reviewed by William P. Meyers
The 1995 made-for-HBO movie Truman does a good job hitting the highlights of the life of Harry S. Truman. Gary Sinise does a great job capturing Truman's character. The writers of the movie had the difficult task of summing up a life that at minimum should get a mini-series devoted to it. The technical execution of the movie was nearly flawless. It you want to get an idea of the Truman era without wading into his voluminous Memoirs or pouring over history books covering the first half of the 20th century, the movie is a good way to do it.
In summing up complex things it is necessary to leave things out. On the most crucial incident of Harry Truman's Presidency, the decision to drop the first Atomic Bombs on the civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the movie presents the brief, and well-accepted, but historically and ethically inaccurate view.
The U.S. and its allies including Soviet Russia, after defeating Nazi Germany, were dying to get their colonies back in Asia. Under the international rules they set forth, they could have colonies of slaves, but Japan could not. Japan had offered to enter the war against Germany (before Pearl Harbor) if it could keep its colonies. The movie, and 3-sentence high-school history text summaries, makes it seem like the Japanese refused to stop the war or surrender In fact they were desperate to stop the war and were even willing to give Vietnam back to the French (no one considered that the Vietnamese might want to govern themselves). Their strongest armies were in China; they occupied most of the country. Their greatest weakness was that their navy was all but destroyed, so they had no easy way to use their troops in China to defend against a planned U.S. invasion of Japan (it had been planned since before the war; that is why so many battle ships were at Pearl Harbor). The Emperor was more than willing to dump the militarists and restore democracy to Japan once it became clear the war could not be won.
But instead of negotiating a surrender, the U.S. government blasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. And then, to cap it, the U.S. did agree to allow to Emperor to remain titular head of government.
The U.S. Army wanted to test their new toy in a real-life situation and pressured Harry Truman into making what was the only obviously unethical decision in his life. Nevertheless, he made it, and all the other good he did can not balance the gravity of this war crime.
For a movie, squeezing in one more thing would probably not be a good idea. And I have no suggestions for deleting scenes. But it would have been nice if there had been time to show Truman asking Congress to vote for legislation that would have created a national, comprehensive health insurance program. [See 62 Year Delay for National Health Insurance]
Diana Scanwid played Bess Truman. Richard Dysart played Henry L. Stimson; Colm Feore played Charlie Ross; James Gammon played Sam Rayburn; Harris Yulin played George Marshall; and Tony Goldwyn played Clark Clifford.
Frank Pierson directed with Paul Elliott as Director of Photography. Tom Rickman wrote the screenplay based on the book Truman by David McCullough. Doro Bachrach was the producer and Lisa Fruchtman the editor.
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