At this point in the media landscape, there’s practically a documentary about every conceivable topic. Sometimes, though, these documentaries don’t have enough material to warrant a feature film. The latest example of such a documentary is The Mighty Atom, the film from director Steve Greenstein, the grandson of Joseph Greenstein, the strongman known as the Mighty Atom and the subject of the film. All the good intentions can’t turn The Mighty Atom into a compelling work for a number of reasons, including its scatterbrained construction and the limited access to filmed materials of its subject.
Born in Poland and diagnosed with tuberculosis at a young age, Joseph Greenstein wasn’t expected to live long, but he beat the odds and eventually immigrated to the United States. In a chance meeting, Joseph Greenstein was able to meet a circus strongman and soon left for a life on the road in the circus. This five-foot-four tall man took the name The Mighty Atom and impressed audiences by being able to achieve astounding feats of strength with his diminutive stature, and his Jewish heritage made him an unlikely hero. And yet for his fascinating characteristics there’s just not enough captivating information to sustain even a 75-minute documentary.
One way that Greenstein pads his film is with various interviews with subjects, including modern day strongmen and historians to help provide context to the eras being discussed. The film will pretty much abandon the biographical details Greenstein’s life in order to demonstrate strongmen feats of strength such as the bending of iron bars. They’re moments that are incredibly unfocused but only seem to be included in the movie because there’s such lacking footage of the film’s eponymous subject. There are interviews with Greenstein’s son and he provides little amusing anecdotes but never at any point does the information conveyed warrant a feature documentary.
Steve Greenstein seems intently focused on building the mythology of his grandfather, which is understandable but does impede the film from being effective in a number of instances. The talking heads praise Joseph Greenstein’s health regimen and the various supplements he sold. In a lot of regards, these aspects to the story make it seem like The Mighty Atom was ahead of the curve on selling dietary fads of questionable effectiveness. One particular moment in the film that seemed rather galling is when it posits that Joseph Greenstein may have been the real life inspiration for Superman, basing this theory on the fact that Superman bends steel bars and his creators were Jewish. A claim as outlandish as that requires more evidence than provided.
The Mighty Atom is an ineffective documentary made with the best of intentions. Its attempt to create broader connections to the culture fall flat. Joseph Greenstein is a fascinating character but the film fails to do the heavy lifting of its subject. Simply, most of the fascinating tidbits within The Mighty Atom could be effectively conveyed in a modest magazine article.