September 21, 2009 / Filmwell
Excerpts from Roger Ebert’s Journal, September 20, 2009 Every year good films show at the …
April 27, 2015
Before I begin, an obvious warning: I will discuss spoilers here. Another obvious warning: this is a long piece and it goes into the brush at various points. My hope is that, in the end, it comes together into something reasonably cohesive—but that is, of course, up to the reader to decide. A third warning: this is not a review in the traditional sense. Rather, it is an extended attempt to get at what, exactly is going on in Little Boy and why I, personally, find it so troubling.
If you know anything about World War II, you know from the get-go where Little Boy is heading. I knew after only seeing the trailer: a kid who wants his father to come home and has the power (or seems to, which is the same thing in this kind of movie) to manipulate matter? And called Little Boy, no less? The only question was how dark the film-makers would go. Would the titular boy literally transform into the atomic bomb that wiped out Hiroshima? Would the final scene depict the father coming home not knowing that his son had killed himself and 80,000 people?
Alas, no. That, at least, would be interesting. Instead, the movie hews to a frankly inoffensive format: the boy, wanting to bring his father home, performs acts to build up his own faith. These acts include befriending a Japanese-American man who has recently been released from an internment camp. The story of these two is a pretty standard one: a cute intergenerational/interracial friendship in which the boy learns not to call his new friend “Jap” and the older man learns to open up to the adorable blonde kid who brings him orange sodas. Together they fight the town’s virulent racism and learn important lessons about trusting each other—and themselves. It’s hardly a brilliant setup, but movies have done far better with worse, and it’s difficult to maintain a stony heart while watching Jakob Salvati as Pepper do his darndest to charm Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who plays Mr. Hashimoto (and who, in a brilliant bit of intertextual casting, played Minoru Genda in Pearl Harbor, meaning that the townsfolk’s habit of blaming Hashimoto for the attack on Pearl Harbor is thoroughly justified from a filmgoer’s perspective).
But hanging over all of this is the title—and it’s really the movie’s fatal misstep. Because there are exactly two ways this movie can be approached: knowing what “Little Boy” means in the context of World War II and not knowing what it means. In the first case, the movie is difficult to stomach. Every cute scene with Little Boy (the kid) brings in thoughts of Little Boy (the bomb). One scene towards the climax features Salvati standing on a bench gesturing toward the east—that is, toward Japan—in an attempt to end the War. The passing townsfolk stop—stare—“What is Little Boy doing?” one asks—and it is at this precise moment that all filmgoing etiquette breaks down and the savvy viewer is inclined to lob things at the screen.
On the other hand—how disconcerting must it be to watch the entire movie not knowing that the title is a pun on one of the most destructive weapons ever created? To watch Pepper and Hashimoto grow together—to watch Pepper finally standing up for himself—to watch London, the older brother (a fairly acceptable David Henrie), sink in and out of an alcoholic depression in the company of Ted Levine’s mononymic Sam. And then—and then—to come to the moment when Pepper rides into town on his bike only to be greeted by wondering townsfolk saying that the War is over and pointing to a newspaper declaring that the bomb dropped—the most destructive bomb ever used (at that point)—is called Little Boy. How shocking must that reveal be?
And who thought this was a good idea? As Justin Chang points out, the idea that God would wipe out a whole city in order to bring back one kid’s father is horrific. Compounding the horror is the fact that the movie is released in 2015. That is, this movie—which features the bombing of Hiroshima as a kind of deus ex machina—which replaces the real horrors of the end of World War II with glurgy sentimental rubbish—is being released almost exactly seventy years after the atomic bomb was dropped. This isn’t just cluelessness; at best, it’s irresponsibility. And to suggest—to even hint—that all those hundreds of lives were sacrificed so that one man could come home…well. The mind boggles.
There are, however, a couple of complicating factors here. The first is that Little Boy is self-consciously presented as a man’s memories of a time when he was eight years old. Watching the movie with this in mind goes a long way toward addressing at least some of the problems with the movie: the bizarre way in which the townsfolk swerve between being cartoonishly nice and cartoonishly racist and (quite frankly) evil—the weird timeline of the movie, which picks up well into WWII and which proceeds with no time-markers to beyond the end of the War—even the aesthetic, which Chang rightly lambasts as over-sweetened, might be appreciated as an old man’s hazy memories of his own past. Such a reading might even explain why Nagasaki, bombed days after Hiroshima, gets no mention at all (a less charitable interpretation is that the filmmakers didn’t want to figure out how to work a character called Fat Man into the plot). All of this is possible, and though it doesn’t make the movie any better it at least makes its bizarre choices more interesting.
But there’s another direction I want to go, here, that I think speaks more to the ideological implications of the movie than the scenario outlined above. I think that the filmmakers avoid the question of whether any kind of decent God would kill so many people for one boy because they don’t actually think that’s what’s going on. What with the hints of magical realism, the movie doesn’t function on a literal level, so reading it on such a level will naturally cause raised eyebrows (and hackles). Nevertheless, the movie is about the bomb—the title forces such a reading, and any attempts to deflect attention away from that central event (and the narrative certainly tries) must be pushed off. The movie is about the bomb—and so it reflects the stunning failure of the United States, lo all these years later, to actually deal with or acknowledge the fundamental change that came over us—that came over the world—in the shadow of that mushroom cloud.
The setting of the movie is important: a small town during World War II. As Page Smith points out, the town has since the European settlement of North America been a central symbolic coordinate for American imagination. If—per Benedict Anderson—the nation-state is a kind of imagined community, then the community posited in America has long been one of the small town: close-knit, bound together less by birth than by choice (and so, often, heterogeneous in its makeup). During the early Twentieth Century the idea of America-as-small-town was mostly negative; Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street violently ridicules the provincialism of small town life, and both Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon River Anthology betray deep-seated anxieties about the ways in which small towns can constrict and ultimately destroy individuals. But this anxiety is not limited to small towns; the opening words of Main Street are “This is America”—a sentiment that carries a double meaning: both that the setting is America and that the town of Gopher Prairie is itself, in some way, a microcosm of America itself: backward, provincial, and petty.
During the Thirties this attitude shifted under the influence of the New Deal. FDR’s rhetoric of Main Street was calculated to evoke nostalgia for a more settled past (the kind of nostalgia discussed by Raymond Williams, actually—backwards-looking as a form of protest). Main-Street-as-America ceased to be a condemnation and became a celebration—and it is this variation, of course, that holds true today. One need only listen to Mike Huckabee waxing nostalgic over God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy to realize that there is still a substantial fantasy at work here, a kind of self-visioning that sees the United States as best embodied in a small town. Nor is this fantasy limited to the political Right in America; Barack Obama has in the past self-consciously targeted Main Street—the “mom and pop” stores that we are assured make up the backbone of the American economy. The small town, in the public imagination, is the “real America.” To quote Ryan Poll:
The dominant small town […] has become a central form of U.S. exceptionalism that imagines the nation as an autonomous, contained, and innocent island community […] [D]espite its appearance as an island imaginary, the dominant small town proves central to the development of the U.S. empire and to the development of global capitalism. (3)
Which is to say that the small town is an ideological construct—it’s a fantasy designed to tell us what we want to hear about ourselves.
By setting Little Boy in a small town, then, the filmmakers are making a conscious choice: this is not simply a story of the American homefront, as the voice-over alleges—it is the story of the American homefront. And so all events here must be read in that light: the father who goes to war is all fathers—possibly in all wars. The titular little boy is not simply Pepper; he is every child of every soldier fighting the Axis. And his memory of the War—hazy, melodramatic, saccharine—is a form of national memory (which is why the opening sequence directly replicates at least two Norman Rockwell paintings—Norman Rockwell being a sort of High Priest of saccharine Americana).
To its credit, the movie is more complicated than such broad brush-strokes suggest. The town starts out—mid-War—as a kind of nostalgic utopia. Though there are bullies and so on, it seems to be a fundamentally nice place. As the film progresses—after the father leaves—the cracks begin to show. The townsfolk are revealed to be racist, intolerant—cartoonishly evil in the way that not only children but adults torment Pepper. The nostalgic illusion, while not entirely shattered, is at least shot through with darkness. But in the end everyone comes around to the wisdom embodied in the little boy; the movie ultimately posits a redemption-narrative for America in which simple, childlike faith can re-unify it and restore greatness. It’s a classical fall-and-redemption narrative.
But this complication doesn’t really destroy the myth. Instead, the process of self-mythologizing shifts onto Pepper himself. In one key sequence, a scene of the father being ambushed by Japanese soldiers is intercut with footage of Pepper being bullied, humiliated, and ultimately shoved into a trash can. The implication is clear: the enemies of America (in this case, the Axis powers–specifically the Japanese) are bullies, attempting to shove the innocent tousle-haired child (America) around. America doesn’t want to fight; America had rather take his father’s boots home. America just wants to be left alone. It’s the bullies who won’t let America go its way in peace.
And so we have the scene where—encouraged by Hashimoto—Pepper seeks out his primary antagonist, prods the boy into a fight, and then wallops him with a lunch box. The scene is meant to be cheer-inducing; the scene is cheer-inducing. Who doesn’t like to see a bully get his? But in a movie called Little Boy all bets are off for normal sympathetic identification; since Pepper has taken on the role of America—lifted it, as it were, from a town that is not worthy of such identification—then his attack on the bully carries a symbolic import: America will strike back, and strike hard—but only when pushed.
This is nationalist myth-making. It’s also historically false—that is, it’s a lie (or, at least, an untruth). The reasons for dropping the Bomb were complicated. For one thing, the ultimate target of the Bomb was not Japan at all; America bombed Japan, in part, as a warning to Russia (see Ronald Takaki’s short, readable book for more on this). Ending the War was presented as a justification, but it was on at least some levels a false claim. This argument is typical of post-War discourse about the Bomb. Since the bombing of Hiroshima, America has consistently tried to at once defuse the impact of the attack and erase its real human cost (though there have always been exceptions, as John Hersey’s Hiroshima, published in 1946, demonstrates). In part, this move was born out of fear. As Paul Boyer points out, America was gripped with terror almost immediately after the bomb was dropped on Japan. The problem was not that so many Japanese civilians had lost their lives—it was that someone else (Russia) would get the bomb and use it on us.
Again, Little Boy taps into this fear, albeit obliquely: after the Bomb has dropped, while the family still thinks that the father has been killed by his captors in retaliation for such wanton destruction, Pepper has a dream. He is standing in the middle of a blasted-out wasteland. He walks—past the Little Boy bomb itself, past statues (or corpses?) of children and samurai—and none of this registers. What does register is his discovery that his father was among the victims of the blast. That is—never mind the death of so many civilians; it’s the lives of American soldiers that matter, and the horrific part of bombing Hiroshima is that Americans might suffer as well as their Japanese enemies.
After the War, Americans scrambled not only to avoid the threat of annihilation but also to justify the use of such a powerful weapon. The Japanese, it was argued, would fight to the last man, woman, and child. The attack was necessary because otherwise more American soldiers would die when—inevitably—we invaded Japan. This argument was certainly the one put forward by Truman (Eisenhower disagreed, as did others in the military establishment). Tapping into this self-justifying maneuver, Little Boy ends happily; after the mandatory false-ending of the father’s death we see him restored to life, restored to family, and taken home. The last shot of the movie is a road sign with the town’s name on it; with the return of the father, order has been restored (though at horrific cost—I don’t mean, the movie doesn’t mean, Hiroshima; it means that the father now has a bandage on his head). There is an implication that normality can be restored. The bombing of Hiroshima—the bombing, too, of Nagasaki—was worth it, after all.
For such a movie to be released seventy years after the event bespeaks a certain amount of cultural amnesia. It is certainly not the case that everything was all right after the War ended. H. Bruce Franklin argues precisely the opposite point: that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent the culmination of the Allies’—and, particularly, America’s—willingness to accept fascist principles of war. And these principles became the guiding force in American foreign policy for the remainder of the Twentieth Century. Every year, around August (and, I expect, more this year than ever), there’s a round of arguments that asks whether the bombings were justified. Was the death of so many people really needed to save the lives of American soldiers? But to some extent this is a false start, a false question—the Allies had already, at this point, engaged in large-scale fire-bombings in both Europe and Japan. Little Boy and Fat Man were, from this point of view, simply bigger fire-bombs. And America would later waste countless lives in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Middle East—all as a result (both indirect and direct) of the bombing of Hiroshima.
After the War things were never the same. Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light traces the anxieties following the end of the War. He points out that these stresses were almost immediately apparent. Within three months there were calls for nuclear disarmament. People were convinced that, if we did not harness this power, rein it in, then the end of the world must inevitably be upon us. Eventually this hysteria settled into the Cold War—and our various proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East…. In some sense, if the dropping of the atomic bomb ignited anything, it was a half-century of American militarism—what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” At the same time, the tactics and philosophy of the Axis lived on in a philosophy calling for—in Harry Elmer Barnes’ words—perpetual war in order to maintain perpetual peace. (In this sense, the most honest pop-culture attempt to reckon with the legacy of Hiroshima—in the past few years, at least—was Captain America: The Winter Soldier—and even it dropped the ball badly by not forcing Cap to acknowledge the horror that ended the War)
We have not gotten to the end of that era, quite yet. And Little Boy represents, in some ways, yet another attempt to elide or avoid the reality of the Bomb: by covering the event in such a sentimental language, by burying it in the story of one boy’s desire for his father to come home, the movie is able to shift altogether away from a discussion of the ethics of destroying cities full of civilians. It’s an avoidance strategy.
It’s also a particularly (though not, I imagine, exclusively) American affectation. It’s something that Niebuhr, for instance, would recognize: if we are so confident in our status as children of light, it becomes increasingly possible to act like children of darkness. And this is, I think, the heart of my problem with Little Boy: not that it does not critique the use of the Bomb; not that it is sentimental, glurgy, and poorly paced. No, the real obscenity at the heart of this movie is that it is committed to a form of self-mythology that shies away from self-critique. The racists in this movie are cartoonishly racist—something could be done, here, with the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, but instead the movie shifts its identification, withdrawing from the Norman Rockwell idealization and focusing instead on the figure of Pepper, the Little Boy—bullied, put upon, and ultimately triumphant (just like America!) The banal, self-pitying (and so, self-glorifying) idea that America is or has ever been—at least since WWII—anything but a major superpower, with all the ethical and moral dereliction that entails, is the motor behind the ideological framing of this movie.
And it is telling that the movie comes out now. In some sense, it’s a pre-emptive self-defense against the thinkpieces that are going to start pouring over the Internet around August. In another sense, this movie is tapping into exactly the same anxieties as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Star Trek into Darkness, Iron Man…. Like those movies, Little Boy is attempting to deal with that kernel of doubt that has managed to reassert itself over the past few years: what if we are not the good guys? Each movie offers a different answer: revolution, in the case of Captain America; retreat, in the case of Star Trek; rock-star braggadocio in the case of Iron Man. Each of these pop-solutions is troubling in a different way, but for my money, Little Boy offers the worst of all: not reflection, not thought of any kind—simply a retreat into a childhood memory, a candy-colored world in which, yes, we’re the good guys after all and everything’s going to be fine. It’s nostalgia in the most vicious sense: a wishful desire for the purported Golden Age of the American Century, one that ignores the very real horrors of that century. And now, poised as we are fifteen years into a new century, a century where American goodness—let alone American dominance—is, at the very least, open to question, Little Boy offers a tempting path of retreat. Unfortunately, that path leads directly back—like the title of the movie itself—to Hiroshima.