Thursday, June 6, 2013

Above and Beyond

Above and Beyond (Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, 1952) The story of Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets who, during World War II, was charged with the task of training crews for the most secret bombing mission of the war—the dropping of the experimental atomic weapon that was concurrently being developed at Los Alamos.  The story is different in a couple different ways: one, made in 1952, it dares to tell the story of the mental strain that such a highly secretive mission can have on the psyche, especially considering the destructive consequences the new bombs would bring; two, probably to draw a female audience, it tells the story from Tibbets' wife's point-of-view, of the hardships that a war-time marriage must go through, especially in a situation where the details of the operation cannot be disclosed to anyone, even if the secrets and responsibilities threaten to tear the marriage apart.  The choices come down to nuclear war or nuclear family.  And both are extremely fissionable.

It's frustrating: Tibbets (Robert Taylor, far more nuanced than he usually is) working around the clock, must perfect the strategies for a potential suicide mission, while also consciously recognizing the horror his direct action will take—when offered an assignment, after readying the B-29 ("a flying death-trap," great commercial for Boeing) for high altitude combat missions, he's given a buzzer and told, "Now think—what would you do if that buzzer could end the war, but cause hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives." The idea rocks Tibbets back on his heels, considers all the options for forty seconds, then deliberately presses the buzzer.

Meanwhile, his wife (Eleanor Parker) must deal with long absences, no explanations, and the obvious stresses, the mission, which she knows nothing about, throws at them.  To make matters worse, she billeted, along with the other airmen's wives (who are only too quick to blame her and her husband for their own living situation), at Wendover air base in Utah, a hell-hole with sub-standard housing, raising two kids (with their own short fuses), virtually fatherless.  At first, it's suggested that she not come to Wendover, until the base's security officer (a tamped-down James Whitmore) opines that she being the only wife not on-base might arouse suspicions—the movie is full of such "damned is you do..." crossroads.

The scriptwriter-directors Frank and Panama, who were usually involved in lighter fare than this, do the character of Tibbets' wife no favors—she has difficulties, but domestically, not militarily, while a war rages on.  She's given some egregiously selfish moments, like telling her bomber-pilot husband how she feels bad for all the kids on the ground caught in the situation—absolutely, and an extremely valid sentiment, but are you really going to tell your bomber-pilot husband that, when he's got his own guilt he's dealing with?  At one point, remembering Tibbets' mother's name (which would eventually emblazon the Hiroshima bomber) she mopes "Enola—even the word backwards means 'alone.'"  Yeah, honey, the world's a powder-keg and it's all about you.  If you want something to worry about, how about your family turning to ash at ground zero?  And, not that she'd know it, her husband might get caught in the flash-point or his bomber might get buffeted by a shock-wave, the result of a man-made conflagration no atomic engineer could predict, and the world had never seen.  Tibbets as going through his own issues, but I'll bet his wife was faring better than her on-screen portrayal by Frank and Panama.  

Still pretty interesting to see a 1950's film sanctioned by the Air Force (and especially General Curtis LeMay—played in the film by Jim Backus) that contemplates the use of atomic weapons and—despite pressing the buzzer—takes that long pause to consider the options and the terrible weight such a decision might impose.

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