After a rich brush-up on the state of the world leading up to FDR’s death, Truman takes over the presidency, with Kenneth Welsh playing the 33rd president with gusto, level-headedness and humanness. It’s no shallow impression; Welsh inhabits the character.
The action, shifting betweenWashington and Tokyo, sorts out the chiefs for both sides. Among the Japanese leaders are Emperor Hirohito (Naohiko Umewaka); unrelenting militarist Gen. Anami (Kohji Takahashi), who delights in any victory and insists on no surrender as the Allies advance; new prime minister Suzuki (Tatsuo Matsumura), aging and unsure; energetic foreign minister Togo (Hisashi Igawa); Kido (Kei Sato), the emperor’s confidant; and elegant Prince Konoe (Kazuo Kato), the royal cousin who’ll have a mission to Stalin.
As the Allies move toward the Japanese homeland, docudrama eyes the nation’s limited options. Its leaders are divided after the blows on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the emperor faces facts.#Suzuki confronts the losses with the same reserve as gentlemanly U.S. Secretary of War Stimson (Wesley Addy), who had nixed breaking the codes of foreign nations because it would be like reading someone’s mail.
Backstage maneuvers among the U.S. higher-ups are relayed relentlessly. Gen. Groves (Richard D. Masur), head of the Manhattan Project, seen as woefully gung-ho, argues with the troubled Oppenheimer (Jeffrey De Munn) about the atomic gadgets.
The stories aren’t new; political sides have been examined and re-examined, and scrutinized in other dramatic forms (notably in the devastating 1981 BBC-PBS series “Oppenheimer”). But Hopkins and Ishido work through a slender corridor of objectivity to tie up the tales, unearth surprising details and explore character assets and failings that lead to the ultimate payoff; as produced here , it’s all a new game.
The filmmakers have integrated historical footage with new material to startlingly clear effect; junctures don’t show, except when a fleeting color clip is flipped into the film track (the U.S. Marine Air Force was the only service branch using color film during WWII).
As in “Reds,” witnesses to and survivors of the period speak out on what they recall of events; some of the recollections, such as a memory recounted by a Marine stationed on Okinawa, are shattering.
Directors Roger Spottiswoode and Koreyoshi Kurahara deal in realism. Truman’s first, solitary walk into the Oval Office as president states plenty; a farewell ceremony for kamikaze pilots plays as high drama. The military on each side has its agenda, but few know that atom bombs are gestating. Masur doesn’t ring 100% true as Groves, Ken Jenkins is a doubtful James Byrnes, Leon Pownall’s George Marshall is a miss.
Timothy West passes muster as Churchill (but who doesn’t, these days?). Takahashi plays out Anami as a sleek villain, while Matsumura’s gentle Suzuki suggests another world. Saul Rubinek is terrif as the frenetic Hungarian physicist vainly visiting Byrnes; Umewaka’s Hirohito is serene.
The editors have done their work masterfully; matching vintage film, Pierre Mignot and Shohei Ando’s camerawork gives the docudrama startling contemporaneity. The personal aspects of the world’s leaders, particularly Truman, define not only a situation but, unerringly, an era.
Following V-E Day, the practical, poker-playing Truman demands Japan’s unconditional surrender; Anami, the traditional Japanese militarist, bluntly comments, “Surrender is out of the question.” And so it was to be.