On Friday, the largest-scale exploration of the American academic vocation will hit theaters. With a rumored marketing budget of $100 million, few of us likely avoided the campaign NBCUniversal unleashed in recent weeks for Christopher Nolan’s next film, Oppenheimer. Viewers of Wimbledon and Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, for example, were repeatedly introduced to snippets of the 180-minute film.
One of those snippets, however, clearly communicates the weight of the story Nolan seeks to tell in that Albert Einstein is not played by a lead but by a supporting actor in Tom Conti. The efforts Oppenheimer and his colleagues pursued in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico were dependent upon Einstein’s explorations into the world of quantum mechanics. Einstein, however, is not the primary focus of this story. In contrast, that focus falls to a scientist a quarter-century Einstein’s junior.1
A myriad of trailers for Oppenheimer are now circulating, but none are more significant than the first trailer which debuted on Monday, December 19, 2022. News of Nolan’s project had circulated widely, and anticipation was already beginning to mount. While a variety of possible viewers of the movie were eager to catch a glimpse of the film to come, its significance escalated with a press release offered by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm three days earlier, December 16, 2022. Sixty-eight-years after being stripped of his security clearance as a suspected Communist, Granholm acknowledged “evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.”2 As a result, Granholm went on to offer “the Department of Energy has vacated the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1954 decision In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”3
Confirmation of the efforts Oppenheimer and his colleagues pursued in the mountains above Santa Fe occurred 225 miles to the south when they detonated the first atomic bomb in the early morning hours of July 16, 1945. When witnessing the mushroom cloud that rose from New Mexico’s desert floor, Oppenheimer recalled the words from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He also considered the words John Donne penned in Holy Sonnet 14, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” To this day, the site bears the name Trinity.
On August 6, and August 9, 1945, comparable mushroom clouds rose above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, respectively, shrouding the bodies of the estimated 200,000 individuals who lost their lives. When speaking with President Harry Truman a year later, Oppenheimer acknowledged his belief that he had “blood on his hands.” Unable to wash away that stain, Oppenheimer never returned to the bucolic days he spent early in his career at Caltech and UC-Berkeley teaching and studying physics. In contrast, the balance of his life’s work became advocating how this newfound form of energy could be put to peaceful purposes and how the further use of such weapons could prove avoidable.
Perhaps few directors could capture the drama unleased on those days in the 1940s in the ways Christopher Nolan can. At fifty-two, Nolan is widely recognized amongst the twenty-first century’s greatest directors. Part of that recognition stems from the range Nolan exhibits in film projects—projects that include a trilogy of Batman films; genre-defying experiments such as Memento, Insomnia, and Inception; and epic tales of history such as Dunkirk. Part of that recognition also stems from the critically acclaimed nature of the films he produces regardless of where they may fall on such a spectrum.
Space unfortunately does not allow for a full exploration of the mix of academic and popular titles that explore the critically acclaimed nature of Nolan’s work. Such books began surfacing in the 2010s with Todd McGowan’s The Fictional Christopher Nolan, Jason T. Erbel and George A. Dunn’s (eds.) The Philosophy of Christopher Nolan, and Darren Mooney’s Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films. To date, the rate at which those books are being released in the 2020s is at least one per year and include Tom Shone’s The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan, Robbie B. H. Goh’s Christopher Nolan: Filmmaker and Philosopher, and Ian Nathan’s Christopher Nolan: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work.
One final note concerning the critical acclaim Nolan’s films are garnering pertains to the October 2023 release of Jada Yuan’s Unleashing Oppenheimer: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Explosive Atomic-Age Thriller. Yuan, a feature reporter covering national politics for the Washington Post, turned her attention to exploring one of Nolan’s projects, not the whole of his growing canon of films. While even promotional materials for this book are embargoed until after Oppenheimer’s release, the scale and scope of what Nolan is trying to achieve merited Yuan’s attention from the film’s initial inception to its final release.
Oppenheimer’s story, however, is amongst the most complex, telling, and tragic accounts of the American academic vocation. For Nolan, a director who refuses to shy away from such a challenge, Oppenheimer would have proven impossible without Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.4 The most prominent book amongst titles released around the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb, American Prometheus, a project itself 25-years in the making, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
While Sherwin unfortunately died in 2021, Bird currently serves as director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York. As one may expect, the unprecedented marketing campaign NBCUniversal unleashed for Oppenheimer also vaulted American Prometheus back into the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction paperbacks.5
Along with the other five works published about the same time,6 the posts offered on the four following days explore the ways Bird and Sherwin’s magisterial work not only makes sense out of Oppenheimer’s life and legacy but also how Oppenheimer’s life and legacy serves as an autopsy of the American academic vocation. In what is anticipated to be amongst one of the grandest cinematic offerings this season, Oppenheimer will undoubtedly add a layer to our understanding of the work to which we are called and the future of a profession we are entrusted with stewarding during this season in higher education.
- An important exploration of the relationship Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer shared is found in Silvan S. Schweber’s Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
- Jennifer M. Granholm, “Secretary Granholm Statement on DOE Vacating 1954 Atomic Energy Commission Decision In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” United States Department of Energy, December 16, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/articles/secretary-granholm-statement-doe-order-vacating-1954-atomic-energy-commission-decision, para. 2. To read the full text of the secretarial order, please go to https://www.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2022-12/S1%20Oppenheimer%20Order%2012.12.22%20signed%20by%20S1%2012-16-2022.pdf.
- Granholm, “Secretary Granholm Statement,” para. 4.
- Andy Kifer, “Behind ‘Oppenheimer,’ a Prizewinning Biography 25 Years in the Making,” The New York Times, July 11, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/10/books/oppenheimer-american-prometheus-sherwin-bird.html.
- Kifer, “Behind ‘Oppenheimer.’”
- The six books we will explore in this essay are: Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005); David C. Cassidy. J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. New York: Pi Press, 2005); Jennet Conant. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005); Priscilla J. McMillan. The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (New York: Viking, 2005); Abraham Pais. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Charles Thorpe. Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).