40 I CHRONICLESnSCREENnGround Zero, 1950nby Kate DaltonnDesert Bloom; written and directednby Eugene Corr; produced by MichaelnHousman; Columbia Pictures.nIn December 1950, at the Nelhs AirnForce Base outside of Las Vegas, thenAtomic Energy Commission set off thenfirst atomic bomb since Nagasaki. Thenyear before, the Soviets had conductedntheir first atomic test—an unpleasantnsurprise to most Americans — andnMao had taken over China. Trumannannounced in January of ’50 that henwas directing the AEC to start work onnthe vastly more destructive hydrogennbomb. In February Senator JosephnMcCarthy announced that he had innhis possession a list of 205 Communistsnwho were working in the StatenDepartment. In May Alger Hiss wasnconvicted of perjury, and in June thenNorth Koreans, supported by thenUSSR, advanced south of the 38thnparallel and invaded South Korea.nThe United Nations (then just fivenyears old) sent troops, but by DecembernMacArthur’s armies were innretreat.nDesert Bloom is set in that hot December.nKorea, McCarthy, the NellisnAir Force Base are all part of the outernstorm, but director Eugene Corr isnmore interested in the inner weather ofna single family, some of those ostensiblynsimple folk—no one here but usnchickens—who are as complicated asnthey come.nAmid all the details that go intonmaking a movie, creating characters isnnot usually a priority. Producers willnpour their energies into developing an”look” or a “star,” as part of their effortnto make a “smash,” but that’s as far asnthe effort goes. Usually when Hollywoodntakes up a bit of history, at bestnifs a pageant and at worst a disaster.nWhen was the last time anyone madena film about the Civil War or thenVITAL SIGNSnCuban Missile Crisis because he wasninterested in plumbing the depths ofnthe characters of Lincoln or JFK or,nfor that matter, of anyone else of thentime? Nobody gives a hoot about anpersonality. People want to make filmsnabout whole eras because they like thenrush of the grand historical sweep.nThey want the wind in their characters’nhair, spray on their faces, and thenNew World rising out of the sea,nshining like Botticelli’s Venus. It’s thenCecil B. De Mille syndrome—10nyears in the making! On four continents!nWith a cast of thousands! And,nnaturally, the characterization of Lincolnnor Columbus or Cleopatra suffersnaccordingly.nBut, to his great credit, Corr hasnabandoned the forest for the trees: fornRose, 13; Lily, her mother; Starr, hernfavorite aunt; and Jack, her stepfather.nThe story line is built around Rose,nand it’s principally her memories ofnthe time and her point of view thatnwe’re allowed to share — first boyfriend,nfirst glasses, victory at thencounty spelling bee. The movie,nnevertheless, is Jon Voight’s.nVoight plays Jack, who came homenfrom the Second World War badlynscarred, and his limp is only part of it.nBarricading himself with his clippings,nmedals, old war stories, and shortwavencan’t help him stop the nightmares ornkeep him from drinking. Jack is bothnthe hero and villain of the piece. He isnsometimes kind, sometimes drunk andnbumbling, sometimes drunk andncruel, pitiful at certain times, despicablenat others. He has to correct himself,n”nigger” to “Negro,” when talkingnabout Duke Ellington, whosenmusic he reveres. And he has a paranoianabout Jews, that somehow coexistsnwith true admiration and evennsome identification with Einstein—n”They thought Einstein was retarded,”nhe says over one strained breakfast,nwhere he is fighting to keep his children’snaffection, his wife’s esteem, andnhis own self-respect, “but he was thenopposite of retarded. He was a genius!”nnnHis relations with his stepdaughternRose show the most strain, and hentakes a lot of his frustration out on her.nAnd yet it’s Jack, not Lily, who showsnup at Rose’s moment of triumph at thenspelling bee (absolutely the funniestnbee in movie history), and it’s Jack, notnLily, who notices Rose is missing thennight she runs away. He’s a wonderfulncharacter, completely contradictorynand completely realistic, with his virtuesnall inextricably mixed-up with hisnfaults, in one great Gordian knot of anpersonality.nOf all the characters, only Lilyn(played by JoBeth Williams) rings occasionallynuntrue, sometimes borderingnon parody. Nothing comes out ofnher mouth that isn’t one of the clichesnused by people who have long sincenstopped thinking. For Lily there isnsome excuse: not thinking too hard isnher way of coping, and seeing things asnshe wants to see them is an improvementnon reality, given that her firstnhusband ran out and left her withnthree girls to raise, and her secondnspouse is still intermittentiy fightingnwith the 3rd Army. When times arentough there’s a lot of comfort in cliches,nand Lily takes refuge there timenand again. They serve all her purposesn—to soothe, to rebuke, to praise.n”Rise and shine, it’s A-bomb time,”nshe calls to her sleeping children thenmorning of the test—that’s Lily, truento the end. And as with that line, therenis no funny moment in Desert Bloomnthat doesn’t have something serious ornsad to it; nothing frightening that isn’tnalso sometimes ridiculous; no one utterlyndear who isn’t sometimes extremelynunkind. It’s a beautifully madenmovie, and everything and everyonenin it is handled with a light and truentouch. That includes the frame storyn—for the whole movie leads up to thenmorning of the test, and in these daysnof such strident films as The ChinanSyndrome and The Day After, peoplednwith characters that are only foils for anmessage that’s sledgehammered home,nCorr’s restraint is astonishing. It’s clearn