A combination of dramatisation, historical footage, and eyewitness interviews, the film alternates between documentary footage and the dramatic recreations. Both the dramatisations and most of the original footage are presented as sepia-toned images, serving to blur the distinction between them. The languages are English and Japanese, with subtitles, and the actors are largely Canadian and Japanese.
The film opens in April 1945 with the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the succession of Harry Truman to the presidency. In Europe, the Germans are close to surrender, but in the Pacific the bloody battle for Okinawa is still underway and an invasion of the Japanese home islands is not foreseen until the autumn. American battle casualties have almost reached 900,000, with Japanese casualties at 1.1 million, and some 8 million Asian civilians have died in the war that began with Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
The new president knows nothing about the nuclear weapons being developed at Los Alamos, and he must soon decide on whether to use them and how. The US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, has doubts even about the wisdom of the American fire-bombing raids on Japan.
"One of these Gadgets [bombs]", U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes says, "could end the war in one blow." When nuclear physicist Leo Szilard delivers a petition signed by 73 scientists urging the president not to deploy the bomb, Byrnes tells him: "You do not spend two billion dollars and then show them [American voters] nothing." The film suggests that Byrnes never mentioned Szilard's visit to the president. Also urging deployment is Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project. "We've come this far", Groves says; "there's no going back." A demonstration is ruled out because "it might be a dud."
In Japan, the strong man is Gen. Anami Korechika, the minister of war, who argues that if the homeland is defended at the cost of every Japanese, the Americans will tire of war and sue for peace. "Surrender is out of the question", he says. The voice of reason is the new civilian prime minister, Suzuki Kantaro, who says in private, "We must end this damned war."
A committee appointed by Truman recommends unanimously that he use the bomb on "war plants surrounded by worker housing", without warning. A portly Gen. George Marshall lays out plans for the invasion of Kyūshū in November and Honshū in March 1946, involving 767,000 Allied troops and casualties that may reach 250,000. In Tokyo, Adm. Yonai Mitsumasa assures the cabinet that 25 percent of the invaders will be destroyed by kamikaze attack at sea, 25 percent will die on the beach, and the rest will fall in battle. Children as young as nine are being taught to fight the invaders with bamboo spears. "This is madness", says foreign minister Togo Shigenori, an outspoken peace advocate. The civilians in the cabinet decide to secretly ask for Russian mediation.
On July 16, the Trinity test shows that a plutonium bomb is feasible and that a nuclear blast is even more powerful than scientists predicted. The uranium bomb Little Boy leaves Los Alamos for Tinian island in the Pacific. At the Potsdam conference near Berlin, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin promises to join the war against Japan. British prime minister Winston Churchill urges Truman to use the bomb so as to constrain Russian expansion, an argument seconded by Truman's military advisers, who warn that unless Japan surrenders quickly it will have a Russian zone of occupation and the attendant problems.
Truman decides to drop the bomb, reporting afterward that he then "went to bed and slept like a baby." The Allied leaders deliver an ultimatum to Japan "to give them one last chance." In Tokyo, prime minister Suzuki tries to keep the army in line by declaring in a press conference that he will "mokusatsu" the ultimatum—a term that the Americans translate as "treat with silent contempt."
In deference to Henry Stimson's qualms, Truman strikes Kyoto off the target list, leaving Hiroshima as the primary target, and Enola Gay makes a successful drop on the morning of August 6, 1945. Recalls an airman afterward: "I'll tell you what I thought: this is the end of the war." The Japanese war cabinet is told that the blast killed or injured 130,000 people, but the hardliners argue that the U.S. can't have many more such bombs, that world opinion will prevent a repetition, and that Japan can still fight to an honorable peace. At worst, Gen. Anami declares, Japan will be "destroyed like a beautiful flower."
On August 9, the Soviet Union invades Manchuria; next day, the Fat Man plutonium bomb devastates Nagasaki. Hirohito finally intervenes, telling the cabinet that Japan "must endure the unendurable" and surrender. Young army officers urge Gen. Anami to join them in a military coup, but the army minister tells them: "The emperor has spoken; we must obey him." On August 15, the emperor's surrender message is broadcast to Japan, and Anami commits ritual suicide.Kenneth Welsh - President Harry S. Truman
J. Winston Carroll (as J.W. Carroll) - Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone
Ken Jenkins - Secretary of State James F. Byrnes
Wesley Addy - Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson
Colin Fox - Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal
Tom Rack - Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard
Bernard Behrens - Asst. Secretary of War John J. McCloy
George R. Robertson - Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy
James Bradford - Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King
Leon Pownall - General of the Army George Marshall
Kurt Reis - General Thomas T. Handy
Richard Masur - Major General Leslie R. Groves
Cedric Smith - Major General Curtis LeMay
Vlasta Vrána - Brigadier General Tom Farrell
David Gow - Colonel Paul Tibbets
Robert Morelli - Colonel William H. Blanchard
Gary Reineke - Captain William 'Deke' Parsons, USN
Tim Post - Major Thomas Ferebee
Mark Camacho - Major Charles Sweeney
Martin Neufeld Second Lieutenant Morris R. Jeppson
Jeffrey DeMunn - Professor J. Robert Oppenheimer
Saul Rubinek - Professor Leo Szilard
Domenico Fiore (as Dom Fiore) - Professor Harold Urey
Erwin Potitt - Professor Hoffmann
Philip Pretten (as Phillip Pretten) - Charles E. Bohlen
Sheena Larkin - Bess Truman
Timothy West (as Tim West) - Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Serge Christianssens (as Serge Christiaenssens) - Marshal Joseph Stalin
Naohiko Umewaka - Emperor Hirohito
Kazuo Katô - Prince Fumimaro Konoe
Tatsuo Matsumura - Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki
Hisashi Igawa - Foreign Minister Shigenori Tōgō
Ken Maeda - Minister of War Korechika Anami
Yuzo Hayakawa - Minister of the Navy Koshirō Oikawa
Zenichi Inagawa - Baron Hiranuma Kiichirō
Sakae Koike - Admiral Teijirō Toyoda
Though not widely reviewed, Hiroshima was praised online: "Fascinating, and surprisingly ambivalent, docudrama rehashes familiar terrain with remarkable freshness precisely because of the emphasis on the politicians (rather than on the scientists), the bi-national approach, and an odd mixing of dramatization, newsreel footage, and even a few talking head interviews with people who were there."
The film won the 1996 Humanitas Prize in the PBS/Cable category, and received an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Miniseries" the same year, as well as three Canadian Gemini Awards, including "Best Actor in a Dramatic Program" for Kenneth Welsh's portrayal of President Truman.