Beginning or the End, The (1947)

“Our country must have an atomic bomb. It’s your job — and mine — to get it.”

Synopsis:
Scientists during WWII — led by Colonel Oppenheimer (Hume Cronyn) and General Groves (Brian Donlevy) — race to develop the first atomic bomb.

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Review:
Though clearly dated, Norman Taurog’s The Beginning or the End remains a compelling docudrama about the Manhattan Project scientists and their work to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans and Japanese. We’re constantly reminded that bombs were considered the least noble application of atomic energy at the time; indeed, nobody involved in this collective undertaking is shown to be happy about the fact that the bombs they are developing will wreak such enormous devastation on humankind. Even the film’s very title indicates that, as early as 1947, scientists weren’t certain whether the incipient use of atomic energy signaled the beginning of a golden era, or the end of humanity.

This general attitude is most effectively characterized by Tom Drake’s character, a young physicist who harbors a constant sense of unease about the ultimate purpose of his work; on the other hand, screenwriters Robert Considine and Frank Wead make sure to include plenty of dialogue about why America ultimately felt justified in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a sticky dilemma, and the film does an admirable job balancing the two perspectives.

Unfortunately, The Beginning or the End is marred by blatant sexism (women are exclusively secretaries or love interests); two distracting romantic subplots (Beverly Tyler as Cochran’s long-suffering wife is particularly annoying); stilted dialogue (the conversations between the scientists sound especially inauthentic); and some heavy-handed morality. Yet it remains a valuable first attempt at documenting the emergence of atomic power in the world, and for this reason alone, it’s worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling overview of the first atomic bombs, from their conception to their deadly deployment
    Explanation
  • A fascinating glimpse of the tension felt during initial experiments with developing plutonium
    Pile
  • A welcome depiction of the trepidation and genuine sorrow experienced by most involved with the bombs
    Trepidation
  • Tom Drake as the young physicist wracked with guilt
    Cochran

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance.

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