Christopher Nolan on J. Robert Oppenheimer, "the most important person who ever lived"
The world's first atomic explosion was conducted on July 16, 1945, during the final weeks of World War II, in the high desert of New Mexico.
At Ground Zero, the sand melted in the fireball, and rained back down to the ground, where it re-solidified in the form of a mineral – what we now call trinitite, after the name of the site: Trinity.
Recalling the moment 20 years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man history calls "the father of the atomic bomb," said it brought to mind a line of Hindu scripture: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
Christopher Nolan, the director behind such films as "Dunkirk," "Inception," "Interstellar," and the "Dark Knight" trilogy, has spent the last three years living in Oppenheimer's world, writing and directing the movie "Oppenheimer" (opening this week). "I view Oppenheimer as the most important person who ever lived," he told Martin. "Oppenheimer's story is one of the biggest stories imaginable."
"By unleashing atomic power, he gave us the power to destroy ourselves that we never had before, and that changes the human equation," said Nolan.
To watch a trailer for "Oppenheimer" click on the video player below:
Kai Bird is co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer, "American Prometheus," on which the film is based. "It's complicated to take on a historic icon like Robert Oppenheimer and deal with the history faithfully and yet turn it into a cinematic experience," said Bird.
Martin asked, "Did you have qualms about what Hollywood would do to all your research?"
"Of course I did, yes!" Bird laughed.
Martin said to Nolan, "For high stakes human drama, it's hard to improve on the historical facts."
Nolan replied, "I know of no other story as dramatic as Oppenheimer and his involvement in the Manhattan Project" – the code name for the race to build the bomb.
Oppenheimer (played in the film by Cillian Murphy) was teaching graduate physics when he was recruited by a gruff Army general, Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon). Bird said, "Oppie was then, you know, 38 years old, never managed anything more than his graduate students, and yet Groves selected him."
"What did other people think of Groves' choice?" Martin asked.
"They thought it was outlandish."
Besides his lack of experience, Oppenheimer had communist connections. "It took him a long time to get a security clearance," said Bird. "His own wife, Kitty, had been a member of the party for a long time."
And what did Groves think of that? "He thought Oppie was the one to lead this project, and it was a brilliant choice," said Bird. "He could see in Oppie the smarts and the charisma to bring all these scientists together in this secret city and make it happen."
At Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was designed and built, it was initially believed that it would only take about 130 people to get the job done. "That number grew to 1,700," said Alan Carr, the historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Thrown together in what was then the nowhereville of Los Alamos, the average age of the scientists was 29.
Martin asked, "Boys and girls together – were there romances?"
"There were," Carr replied, "and that became somewhat of a security problem here, because before the project essentially no one was born in this area. All of a sudden, you've got 8, 10, 12 children being born every month. How do you hide that?"
After shooting scenes in Oppenheimer's New Mexico home, Nolan donated the furnishings he had brought in to the Los Alamos Historical Society, but without the bugs placed by security officers suspicious of Oppenheimer's politics, who had him under surveillance, even in his own house.
"He was being watched for much of his employment in different ways," said Carr. "For instance, his phone was tapped at various times. And when he would talk to Kitty, they would occasionally make reference to the fact that they were probably being listened in on."
By the time Oppenheimer was ready to test what he called "the gadget," Germany had already surrendered, but Japan fought on. Carr said, "This was literally life-and-death because of every day that was going on in the war, thousands and thousands of more people were being killed."
The "gadget" was hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower, and the countdown began.
Oppenheimer was in a bunker 10,000 yards from Ground Zero where, before the test, he supposedly said, "Lord, these affairs are difficult on the heart."
"There is a tremendous burst of light," said Carr. "He would have been watching it unfold in silence for dozens and dozens of seconds before the shock wave arrived. Imagine someone firing a pistol very close to you and somebody putting a leaf blower on high right in your face."
Three weeks after the test, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Then, a second one on Nagasaki.
The war was over, and Oppenheimer was the most famous scientist in the world.
But that is only half the story
Bird said, "He shortly afterwards plunged into a deep depression, I think having read some of the news accounts of what had happened actually on the ground at Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Oppenheimer had built the weapon that won the war, but he also had created a monster, which he warned would one day cause the world to curse the names Los Alamos and Hiroshima. In 1947 he said, "If there is another world war, this civilization may go under."
"The national security establishment is appalled that the father of the atomic bomb is coming out in public giving speeches against these weapons," said Bird.
Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (played in the film by Robert Downey Jr.), was bent on building more and bigger bombs than the Russians – and Oppenheimer was in his way. "Strauss managed to draw up an indictment that made it appear that Oppie's advice was politically motivated, that maybe he was a subversive, that maybe he was a secret communist, that maybe he was a spy," said Bird.
Meeting behind closed doors, an Atomic Energy Commission security panel heard evidence – some of it gathered from illegal wiretaps – of Oppenheimer's communist connections. The judges voted against him. Bird said, "It's a terrible tragedy, because here's America's foremost scientist, a great public intellectual, put on trial and stripped of his security clearance and then humiliated."
He retreated into academic exile at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, home of Albert Einstein, who had tried to talk Oppenheimer out of fighting a battle he couldn't win. Bird recalled: "Oppenheimer walks away from Einstein, and Albert Einstein turns to his secretary and says, 'There goes a nar,' the Yiddish for 'fool.'"
It would take decades for the humiliation to be rectified. In December 2022, the Department of Energy formally vacated the entire clearance hearing. "The message there is that this shouldn't have happened," said Carr.
By then, Oppenheimer had long since passed away. So he remains, as the title of his biography says, the American Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and was tortured ever after.
But it's not a myth.
Nolan said, "Oppenheimer was at the center of a set of events that changed the world forever. Like it or not, we still live in his world, and we always will."
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Joseph Frandino.
David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.