With the biopic “Oppenheimer,” due July 21, the writer-director Christopher Nolan, known for brain-twisting films like “Interstellar” and “Inception,” addresses an old childhood dread — one based not on science fiction but on real science, namely the threat of thermonuclear war and human annihilation.
The film follows the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the cerebral, charismatic and tortured physicist (played by Cillian Murphy, the star of “Peaky Blinders”) who was tapped to lead the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., to build the atomic bomb during World War II.
The subsequent bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war against Japan in 1945 (Germany had already surrendered) and Oppenheimer was hailed as a hero. But only a few years later, in 1954, his security clearance was revoked in an infamous hearing of advisers to the Atomic Energy Commission that declared him a security threat based on leftist ties at the University of California, Berkeley — among other things, a girlfriend and his brother, Frank, were both Communist Party members — and his opposition to building an even bigger bomb, the “Super” or hydrogen bomb espoused by his colleague Edward Teller.
That was the end of Oppenheimer's career in government circles and of his ability to influence the future of atomic energy in the Cold War. As a result he became a martyr to the scientific community. Many physicists, including Albert Einstein, were disappointed that the United States had dropped the bomb without warning on an enemy that was already defeated, while Oppenheimer hoped that the advent of the bomb would make war unthinkable and lead to international controls on such weapons. Once the Russians had the bomb, however, that dream had no chance with hard-liners like the president at the time, Harry S. Truman, who called Oppenheimer a “crybaby.”
The film’s huge cast includes Matt Damon as the crusty Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, who was in overall charge of the project, and Robert Downey Jr. as Adm. Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss led the postwar charge against Oppenheimer, and his nomination for secretary of Commerce under President Dwight D. Eisenhower was killed by the Senate partly because of his role in Oppenheimer’s downfall.
The movie, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is the most recent in a stream of books, features and documentaries that have chronicled the tragic birth of atomic weapons, including another Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes; a seven-part BBC series, “Oppenheimer”; “Fat Man and Little Boy,” starring Paul Newman as Groves; another documentary, “The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer”; and even a John Adams opera, “Doctor Atomic.” (The director is well aware that his film faces another rival, “Barbie,” opening on the same day, and offered a “no comment” on the choice facing filmgoers.)
Over tea at his office in a quiet residential neighborhood in Los Angeles, Nolan discussed why he thought Oppenheimer was the most important person who ever lived, choosing between myths and the record, Cillian Murphy’s haircut and how he came to make this movie. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
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