on PBS

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering

Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American ExperienceThe Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.

While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.

Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.


The documentary at the PBS website.

Leave a Reply