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On the Set : The Cloud That Never Went Away

August 06, 1995|RAY CONLOGUE | Ray Conlogue is the Quebec cultural correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail

MONTREAL — On Aug. 6, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Showtime will offer a three-hour commemorative docudrama. But, of course, you might say, somebody had to. After all, aren't we still fascinated by the mushroom-shaped shadow from that long-ago explosion, which killed more than 70,000 people and led to the end of World War II?

It's not as simple as that. Just ask the powerful Smithsonian Institution, which tried to put on a show last year featuring various viewpoints--some critical--about Hiroshima. Outraged veterans forced the museum to censor the show, and one of its curators resigned.

The bombing of Hiroshima--and later, Nagasaki--is a subject that leaves many Americans uncomfortable, and Showtime's Canadian co-producer Robin Spry acknowledges that the network was "nervous" about the project, which was OK'd at the last possible moment. "But they were excited that there was so much heat and light around the Smithsonian show. They're sure that [the subject] will draw an audience." (The movie is being shown in the United States and Japan on the anniversary date.)

The director they chose was Roger Spottiswoode, a maverick who has made films critical of U.S. involvement in El Salvador ("Under Fire") and the federal government's handling of the AIDS epidemic ("And the Band Played On" for HBO). You'd expect him to take a hard line on Hiroshima as well, but on this particular May afternoon shooting in Montreal's Mirabel airport, he seems the soul of moderation and delicacy.

"I wouldn't second-guess the decision to drop the bomb," says the affable, British-born director as he lopes over from a lighting session on the world's only surviving B-29 that can still fly. The set decorators have painted "Enola Gay" on the aircraft's side, the namesake of the plane that dropped the bomb.

"I'm glad I wasn't there," says Spottiswoode. "Look how stressed we are by Vietnam, where we had 78,000 casualties. In World War II, there were a million American casualties," incluing those killed and wounded.

He adds that the Japanese military had "no intention of surrendering," and that he can understand the desperate yearning for a weapon that would quickly end the war.

Spottiswoode nonetheless has a knack for getting under people's fingernails. In this case he asked director Koreyoshi Kurahara to shoot the other side of the story, in Japanese, detailing the struggles of Emperor Hirohito and civilian leaders with the military fanatics. Script revisions would be accepted if the Japanese could prove them from historical sources.

One person who doesn't like this idea at all is Bob Freeman. The 71-year-old Air Force veteran helped fly the B-29 to the Montreal set. He says his organization, the Confederate Air Force, "shouldn't have signed the contact without seeing the script. The Japanese shouldn't be involved." Freeman gathered over half the protest signatures that arrived at the Smithsonian last year.

*

It's a pretty June day in Montreal, and Spottiswoode is hurrying to get the final cut ready for Los Angeles. He's delighted with the work turned in by actor Kenneth Welsh ("Legends of the Fall"), who plays President Truman, and with Wesley Addy as U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson ("the only really decent human being in the whole lot").

A brief clip--the long-awaited Japanese package--shows civilian leaders, a few days before the Hiroshima bombing, discovering to their amazement that the generals still think they can force America to sue for peace with one last battle on Japanese soil. "But this is fantasy!" cries the prime minister, who is silenced by a fierce glare from the chief of staff.

"I had hoped for a more intimate sense of Emperor Hirohito [played by Naohiko Umewaka]," says Spottiswoode with regret, "but they felt he should be seen only as he has always been seen: stilted, almost robotic."

In the end, he accepted their work--"they know what will be believable in Japan"--insisting only that the scenes be cut shorter. "Americans won't sit still for long formal static encounters."

Spottiswoode remains convinced that it was right to bring in the Japanese and let them shoot in their language (with subtitles). "I want people to feel how hard it was for Americans and Japanese to understand each other. In a way, this was a battle of cultures as much as anything else."

He is also happy that he jettisoned an early plan to shoot a conventional war story, in favor of a tightly focused political struggle starting with Truman's assuming the presidency in mid-April of 1945.

"It's a subject that a lot of people have strong feelings about," he says. "People on both sides will feel we left things out. I hope our having stuck closely to the sources will help."

For himself, the biggest leap was trying to see the bomb from the viewpoint of people in 1945. "Leaders back then only felt the power of these weapons. They didn't know they would also be trapped by them."

We don't have that excuse any more. To Spottiswoode, "Hiroshima" will be a success if it gets America thinking about "the only really important question: What are we going to do about these weapons, now that the Cold War is over?"

"Hiroshima" airs Sunday at 8 and 11:15 p.m. on Showtime.

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