Day One [1989]

The history of the atomic bomb--its conception, creation, and deployment--gets an impressively complex yet propulsive treatment in this compelling docudrama. Day One balances human drama, scientific history, and political machinations with uncommon skill and considerable smarts. From the moment that General Groves (Brian Dennehy, Presumed Innocent) is appointed to drive the Manhattan Project, the movie has a driving force; Dennehy presents a brusk and demanding man who never questions whether he is right or wrong. In contrast comes J. Robert Oppenheimer (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck), a fundamentally decent man whose conflicts about the consequences of the atomic bomb eat at him--Strathairn captures Oppenheimer's qualms even as his will to succeed drives him forward. Day One cunningly juxtaposes political meetings with scientific discussions, subtly comparing different paths of thought. The compressed script distills enormous debates without simplifying them and--even more striking--making the discussions feel like actual conversation, with irrational and expedient factors as significant as the weighty ideas. The story builds to considerable tension as the bomb is tested and, with highly debatable justification, used on a civilian population. Day One presents history at a breakneck pace, using human detail to keep the broad sweep of events grounded, without losing sight of that big picture. Rarely have momentous decisions been so well interlaced with human fallibility. Also featuring Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Michael Tucker (L.A. Law), and a powerhouse supporting cast of old-school character actors like Hume Cronyn, Barnard Hughes, and Hal Holbrook. --Bret Fetzer

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