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'The Bomb' and 'Uranium' review: Two PBS documentaries, one insufficient, one engaging

Image of an Atomic Test, from PBS's "The

Image of an Atomic Test, from PBS's "The Bomb." Credit: TNS / Ken Hackman

THE DOCUMENTARIES "The Bomb" and "Uranium: Twisting the Dragon's Tail"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 8 and 10 on WNET/13 (part two of "Uranium" airs Wednesday night at 10)

WHAT THEY'RE ABOUT "The Bomb" is an overview of the development -- and deployment -- of the atomic bomb, a well as the development of the thermonuclear bomb, and subsequent arms race. Included are interviews with Richard Rhodes (author of Pulitzer-winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"), Robert Norris (historian and biographer of Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project) and Lilli Hornig (chemist with the Manhattan Project). "Uranium," which charts the discovery and exploitation of uranium, is hosted by Derek Muller, an Australian-born (raised in Canada) physicist and host of Veritasium, a popular Australian-based YouTube channel. Both shows are pegged to the first atomic-bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, which took place July 16, 1945.

MY SAY Best of luck to any program attempting to cram a history as complicated, difficult, fraught and nuanced as a history of the bomb into a two-hour box. Luck, unfortunately, eludes this well-meaning presentation. "The Bomb" is a headlong-rush past the milestones and guideposts of this history, rarely pausing to explore their deeper consequences or meaning, while offering just a nod now and then to enduring controversies, or acknowledging -- though barely exploring -- the huge personalities that shaped this history, such as Robert Oppenheimer. The actual science is almost completely ignored.

"The Bomb" -- which does include some good archival material -- would be an excellent film for eighth-graders. History buffs will be unsatisfied. As usual, the books are the better place to go, particularly Rhodes' magnificent "Making" and sequel, "Dark Sun."

Then, there's "Uranium," which is a terrific -- and slightly loopy -- Muller tour of a single element. He's straight out of the school of Carl Sagan hosting -- smart, lively, demonstrative, quirky.

Very quirky: Witness his immersion in a radium bath. ("Let's see how this feels . . . comfy!") The story is familiar here as well, but Muller's presentation -- which takes him around the world, from Europe to Australia -- brings it fully alive.

GRADES "Bomb": C+; "Uranium": B+

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