Documentary Review: The A-Bomb in context, “Apocalypse ’45”

Some years back, the Smithsonian got into trouble in planning an exhibit around the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber whose crew dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which helped end World War II. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, and the controversy stemmed from America’s greatest historical museum’s decision to narrow the focus to that event alone and its morality or amorality.

You’d think a crew of America’s elite historians would see that, revisionism or not, you can’t discuss the end without providing context, the carnage of the months leading up to that fateful decision, the undeniable fanaticism of an intractable enemy and the civilian slaughter to come.

That’s not a problem with “Apocalypse ’45,” a new documentary from Abramorama that will make its way to the Discovery networks at some point. Here’s the footage of the hellish combat leading up to the A-Bombs of August, the slaughterhouses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Here are eyewitnesses and survivors, the last living Americans who fought in the Pacific, relating the awful things they faced, the friends and comrades they buried and the Japanese immovability even after the firebombing of Tokyo.

Yes, the United States is still the only nation to use an atomic bomb in war. Yes, there were good reasons for doing it if you dive deep enough into the context of the times.

Hearing a Marine recall a saying in the ranks after Iwo Jima, “Golden Gate in ’48, breadline in ’49,” drives it home. They knew “luck” was the only thing that was keeping them alive on these killing grounds. They had a hint that Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese main islands, was to begin that November.

They had the best sense of all of just how long the war would drag on with an enemy determined to fight “until every last (Japanese) man, woman and child” was dead. They’d seen civilians, willing or at the gunpoint of the fascist Japanese Army, hurling themselves off cliffs rather than surrender.

Director Erik Nelson gives us a sobering tour of the four years of footage. He has his interview subjects summarize Pearl Harbor, young men on the homefront realizing “It screwed my whole life up from that moment on” — a draft, the trauma of combat, hardship and terror, survivor’s guilt and the remorse that came later, future plans deferred for years. And those were the lucky ones, the survivors.

Then we’re immersed in footage — much of it familiar if you’ve ever channel surfed by The History Channel — of that last year. We revisit the island assaults, the grim flame thrower and grenade attacks, napalm bombs and the kamikaze strikes. Nineteen forty-five was a year that exposed servicemen on the beaches and volcanic hills, on board ships under air attack and fighter and bomber crews taking the war to Japan, to “the reality of total war,” up-close, personal and wrenching.

“Apocalypse ’45” is a cut above the boilerplate docs whipped up for the various “World War II” channels on TV. The footage is silent, and every now and then a sound effect blunder pops up — a single-engine plane is heard taking off while we watch the biggest American bomber, a B-29, which took off with a rumble and roar all its own.

In the film proper, Nelson identifies only one witness, a Japanese Hiroshima survivor, just 15 when the bomb hit. He sings an ancient lament for the city.

But the closing credits show us everybody else who testifies, very old men in their ’90s now, a rare breed. Not many officers or “experts,” just sailors, Marines, pilots and aircrew who lived through it, some breaking into tears at the memories being revived, others lamenting the divided state they lived to see their country turn into.

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic combat footage

Cast: Ivan Hammond, Joseph Wing, Charles Schlag, George Boutwell, George Vouros, Delbert Treichler, Abner Aust Jr., William Braddock Jr., Richard Spooner, Ittsei Nakagawa and many others.

Credits: Directed by Erik Nelson. An Abramorama release.

Running time: 1:44

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