impossible.
March 1939 - Szilard/Zinn repeated the German fission experiments at Columbia, UK and discovered 2 or 3 neutrons being emitted in each fission process; thereby, providing excess neutrons for a chain reaction. This key discovery is reported to the U.S. Government, but the early contacts with the US feds don’t lead to any serious action.
August 1939 - The United States government became aware of the German nuclear program in August 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt, warning "that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated." Einstein also mentions the fact the Germans had seized the Czech uranium mines. A year later the Germans seize 2100 metric tons of uranium ore from Belgium.
September 01, 1939 - Germany invades Poland and WW2 begins.
January 1940 - Sir Henry Tizard, head of British wartime scientific research, sets up the top secret “Maud” committee to investigate possibilities of building an atomic bomb. Working in conjunction with the MAUD project, Franz Simon and his team of scientists successfully separate U235 from yellowcake using a complex and very expensive mass separation technique named the gaseous diffusion process.
February-March 1940 - Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls working at University of Birmingham, UK focus on the fission process operating on a tiny sample of purified U235, a combination that no one had considered before mainly because of the unavailability of purified U235 until the MAUD project. Their results set the parameters for the design of an atomic weapon. The physicists had to answer two fundamental questions: How much fissile material would be required for the weapons and how much time would be needed for an effective detonation? Frisch writes, “To my amazement the amount [of material required for a bomb] was very much smaller than I had expected; it was not a matter of tons, but something like pounds.” They calculated that 80 neutron generations, taking a total of 320 millionths of a second (at four millionths of a second per generation), which would still be fast enough to precede the expansion of the bomb material and the disassembly of the super-critical mass.
The Frisch/Peierls results taken together with the success of gaseous diffusion for separating U235 from natural uranium, Frisch writes, “We came to the conclusion that an atomic bomb might, after all, be possible.”
Part 2 – Discovery of Plutonium Element 94
June 1940 - Vannevar Bush, electrical engineer, former administrator at MIT and head of Carnegie Institute, persuades FDR to let him start the National Defense Research Council (NDRC) to coordinate all scientific research for the US military. Bush named head of NDRC and reports directly to President FDR.
February 1941 - Plutonium (Pu239) was discovered by Glenn Seaborg and his team at Berkeley Lab. Using the cyclotron at the radiation lab, the team bombards uranium metal with bursts of deuteron (H2 a heavy isotope of hydrogen) atoms. The Plutonium is produced in sufficient amounts to be isolated by chemical separation from Uranium. Seaborg writes, “Thus it is now clear that our alpha activity is due to the new element with the atomic number 94.” The US was not yet at war, but the discovery was kept top secret.
March 1941 - Seaborg’s team makes another remarkable discovery. They isolated a small amount of pure Pu239 and fire slow neutrons at the sample. They record strong indications of fission – even stronger than from U235. He saw that a fissile Pu239 element, bred as a by-product in a uranium reactor, could be chemically separated using a process that was relatively easy and inexpensive as compared to the mass separation process needed for U235 (gaseous diffusion, thermal diffusion and electromagnetic).
July 1941 - American scientists are briefed on the British Maud project. US and England agree to joint cooperation on nuclear physics.
October 1941 - Roosevelt gives V. Bush authority to spend whatever is necessary to find if an atomic bomb can be built. Godfrey Hodgson writes in The Colonel, The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson: “The decision to build not only a bomb but the vast secret bureaucracy that would be required to create it [a bomb], was taken by the President alone.” Congress, judiciary, and cabinet knew nothing about it. This was one of the decisive moments in American history when the imperatives of world war tilted power toward the executive.
December 7, 1941 - Japanese make surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The USA enters WW2 as war is declared on Japan and Germany declares war on America.
Early 1942 - Arthur Compton, Nobel Prize winner (1927) and Director of the Chicago Met Lab, chairs a meeting at Columbia and lays down this timetable: By July 1, 1942, determine whether a chain reaction was possible. By January 1943, to achieve the first controlled chain reaction in a reactor. By January 1944, to extract weapons grade U235 from uranium ore. By January 1945, construct the first atomic bomb. Compton stressed that since Germany had at least a two year head start in nuclear physics applied to weapons research, the Allies were in a race with Germany to build the first atomic bomb. After the war, Compton wrote, “Our project became to us more vital than life or death.”
The Manhattan Project – A Timeline of Key Events
The movie starts here in September 1942
The highlights listed below are included in the movie and are well presented on screen. I included a few off-camera events separately for some clarification of the overall atomic bomb project.
September 1942 - Colonel Leslie R. Groves was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed Director of the Manhattan Engineer District, the secret project to build the world’s first atomic bomb. His proven record of managing complex undertakings made him a logical choice to lead the most ambitious project in American history. Groves would lead both the military and civilian staff, and be in overall charge of security.
October 1942 - Groves meets with Robert Oppenheimer, the University of California, Berkeley physicist, and discuss the creation of a laboratory where the bomb could be designed and tested. Groves was impressed with the breadth of Oppenheimer's knowledge. A long conversation on a train in October 1942 convinced Groves and his top deputy, Kenneth Nichols that Oppenheimer thoroughly understood the issues involved in setting up a laboratory in a remote area. These were features that Groves found lacking in other foggy headed scientists, and he knew that broad knowledge would be vital in an interdisciplinary project that would involve not just physics, but chemistry, metallurgy, ordnance, and engineering. Groves became convinced that Oppenheimer was the best and only man to run the laboratory. The FBI objected to Oppenheimer’s connections with the US communist party, but Groves personally waived the security risks and issued a Top Secret Security clearance for Oppenheimer.
October 1942 - Groves and Oppenheimer inspected sites in New Mexico, where they selected a suitable location for the laboratory at Los Alamos. Soon afterwards 54,000 acres of surrounding forest and grazing land was acquired by the US govt. Construction begins. The mission of the Los Alamos Lab is to design and build the bomb. The fissile materials would be produced in Oak Ridge, TN and Hanford, WA.
April 1943 - Los Alamos Lab is staffed and begins work on bomb design.
August 1943 - First live test of the Los Alamos “gun-type” fission bomb, using a dummy warhead, is dropped from a bomber. Field Tests of the design is so successful that the Los Alamos team has high confidence the weapon would work using U235 without a live field test.
January 1944 - A new department is created at Los Alamos to study implosion type bomb design. Initial tests fail due to imprecise spherical detonations. Oppenheimer staffs up the Implosion design group and fires the original group leader, Edward Teller.
April - June 1944 - The Los Alamos Lab received the first sample of reactor-produced plutonium from Oak Ridge. Los Alamos scientist Emilio Segre, working with this small sample of plutonium, was able to determine that reactor-bred plutonium had a higher concentration of the isotope plutonium-240 than cyclotron-produced plutonium. Since plutonium-240 has a high spontaneous fission rate, the increased number of spontaneous neutrons meant that nuclear pre-detonation, or “fizzle”, would be the likely result of the original gun-type bomb design, code-named “Thin Man”. It was abandoned for plutonium bombs, but still suitable for U235 bombs.
This discovery meant that the entire plutonium weapon design effort at Los Alamos had to be altered to a more complicated implosion device, code-named “Fat Man.” The implosion design would use a series of explosive lenses to compress a solid sphere of plutonium-239 into a high-density core, initiating a nuclear chain reaction. Before physicists at Los Alamos could test the implosion design, they needed more plutonium for experiments.
July 1944 - Oppenheimer reveals Segrè's final measurements to the Los Alamos staff, and orders the design of a reliable implosion design (Fat Man) to become the new top priority of the laboratory. The building of U235 gun-type weapon (Little Boy) continues to design freeze.
December 1944 - After months of failures, the first successful explosive lens test at Los Alamos establishes feasibility of building an implosion bomb (Fat Man).
April 1945 -- General Groves receives the Alsos report and discovers that the German nuclear program is not a threat. The German nuclear science progress had stalled out for lack of priority. The top German scientists were only doing lab scale research projects with no real plans for developing a weapon. This, of course, is good news, but there is an interesting scene in the movie where Groves hesitates to share the Alsos Intel with the Los Alamos staff. The threat of a German A-bomb was a great motivator for his scientists especially since many were American Jews (Oppenheimer, for one) and European Jewish refugees who had an axe to grind with the brutal, anti-Jewish Nazis. This dilemma is well presented in the movie. In real life, at least one Los Alamos scientist that I know of resigned after Germany surrendered.
May 1945 - Little Boy is ready for combat use, except for the U235 warhead. Germany surrenders to allies. V-E Day May 7. Movie has a fun celebration scene.
June 1945 - Target Committee meets and submits a list of Japanese cities. As depicted in the movie, both Oppenheimer and Groves attend the meeting. Approval is granted for Los Alamos to field test the Fat Man bomb design with a critical mass of plutonium 239.The meeting is well presented in the film, and one of the best scenes.
July 16, 1945 - The nuclear bomb test is code named “Trinity”. A remote site is selected at Alamogordo, NM (about 250 miles south of Los Alamos). The “Trinity” nuclear test is 100% successful. Oppenheimer makes triumphant return to the Los Alamos Lab. End of the movie.
Chappaquiddick 2017 drama history
Set during the summer of 1969 – two events occurred almost simultaneously – the drama of the first Apollo moon landing, and Ted Kennedy’s car crash at Chappaquiddick Pond that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. The moon landing was a Triumph; while the word Chappaquiddick became synonymous with the word Scandal. The movie rolls the camera back to that fateful night with the focus firmly on Senator Ted Kennedy as we watch what he did and more importantly did not do. Through it all, Ted shows little remorse or concern over the dead woman, preferring to strategize with his sharky team to preserve his reputation. The film has a made-for-TV feel and look, but is still worth watching for the outstanding performances. Jason Clarke (Ted Kennedy) creates a convincing character you can fully believe is capable of walking away from a damsel in distress. After all, he is scion of the famous Kennedy clan with droves of “boiler room” girls following him like hypnotized puppies. Boston accents are very difficult to do without them sounding fake but somehow Jason Clarke, an Aussie, nails it. A shame he did not score at least a nomination for best actor. Andria Blackman (Joan Kennedy) has a short but pitch perfect scene. Would like to see more of her.
Written by Ben Clark. Copyright 2016-2019. All rights reserved.