Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Holiday Binge Viewing ’16: Hiroshima

If you still think Donald Trump is unlikely presidential stock, you might be right, but at the time Harry S. Truman succeeded FDR, he inspired even less confidence. Most of the country considered him a hack from Boss Pendergast’s machine, because he was. Yet, he stepped up and made difficult decisions at the most crucial juncture of the Twentieth Century. In the tradition of Tora! Tora! Tora!, Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode and Japanese filmmaker Koreyoshi Kurahara follow the War in the Pacific from both sides in the three-hour miniseries Hiroshima (trailer here), which is now available on DVD, from Mill Creek Entertainment.

When Eleanor Roosevelt breaks the bad news to Truman, she is clearly concerned for him—and not without reason. FDR thought so little of his VP he kept him out of all cabinet discussions of the war. One of the things Truman will quickly be brought up to speed on will be the Manhattan Project, which is progressing smoothly, despite the misgivings of scientists like Leo Szilard (played by Saul Rubinek in a showy cameo).

In early 1945, the war had clearly turned in America’s favor and against the Japanese, but it was still bloody as Hell. Unfortunately, the military authorities were firmly in command of the Japanese government and they were hellbent on mounting an all-out to-the-last-man-woman-and-child defense of the homeland rather than surrender. The Atomic Bomb was precisely what Truman needed to prevent such a costly battle.

Frankly, the Japanese scenes helmed by Kurahara (who trained to be a human landmine in expectation of an American landing) are way more damning of Japanese militarism than the American sequences (shot in Canada), which are more concerned with Truman’s awkward elevation. Kurahara and Japanese screenwriter Toshirô Ishidô depict the intransigence of the senior officers in terms that go beyond extremism, approaching the stuff of a death cult. Clearly, they indict the militarists for misunderstanding American resolve and marginalizing the Imperial faction, which supported more proactive peace overtures.

These passages are indeed the most eye-opening, especially including the efforts to recruit Stalin to broker a peace deal, given Japan and the Soviets had their own non-aggression treaty, much like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Like many recent films, such Emperor and The Sun, Hiroshima offers a humanizing (perhaps an ironic choice of words) revisionist portrait of Emperor Hirohito, which seems defensible in light of his cooperation with the American occupation.

While the Japanese half of the mini is a more interesting viewing experience, if you appreciate intrigue and historical irony, the best performance by far comes from Kenneth Welsh, who so embodies Truman it is almost spooky. It is probably his most prestigious role and some of his best work, but he’ll always be Twin Peaks’ Windom Earle to us.

Yet, arguably the historical figure getting the best PR in Hiroshima is Republican Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who convinced Truman to remove the culturally significant ancient capital city of Kyoto from the target list. As it happens, Stimson is played with steely patrician dignity by the late Wesley Addy, who also appeared in Tora. On the Japanese side, Kôji Takahashi (from Masahiro Shinoda’s classic Samurai Spy) brings out the heroic tragedy in hardline Gen. Korechika Anami, up-staging better-known historical figures with his intensity.

Hiroshima is a talky production, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It definitely adheres to a great men theory of history, taking viewers into the rooms-where-it-happened. Refreshingly, it is not preoccupied with American guilt, presenting Hiroshima and Nagasaki as horrible but completely reasonable options, given the circumstances. Spottiswoode and Kurahara dexterously juggle hundreds of characters and both rather cleverly integrate archival newsreel footage with the on-screen drama. It will be too cerebral and accurate for certain kneejerk audiences, but it is definitely worth seeing. Recommended as a thoughtful co-production, Hiroshima is now available on DVD from Mill Creek, just in time for holiday viewing.