Last changed 15 August 1999
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Trinity and Beyond (The Atomic Bomb Movie) is an award winning documentary on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, focusing principally on the U.S. testing program. It spans the time from the preparations for the Trinity test in 1945 to (roughly) the conclusion of U.S. and Soviet atmospheric testing with the signing of the atmospheric test ban treaty. Its approach is to describe the testing program from the point of view of the weaponeers - what was being tested and why. The only interviewees in the movie are Edward Teller and Frank Shelton, two weapons physicists who are very decidedly non-ambivalent about their weapons related careers.
The movie is very well done. A remarkable collection of test footage has been assembled, much of it truly spectacular, and some of it novel and surprising - even to people already familiar with the U.S. test programs. The technical quality of the production is excellent. Professional computer animation and graphics is used to good effect in illustrating devices and test arrangements. A combination of contemporary narration by William Shatner, and "newsreel" style narration is used to good effect to provide background, establish context, and provide continuity. The original symphonic score, reminiscent of Carmina Burana, is quite effective.
Some of the highlights:
Nearly all of the test footage was new to me.
I found the most spectacular viewing were generally the lower yield tests. This is because they were filmed closer up, and the scale was easier to relate to - watching ships, trees, vehicles, and buildings being laid to waste is inherently dramatic. Watching immense multi- megaton fireballs rise over the horizon of a featureless sea behind a veil of clouds tends to be much less impressive (on film anyway, it no doubt was different first hand) and have a quality of sameness from one shot to the next. The 20 kiloton Crossroads Baker shallow underwater test amid a fleet of ships was particularly impressive. Some of the thermonuclear tests were actually quite lovely, not as fearsomely awe-inspiring as many of the low yield range tests.
A particularly curious sequence was government film of the Ivy Mike shot, the world’s first true hydrogen bomb test. The odd thing about it was the presence of a folksy narrator, talking directly to the camera as if an educational program for grade schools was being produced. This was one of the mostly highly classified operations ever conducted, so consideration of who this film was intended for gives one pause for thought.
The movie does a good job of providing a sense of the weapons development and testing program from 1945 to 1963 - its milestones, objectives, and discoveries. It is thus an effective educational film - not just a visual spectacular.
I do have a few reservations about the film however, as viewed as a historical work.
First, some of the footage is misidentified (not necessarily the director's fault). Film of a Greenhouse Dog replica is misidentified as Greenhouse Item. An overhead view of the Castle Nectar shot is implicitly identified as being Castle Bravo shot. Footage of a Mk 17 drop is implicitly identified as being the Redwing Cherokee test of a Mk 15 bomb. Better sources could have been used in preparing some of the computer graphics, the illustrations of Little Boy and Fat Man are based on older device descriptions known to be inaccurate.
At times, the slick production standards made me a bit suspicious about what I was seeing. Acoustic enhancement of explosion footage was used throughout (nuclear explosions are always filmed at considerable distances, authenticate sound recording should never produce simultaneous booms with the visual detonation), although this practice is so routine that it did not put me off especially. A very effectively theatrical sequence of the Gadget atop its test tower supposedly awaiting detonation, with stormy clouds and lightning in the background illuminating it with flashes, is actually an artificial enhancement of existing still footage of the partially assembled device.
Other reservations I have are general ones concerning essentially all documentaries that cut together footage from various sources. Many film segments are used, and only a few of them are explicitly identified (say, by being tagged with a visual label). The identity of most film segments can only be inferred from the context in which it is presented - the expectations created by what has been just previously presented, and the comments the narrator is making at the moment that the segment is shown. This means that the association between images on one hand, and identification or explanation on the other, is often a loose one and creates problems with implicit misidentification, or uncertainty about what it is you are viewing at any particular moment. Whenever I see a documentary cutting quickly between segments of establishing footage (airplanes taking off, men hoisting equipment, etc.) I always wonder if this is real footage of the purported operation, or really unrelated stock footage inserted to provide a sense of verisimilitude.
In printed texts still photographs are invariably provided with sources, and at least a brief explanatory caption. It is very rare for any similar explicit identification to be attached to historical film in documentaries. Although most of the early test shots are identified in Trinity and Beyond, almost none of the shots in the later test series (like Dominic I and II) have any identification at all. Sometimes the simultaneous presentation of a film sequence with the narrator’s spiel gives the impression that the two things are correlated when it is not the case.
I conclude with a minor quibble related to the problem of interpreting the footage being presented. The different test sequences were filmed at dramatically different speeds. Rapatronic cameras provide film of early fireball growth, at framing rates greater than 1 frame/microsecond. At other times the growth of towering mushroom clouds is presented with time lapse photography. Although I could generally distinguish these two cases from normal speed photography, sometimes I got confused as footage cut between tremendously different time scales. Some sort of indication of the rate of time flow would be useful.
[Thanks to Chuck Hansen for contributing to the list of boo-boos.]
--- Carey Sublette
Read director/producer Peter Kuran's usenet comments about Trinity and Beyond, where to get it, and other nuclear test films.
Trinity and Beyond is an unsettling yet visually fascinating documentary presenting the history of nuclear weapons development and testing between 1945 until 1963. Narrated by William Shatner and featuring an original score performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, the film reveals unreleased and classified government footage depicting in graphic detail these powerful and awesome weapons.
Director/producer Peter Kuran, traveled throughout the U.S. to locate footage that includes bombs being suspended by balloon, exploding under the ocean, being shot from a cannon and detonated in outer space.
Featured at the Toronto Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival 1996. Silver Hugo Award Winner at the Chicago Film Festival 1996. WorldFest Houston and WorldFest Charleston Gold Award Winner.
© 1996 VCEinc. Running Time: 92 minutes. Directed and produced by Peter Kuran.
From Visual Concepts Entertainment (VCE)
Now available as a special "director's cut" 2-tape set, with a section in 3-D. It can be ordered from IMC Direct.
Also from VCE: