In 1938 science “liberated” the atom by bombarding it with neutrons. In 1939 Hitler established the “Uranium Club” and “liberated” many countries by invasion and bombardment from the skies. Speaking about the brutal attacks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt bemoaned the fact that “Civilians are being ruthlessly murdered.” Six years later, on August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima (which President Truman described as a military base) and Nagasaki. More than 200,000 souls perished—90% of those were civilians.
In Einstein’s Letter, John Maggio and Barak Goodman detail the events that led to the unleashing of the pair of blasts that ended much of World War II. All of the ingredients of a first-rate thriller are present:
- Hungarian physicist and bathtub thinker Leo Szilard imagines the result of a chain reaction of splitting atoms
- Szilard tracks down genius/pacifist Albert Einstein (“The murder of men is disgusting.”) and convinces him that if the Nazis produce an atomic bomb before the U.S. that they will not hesitate to use it, which prompts Einstein to sign a letter warning FDR of the “imminent” danger
Inertia, coercion and racism
- FDR creates the “Uranium Committee” but the bureaucracy refuses to fund the enemy aliens’ work (the Hungarian’s right-hand man is Italian Enrico Fermi) until a second letter threatens to publish a “how to article” in the public domain
- Pearl Harbour
Sadly, there is more fact than fiction. The film’s pace is brisk and compelling. Gary Lionelli’s complementary music, with just the right touch of X-Files menace and wonderfully eerie “Waltz Macabre” lifts the production higher still. Only the too-close micing of narrator Campbell Scott detracts from the overall soundscape. The images speak volumes.
The labourers of the Manhattan Project are presented both with archival footage and well-interlaced, detail-rich re-enactments. Brilliant is the decision to leave the Einstein-surrogate’s face off the screen—trying to recreate one of the most recognizable visages of all time would most certainly ring false. All the better to use the wealth of actual material that exists.
Further ironies abound. Learning of the painstaking efforts that Szilard and Co. went through to create the experimental chamber of uranium and graphite gives a horrific pre-meaning to the more recent term “dirty” bomb. Hearing Marcia Funebre from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony played at FDR’s funeral seems so Old World and aurally reinforces the notion that the seat of American power is more directly linked to Europe than its own citizens, much less its indigenous peoples. Even today, few major U.S. cultural institutions—particularly orchestras—are led by home-grown artists.
From a nation of Darwin-denialists (cross-reference below) to one that, post-WW II, venerates physicists as gods (when convenient) the first principles of opportunity and capitalism are reinforced in surprising if consistent ways.
The film also shows how the Germans were no where near having a bomb of their own. But Szilard’s perseverance—despite his inner horror when he realized the destructive potential of his “imagination” to the point of having Einstein pen yet a third letter that FDR didn’t live to read—and the brilliant teamwork of his fellow scientists won the day and the war.
Yet, what price victory?
With the gruesome images of dead and dying Japanese flashing across the screen, a near-tears Robert Christy (one of the “creators”) offered the understatement of the century: “That’s not something you want to see.” JWR