By Pressing That Buzzer You’ll Have To Kill 100,000 in One Flight

Posted: 18/12/2012 in 1953, Above and Beyond, Drama, War

above and beyond

Welcome to 1953!  Upon entering this new year, Oscar season kicks off early with a surprising little film, Melvin Frank’s World War II drama, Above and Beyond.  In reality, although the film supposedly deals with dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it has less to do with that event and more to do with the effects of that event on Col. Paul Tibbets and his long-suffering wife Lucey.   The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still the single most violent attacks ever unleashed on one society from another.  What if you were the man chosen to drop that first nuclear weapon, knowing that you are dropping the single deadliest weapon ever dropped on a city, yet not really being able to fathom what that means?  Imagine you were this man’s wife, knowing that your husband has changed and entered a dark place but not knowing why.  This is the real story that Above and Beyond centers on.  What the film largely avoids being is a patriotic celebration of American power during the war.  This is surprising to this viewer considering the release of this work during the early stages of the Cold War when American patriotism was still running high, and the ability or willingness to criticize this country was still rather questionable.   If anything, the film is rather apolitical.  Rather than taking an aggressive position in support of or against the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan, it instead stays away from politics for the most part and focuses in on the story (albeit a very Hollywood-esque one) of Paul and Lucey Tibbets.

While not a patriotic celebration, Above and Beyond does not dive into criticism of the decision to drop the bomb, nor is the Japanese side at any point entertained.  Truthfully, in the context of the times, this is to be expected.  Although the US government had released a report in 1946 criticizing its own actions in the war, this is not something that had yet entered the popular consciousness (in fact, I still don’t believe that it has).   For the most part, Above and Beyond comes across as above average Hollywood fare.  While it does fall into melodrama one too many times, some good direction, a fine script, and some subtle performances make this a film worthy of consideration.  The man of the hour, of course, is Robert Taylor, as Col. Tibbets.  Overall Taylor does a fine job of portraying a man with conflicting emotions sworn to secrecy.  In truth, he is really a man of the times, and he plays the role well.  Where his character really shines is in the final 30 minutes.  As we get closer to the inevitable, Taylor really is a major contributor to making the final act soar.  Also worthy of mention is James Whitmore as Maj. Bill Uanna.  If anything, his is the best acting of the film.  Always tense, ever suspicious of his surroundings, never getting too close to making intimate friends, but at the same time a loyal confidant, Whitmore plays his role near perfectly.  In a film with the expected melodramatic moments, Whitmore consistently hovers above the rest of the cast, delivering a supporting performance that may just be remembered by the end of the year.  Truthfully, the rest of the performances, including that of Eleanor Parker as Lucey, are typical enough to be forgotten after a short amount of time.

What ultimately saves Above and Beyond from being a good movie and makes it better than good is a final act that is skillfully directed by Melvin Frank and written by Beirne Lay Jr. (also with the help of Mr. Frank).  There is no need for a spoiler alert here. The United States dropped the bomb.  What makes the final act memorable is Mr. Frank’s skillful directing in building tension, specifically within Col. Tibbets himself.  While this is certainly not a perfect telling of one of the most monumental moments in the history of humankind, it does avoid many of the trappings that a film like this in 1953 could have easily fallen into.  For that we thank you Mr. Frank.

***~AOS

Up next, Anthony Mann’s western The Naked Spur

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