I’ve been fascinated with the Manhattan Project since high school. I’m taking a break from my usual articles to give you my take on Oppenheimer, the movie.
Part of my fascination with the Manhattan Project is the science – in particular, the development of new science, the ability to adapt existing science where called for, and the merging of science with engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and so much more. Not only that, but all of this was accomplished in (by today’s standards) a remarkably short time while under tremendous pressure.
31 Nobel laureates worked on the Manhattan Project in one form or another, including luminaries such as Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Ernest Lawrence, and Hans Bethe. Although my father (a historian) begs to differ, I consider the American nuclear weapons project the greatest collection of intellect in human history (Dad suggests the Founding Fathers instead).
Key to this effort was the leadership – the person chosen to inspire and lead the scientists, to run interference between them and the Army, and to bring it all together into a working nuclear weapon. The director had to be a respected scientist, diplomat, and multi-tasker par excellence, with the ability to keep his eye on the ultimate goal and the flexibility to adjust plans on the fly. Oppenheimer was the man who got the job, and, in retrospect, it’s hard to see anyone else succeeding.
Brains alone could not do the job – Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg was one of the greatest physicists of that age, and he was unable (or unwilling) to bring Germany’s nuclear ambitions to fruition. And if organizational skills and determination alone could have done the job, then the Army wouldn’t have needed the eggheads at all…and scientists led by generals certainly chafed under military discipline. It’s easy to argue that only Oppenheimer could have pulled this off in the available time. And that brings us to Oppenheimer, the movie.
Think of the movie as a braid narrative – one strand follows Oppenheimer’s scientific career and his role in leading the nuclear weapons project; another follows the Senate confirmation hearing of Oppenheimer’s nemesis, Lewis Strauss; the third strand follows Oppenheimer’s fall from grace as his security clearance is revoked nearly a decade after his triumph. As an aside, I have to admit that it took me a while to figure this out, and it was a bit disconcerting until I did – having said that, I still enjoyed (and followed) the movie as a whole.
I can’t comment on the science or engineering aspects of the movie, much as I’d like to do so because there was hardly any to speak of. As a card-carrying geek, this was disappointing – but it was my only disappointment and hardly detracts from the movie. Plus, given Stephen Hawking’s admonition that every equation reduces book sales by a factor of two, the absence of “science” likely helped attendance at the theater.
How the characters behaved, acted, and interacted is much as I’ve read – especially Oppenheimer, Teller, Grove (the Army general responsible for the overall Manhattan Project), and Strauss. I was especially impressed with the movie’s portrayal of the many aspects of Oppenheimer’s personality – his philosophical side, his curiosity about Communism, his scientific imagination, his womanizing, his reservations about nuclear (and, later, thermonuclear) weapons, and so much more. But more – it also captured how some of these traits helped him perform his scientific role while others almost guaranteed his later downfall. It’s a complex movie, as befits a complex man leading the most complex project that any nation (and any person) had attempted at that time.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Manhattan Project and some of the folks involved in it, I can recommend any (or all) of these:
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Vintage Books, 2005.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, Thomas Powers. Da Capo Press, 2000
Now it Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie R. Groves. Da Capo Press, 1983
Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton. W.W. Norton & Company. 1986
The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb. Robert Serber. University of California Press, 1992