The Manhattan Project

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 23 Jan 2024


After its sweep at the Golden Globes on 8 January, there was little or no doubt the film Oppenheimer would be included in the list of Oscar nominations for Best Motion Picture.

Already known to audiences around the world, it is one of the few films that was able to achieve a cult status. It has grossed $955 million, making it the highest-grossing World War II film in history as well as the highest grossing biography.

The brilliant British director Christopher Nolan has brought to the screen an epic biographical thriller revolving around a historic, tragic figure of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, J Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the father of the atomic bomb”.

The film is an adaptation of the 2005 Pulitzer winning book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, written by Kai Bird and Sherwin Williams.

The name Prometheus was inspired by the Greek legend of the god of fire, of high intellect, associated with the creation of mortals. He was condemned to eternal punishment by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind in the form of technology and knowledge.

Director Nolan, famous for his dark broody films like The Batman Trilogy and Insomnia, among others, was drawn to the tension of Oppenheimer’s story, based on the book; the contrast of the joy and horror of what Oppenheimer created.

As in the book, the film portrays the student days of the brilliant physicist, his affluent background, his days at Harvard, Cambridge, and Gottingen and his return to the States as professor of physics at University of California, Berkeley. Fortune or tragedy struck when the US army came to call. What did the army want from Oppenheimer? What did he do to make his legacy so worthwhile?

The US army had established the Manhattan Project, a codename that lacked suspicion, for the top-secret endeavour to research nuclear weapons called the Manhattan Engineer District. While the original headquarters was in Manhattan, Manhattan had nothing to do with the project. Three locations were assigned, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer was to head the laboratory in New Mexico, a state he loved since his teen years.

Why was the US army keen on the Manhattan Project?

President Roosevelt had received a letter from physicist Albert Einstein in October 1939 in which he described the potential of the atomic weapon and warned that the Nazis approved the research which was already underway.

It is worth mentioning that while Einstein is often blamed for the creation of the atomic bomb, his only role was his famous equation, E=mc2, explaining the energy released in an atomic bomb, but does not explain how to build it. That ordeal was left to his friend Oppenheimer.

Roosevelt approved the research in 1942, after the UK had already started research in 1941. Although success was achieved in record time, when the device was tested in a remote area in New Mexico in July 1945 (the Trinity test), Hitler had already died, so had Roosevelt.

Vice president Truman, now president, made the decision to use the bomb a month after the test. There was only Japan left. The atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima and a few days later on Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer, a complex, disturbed genius grappling with depression, witnessed the havoc his work had brought. Some 200,000 Japanese citizens were burned to death, a reality that Oppenheimer could never escape.

His aim was to stop the wars and save humanity, but instead he witnessed the endless suffering and destruction of humans. That was the fruit of his labour.

“We know the world would not be the same,” he lamented.

He tried to stop all nuclear research, to prevent the use of the atomic bomb, but Truman objected.  His stand created enemies in the government and the scientific community.

In his quest for the welfare of humanity, he had dabbled in the philosophy of communism, the illusionary theory of equity. When the McCarthy hysteria started after the war he was accused of associating with communists and was marginalised following the security hearings.

The rise and fall of Oppenheimer, his legacy and torment, and his greatest triumph are indeed material for a great drama for the screen.

Who did Nolan pick to be his tragic hero? The list of Hollywood luminaries is long. Nolan called on an Irish actor Cillian Murphy, no matinee idol, no social celebrity.  We know nothing of his life, we do know he is a brilliant actor and that is exactly how he likes it.

In fact, the whole cast is so impressive it makes one gasp at so much talent: Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Florence Pugh, as well as Tom Conti, who impersonates Einstein.

The finale makes this the most anti-nuclear film ever made. Einstein and Oppenheimer remember a conversation about starting a chain reaction that would destroy the world. “I remember it well,” said Einstein, “What of it?” and Oppenheimer says: “I believe we did.”

“We live in an Oppenheimer world,” says director Nolan.

Whether the film wins the gold on Oscar night is left to the erratic behaviour of the academy members, but as a great work for the cinema, it is certainly among the best.

Humanity lives under the threat of nuclear weapons.


“The only use for an atomic bomb is to keep somebody else from using one.”        

George Wald (1906-1997)    

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: