Picks and Pans Review: Day One
CBS (Sun., March 5, 8 P.M. ET)
Be prepared for a great surprise. Day One tells the story of the making and dropping of the atom bomb as I have never seen that story told before. The events are unchanged but the perspective is new. In addition to all the expected players—Brian Dennehy as the general in charge of the Manhattan Project; David Strathairn as J. Robert Oppenheimer, its chief scientist; David Ogden Stiers as Franklin Roosevelt; Richard Dysart as Harry Truman—Day One introduces us to one more important but unexpected player: Michael (L.A. Law) Tucker as Leo Szilard, a little-known Hungarian-Jewish physicist and refugee from the Nazis. Through this man, we see the many sides to the debate over the bomb. Szilard unlocked a secret to atomic chain reactions. He then joined Albert Einstein in persuading Roosevelt to develop the bomb—believing that America had to build it before Hitler did. But when it was discovered that Germany had no bomb, Szilard organized scientific opposition to using it elsewhere—a moral stance that caused him to be shunned and spied upon. The Manhattan Project’s leaders wanted to drop their bomb on Japan, Szilard argued, just “to show everyone what they did.” Or, as one military man asked: “Why’d we build this bomb if not to use it? Why’d we spend three years and $2 billion?” Day One shows us that there was debate: Some military men, statesmen and scientists said that the bomb was vital to victory. But others said that Japan was defeated and ready for surrender and that the bomb was not needed. In my formative years, during the Cold War, such talk would have been considered treason or at least historical heresy. I was always told—no questions tolerated—that the bomb saved 1 million American lives and thus was a necessary evil. Now here comes a TV movie that raises doubts, that asks (but doesn’t try to answer) tough and overdue questions about America’s invention and use of the atom bomb. Day One is amazing for having the courage to do that. It is amazing for being so wonderfully made and so engrossing. But it is amazing, most of all, for its source: This show does not come from some counterculture hippie film factory. It is shown on big old CBS. It is made by Aaron Spelling Productions (of Dynasty and The Love Boat). And it is sponsored by AT&T. In Day One we may be witnessing the birth of a new, American brand of glasnost. It is a bracing experience.