Oppenheimer Has a Long History On Screen, Including the Time the Nuclear Physicist Played Himself
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Oppenheimer Has a Long History On Screen, Including the Time the Nuclear Physicist Played Himself

Jan 01, 2024

By Chris Klimek

Host, "There's More to That"

In the debut episode of the new Smithsonian magazine podcast, “There’s More to That,” writer Andy Kifer talks about the history of Hollywood’s retelling of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life. But first, nuclear physicist Minesh Bacrania discusses what it was like to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and how he captured exclusive photos of the rooms where Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists built the atomic bomb. A transcript of the episode is below.

Chris Klimek, host: Minesh Bacrania is a former nuclear physicist. In grad school, he studied nuclear fusion reactions in the sun. Now, he works as a photographer … and most of his science talk happens around his kitchen table.

Minesh Bacrania, Smithsonian magazine photographer: You know, my son asked me today where helium comes from. We're sitting eating breakfast, and he's in eighth grade.

Klimek: Minesh didn't just work any old place. He spent five years working in the national lab at Los Alamos: the place where the atomic bomb was invented through the Manhattan Project. This was a project that started in New York City but later moved to labs in Tennessee, Washington State, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Bacrania: Part of the reason I was motivated to go to Los Alamos is because the history is just so fascinating. You know, from a nuclear physics point of view, it's kind of an amazing thing. It's also kind of horrific from a social point of view.

Klimek: Minesh is now one of the only people who's been allowed to visit some of these sites where the Manhattan Project took place. He got special permission to photograph some of these restricted locations for Smithsonian magazine. These are places he didn't even get to see when he worked at Los Alamos. Places like where they melted the explosives to make the bombs.

Bacrania: I don't know who had the idea, but they said, let's call up one of these industrial candy-making companies and get some, essentially, double boiler kettles. I think somebody said it was peppermint candy is what they were used for.

They had this array of candy kettles where they would melt high explosives and pour 'em in the mold and then cool them down over the course of like, you know, a day very, very slowly.

You know, it's like you're making a cake almost, I guess you're making candy.

Klimek: J. Robert Oppenheimer is the man responsible for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He’s largely considered the father of the atomic bomb. A new movie about him starring Cillian Murphy just hit theaters. The film is directed by Christopher Nolan, and the star-studded cast also includes Matt Damon, who plays his boss, General Leslie Groves.

Clip from Oppenheimer:

Damon (as Groves): Are we saying there's a chance that when we push that button, we destroy the world?Murphy (as Oppenheimer): Chances are near zero.Damon: Near zero?Murphy: What do you want from theory alone?Damon: Zero would be nice.

Klimek: From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, welcome to “There's More to That,” a podcast where journalists around the world explore the biggest questions of right now. Today, we're taking a look at the new Oppenheimer film with one of our contributors. How accurate is this film, and how have past depictions of the Manhattan Project changed our understanding of history?

I'm Chris Klimek. Let's get into it.

Klimek: Oppenheimer, the big new Christopher Nolan movie, is not the first time J. Robert Oppenheimer has been depicted on film. In fact, Oppenheimer played himself in a short film called “Atomic Power” just one year after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Clip from “Atomic Power”:

In the control shack was Dr. J. Oppenheimer, who assisted by Dr. I. Rabi and others had directed the making of the bomb itself.

Oppenheimer: Rab, this time the stakes are really high.

Klimek: Since then, many people have tried to tell Robert Oppenheimer’s story. Some of these depictions have taken more artistic license than others. Remember Sam Waterston from “Law and Order”? He played Oppenheimer in a 1980 TV mini-series.

Clip from “Oppenheimer” (TV mini-series):

I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

Klimek: In 2005, co-authors Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin published a definitive biography of Oppenheimer called American Prometheus. Kai Bird consulted on the new Christopher Nolan film, and the book served as a source text. So what are the challenges of dramatizing a life as complex as Oppenheimer's in an honest way?

Andy Kifer says the answer is somewhat complicated. He’s a writer and editor who interviewed Bird for Smithsonian magazine. We spoke with Andy just before the new movie came out. He also told us about some of the more and less successful portrayals of Robert Oppenheimer over the years.

Andy Kifer, Smithsonian magazine contributor: Oppenheimer as a person is an almost unfairly good subject for a film or novel or play. He was hyper-literate. He was as good at reading Sanskrit and quoting John Donne as he was understanding the problems involved in building an atomic bomb. He was, in a way, performatively literate.

And I think as I also say in the piece, he had a kind of penchant for self-mythologizing himself, for telling his own story.

So Robert Oppenheimer was the father of the atomic bomb, who many credit with being the brain that managed to pull the entire Manhattan Project together.

At least on the technical side. But by the ’50s he had become a target of the McCarthy era, largely due to his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. And he had this fall from the sort of heights of power that he had descended to, in this security hearing where his security clearance was revoked in 1954.

And I think that what has drawn people to him has changed, depending on the era, I think especially during the Cold War. And in the ’60s, through the ’80s, people were really interested in the arc of him as this kind of almost Galileo-type figure. Sort of like man brought down by an inquisition, for, in effect, going against what the sort of government party line was, which was that we need more weapons and bigger weapons.

But the Nolan film seems much more interested, to me, in taking a much broader view of what Oppenheimer's life meant and also what sort of atomic weapons meant … what the dawn of that era meant.

Klimek: Right. And, I mean, this is something you get into in your story, is that it is more complicated than that, but you can see the attraction of a real-life figure like that … to someone who wants to write stories and make it dramatic.

Kifer: I have been also very interested in why so many versions of Oppenheimer's life and versions of the Manhattan Project have been kind of bad and kind of cheesy over the years. And I think one reason is the sheer scope and scale of both Oppenheimer's story and the Manhattan Project story, in general.

It's connected to so much of 20th-century American history. And I've wondered over the years whether one of the reasons we haven't seen a great version of this yet is because you really have to make some tough choices.

I've said a couple times that really this is a story that needs a 12-part Ken Burns mini-series to be told in full.

Klimek: Right. Ken Burns, who's the auteur of long-form documentary. And, you know, now we're in this moment where Christopher Nolan is one of a small handful of filmmakers, right, who could secure a budget. You know, that's what making a few Batman movies buys you, I guess.

Kifer: Right. Yep.

Klimek: But tell me about the earliest one that you wrote about. This 18-minute short where some of the principals played themselves.

Kifer: Yeah, that's a really funny little film to watch. I had seen clips of it in various documentaries, where you sort of see Oppenheimer supposedly in the last minute before the first test of a nuclear weapon goes off.

Clip from “Atomic Power”:

July 16th, 1945, at the Alamogordo Army Air Base in New Mexico. A small band of military and civilian technicians waited nervously.

Kifer: And him and a couple other scientists are sort of milling around looking nervous, and one of them turns to him and says:

Clip from “Atomic Power”:

It's going to work alright, Robert, and I'm sure we'll never be sorry for it.

Kifer: Which is almost certainly not something they thought at the time, and certainly not something that they thought a year later at the point where they were actually recording that little scene.

They sort of got these people in the room but didn't ask a whole lot of them. There is a really funny moment depicting the first time that a lab technician gets a little bit of plutonium.

Clip from “Atomic Power”

Here it is, General Groves: plutonium.

Kifer: And he like holds the beat like a little too long and kind of like looks to the side in a way that is like classic bad acting. It's just a really funny, stilted, production in “Atomic Power,” that short film. You can kind of see the history up for grabs in real time.


Klimek: In 1954, Oppenheimer’s legacy grew more complicated. He was grilled for his suspected ties to communism and even accused of being a Soviet spy. Keep in mind, this was the height of McCarthyism. Oppenheimer believed, with some justification, he was being railroaded. Less than a decade after being trusted to lead the most highly classified R&D program in American history, his security clearance was revoked. But when the transcripts from those hearings were released, it generated rich source material for writers and dramaturgs.

One such person was Heinar Kipphardt, a German playwright.

Kifer: It was actually part of this movement in Germany at the time of like documentary plays, pulling from genuine factual source material.

Yeah, this was the first time anyone had really tried to begin the mythologization process of Oppenheimer's life. And Kipphart basically took the transcripts verbatim, with some interstitial material, where a character will kind of turn to the audience and give a little soliloquy that was obviously imagined.

But he condenses the, you know, almost thousand pages of testimony from security hearings down to the size of a play. And this is the first time we sort of see that security hearing being used as a frame to tell Oppenheimer's story and also really the first time we see Oppenheimer rendered as this victim and as the symbol of American power, taking revenge on its own and sort of martyr to the idea that maybe the arms race could have been avoided. And Oppenheimer famously hated the play and told the Washington Post that the play had made his life into a tragedy when in fact the security hearing was, had been a farce.

And Kipphardt wrote back to Oppenheimer and gave a lot of his justifications and even made some changes to the play based on Oppenheimer's distaste for it. But I do think it's an interesting question, like we have projected tragedy and like Faustian overreach and all this stuff onto Oppenheimer's life, because it's such a compelling story and so narratively tight in a way. I sort of take Oppenheimer's point that, out of his whole life—which was a really complex, interesting life—it was sort of reduced to this one kind of ridiculous moment later in his life. And I imagine he felt that there had been a lot more to him.

Klimek: So, can we talk about how the politics of the time in which each of these fictionalized depictions were created influenced the product?

Kifer: Yeah, I mean I think beginning in the ’40s the politics really created these works of propaganda, but in 1980, there was a mini-series called “Oppenheimer” starring a very, very skinny Sam Waterston, who looks nothing like the person he looks like on “Law and Order.” This really from start to finish was a portrait of Oppenheimer: the communist sympathizer. Oppenheimer: the man targeted for his red beliefs.

Clip from “Oppenheimer” (TV mini-series):

Manning Redwood (as Groves): Are you a communist?Waterston (as Oppenheimer): No.Redwood: Have you ever been a communist?Waterston: No.Redwood: And why are half your damn friends communists?Waterston: Not quite half.

Kifer: Yeah, I think if people are interested in seeing a version of Oppenheimer's life before the Nolan film, this is the one to watch. I think it's kind of exceptional, but you're gonna hate it for like an hour because you're just gonna, you can't hear anything. You can't even really see people's faces, the, it’s sort of dimly lit. If you can kind of just imagine you're watching a play and strip out the production values in the middle, there's a lot of good stuff there.

Klimek: So in the movie, Oppenheimer is portrayed by Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor who is in many Christopher Nolan films and on “Peaky Blinders” and familiar to audiences. You mentioned Sam Waterston, who people know from “Law and Order,” probably … Uh, Dwight Schultz …

Kifer: Yes.

Klimek: Let's talk about the Dwight Schultz depiction of Oppenheimer for a moment.

Kifer: Yeah. So in 1989, there's this big-budget movie called Fat Man and Little Boy, with Paul Newman as Leslie Groves, uh, John Cusack, Laura Dern …

Chris: Heard of all these people, well established, even in 1989. Very fancy.

Kifer: Yeah, exactly. And then the supposedly scene-stealing role of Oppenheimer is given to this guy Dwight Schultz, who people will probably remember most as being on “The A-Team” and also as Lieutenant Reginald Barclay in “Star Trek” … who just does not meet Paul Newman's Leslie Groves in terms of charisma at all.

Clip from Fat Man and Little Boy:

Schultz (as Oppenheimer): Ordinary American people, they don't want to know what's going on here. The only thing that they want to know is that their sons are coming home alive, and I’m doing everything in my power to see that they do.

Kifer: This is a very bad movie. I wish it was better, but it's very bad. It's bad from a historical perspective, but it's also just bad from a dramatic perspective.

It just felt like a huge missed opportunity to me to tell this really interesting story, and, you know, General Leslie Groves was kind of a straight from central casting, gruff general, who in Fat Man and Little Boy totally steals the show because he's played by Paul Newman.

Clip from Fat Man and L Boy:

Newman (as Groves): Hey, Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, you ought to stop playing God, because you are not good at it and the position is taken.

Kifer: Dwight Schultz, I call him a cold fish.

He's just, there is a blankness to him and a kind of childlike naivete to his like quietude, where actually Oppenheimer, who spoke quietly, had so much intensity behind him and charisma and really led the Manhattan Project through force of personality.

You don't see any of that on display in Dwight Schultz. He found his best role as Lieutenant Reginald Barclay in “Star Trek,” I think.

Klimek: So, Kai Bird also mentioned to you that in the screenplay we see some episodes from Oppenheimer's early life that have not been dramatized before–long predating his involvement with the Manhattan Project. Tell us about those, please.

Kifer: I asked Kai Bird when I first interviewed him whether he knew that they were writing a great book as him and his co-author, Martin Sherwin, were writing American Prometheus. And he said, “I did.” He kept coming back to this one fascinating episode from Oppenheimer's early adulthood in which Oppenheimer laced his tutor’s apple with poison. And as Bird and Sherwin have said, it was somewhere between a harmless prank and attempted murder.

Bird loves that episode. And you can see why: It's the obvious symbolic resonance of poisoned apple in a story about forbidden knowledge.

Klimek: Of course, this is not helping our case when we try to say like, oh, well this guy is just a ready-made tragic figure.

Kifer: Oh yeah.

Klimek: There was more to it than that. It was more nuanced and, oh, and by the way, he may have tried to murder his tutor using an apple.

Kifer: In a story about someone who's prosecuted for forbidden knowledge, we've got a poisoned apple.

Klimek: Thank you so much, Andy. This has been a fascinating talk.

Kifer: Thanks for having me. This is really fun.

Klimek: To read Andy Kifer’s story and to see Minesh Bacrania’s incredible photographs of Los Alamos, go to Smithsonianmag.com.

And, before we go … this episode's “dinner party fact” is also about Robert Oppenheimer! And how one of my colleagues at Smithsonian magazine discovered that young Oppenheimer was not exactly Mr. Popularity.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: Hello, I'm Jennie Rothenberg Gritz. I'm a senior editor at Smithsonian, and my dinner party fact is about J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was developed. And in the course of researching an article we recently published in the magazine, I came across a story about something that happened when he was 14 years old.

So apparently, he was at a summer camp in New York for Jewish boys, and he wrote home to his parents and told them that there were a lot of dirty jokes and general facts of life that were going around among the campers. And his parents wrote to the director of the camp and complained about this, and somehow as a result, the other boys ended up locking Oppenheimer in an ice house naked and painting his bottom green.

So did this incident have anything to do with the course of history? Possibly not, but it's a great dinner party fact for you to share.

“There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions.From the magazine, our team is Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly.From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Terence Bernardo and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales.Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thanks for listening.

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Chris Klimek is a writer and editorial project manager for Smithsonian.

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