Wednesday, 27 March 2019

B-52 (2001)

This sober, non-polemical documentary dispassionately relates the story of America's B-52 bomber, tracing the history of the aircraft from its inception in the Cold War days of 1947 until now. Filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky needs nothing more than the cold facts surrounding this awesome weapon to get across a message about the importance of peace. Quietly impressive film might prove too demanding for theatrical playing time, but deserves TV slots the world over. Version caught had an intermittent German narration by the director and some Vietnamese dialogue.

With a wingspan of 185 feet, a weight of 450,000 pounds, a maximum speed of 638 mph, a range of 8,388 miles without re-fueling (but capable of mid-air re-fueling) and a crew of only six, the B-52 is indeed a juggernaut. Designed as a high-altitude carrier of nuclear bombs, though also perfectly capable of carrying non-nuclear devices (as Vietnam proved), the plane was designed to withstand the radiation of its own attacks.

In fact, a B-52 has never dropped a nuclear bomb. Archive material from the 1950s shows the early models of the plane, which became the center of Strategic Air Command policy, with its famous motto, "Peace Is Our Profession."

Scenes of the giant bombers re-fueling in flight inevitably recall Stanley Kubrick's masterful black comedy, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964). One retired vet describes flying a mission in the early '60s that he feared might end in an attack on the Soviet Union. But, as Kubrick demonstrated, the crews generally seem distanced from what might result from the use of the deadly weapons they carry.

In the present, pilots and other crew members escort Bitomsky and his camera around a B-52, explaining (up to a point) how it all works. Considerable footage is devoted to the role the B-52 played in Vietnam, with eyewitnesses talking about what it was like to be on the ground and in the firing line, while U.S. vets relate their impressions. Footage of cluster bombs raining down on the landscape, and contemporary footage of the pock-marked terrain, tell their own story. Bitomsky also refers to B-52 accidents, notably the events of Jan. 17, 1966, near Palomares, Spain, when a B-52 collided with the aircraft that was re-fueling it in mid-air. Four nuclear weapons fell from the wreckage, and the surface soil of a village had to be removed and transported to the U.S. Two years later, near Thule in Greenland, another B-52 crashed, and the nuclear payload of four H-bombs disappeared under the ice.

The B-52s are now obsolete, and, in scenes reminiscent of "The Best Years of Our Lives," the carcasses of dismembered planes, four stories high, sit incongruously on an Arizona air base. The overall effect of spending two hours with this material is rather devastating. So much intelligence, effort and money went into producing these weapons of destruction which, there's no doubt, were successful as a Cold War deterrent, but at what cost? "B-52," despite its length, sustains its interest in a fascinating subject.

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