What Actually Happened in Oppenheimer
2023-07-22

“Oppenheimer” was incredible. I’d watch it a hundred more times. The storytelling and cinema was top-notch of course, but that’s to be expected with a Nolan film.

Some Manhattan Project nerds will be disappointed that there wasn’t much emphasis on Los Alamos or the actual creation of the bomb, but this is no different than in American Prometheus, the fantastic book the movie is based on. The climax of the book is the security clearance trial, not the atom bomb. Though those criticisms are fair, because it would be great to have a good Manhattan Project movie, I more appreciated the historical accuracy and the lines of dialogue that were taken straight from the book.

Some examples (spoiler alert, obviously...but also we all know how it ends):

The apple

Yes, a young Robert did try to poison his professor, Patrick Blackett. No, the professor never did eat it, and the “poison” was most likely not actually cyanide, as that would have killed him. “More likely,” the author writes, “Robert had laced the apple with something that merely would have made Blackett sick; but this still a serious matter–and grounds for expulsion.” Thanks to Robert’s father’s persuasion of the school, Robert faced no consequences other than probation and having to see a psychiatrist. Niels Bohr almost eating the apple was a dramatization, but a good one nonetheless. That part of the scene didn’t actually happen.

Feynman’s bongos

The actor who played Richard Feynman had a scary resemblance to the man himself. Like, multiple times I thought, “That’s actually Feynman.”

Before the Trinity test, while an Army officer is passing around a piece of glass to act as sunglasses for the blast, Feynman declines. This happened in real life. He writes in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman:

They gave out dark glasses that you could watch it with. Dark glasses! Twenty miles away, you couldn’t see a damn thing through dark glasses. So I figured the only thing that could really hurt your eyes (bright light can never hurt your eyes) is ultraviolet light. I got behind a truck windshield, because the ultraviolet can’t go through glass, so that would be safe, and so I could see the damn thing.

After the Trinity test, while everyone is celebrating, you see Richard Feynman on top of his car playing the bongos. This happened as well.

After the thing went off, there was tremendous excitement at Los Alamos…I sat on the end of a jeep and beat drums and so on.

Damnit, I happen to love this country

Though these words weren’t actually spoken to Einstein, as happens in the movie, Oppie did say them. It was to George Kennan in the 1950s, as Kennan explains Oppenheimer’s funeral:

In the dark days of the early fifties, when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcomed in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking residence outside this country. His answer, given to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Damn it, I happen to love this country.’

In a footnote to that quote, the author writes:

Kennan was deeply moved by Oppenheimer’s emphatic reaction. In 2003, Kennan’s hundredth-birthday party, he retold this story–and this time there were tears in his eyes.

Bohr’s ‘Prometheus’ Line

This didn’t actually happen, but I appreciated Nolan’s nod to the book title. The exact scene slips my mind, but I think it was Bohr (or maybe Teller), who warned Oppenheimer that has become the “American Prometheus.” That line wasn’t needed nor required by Nolan to write, but it was a clear nod to the book that inspired the film, and to nerds like me who loved the book, gave me chills.

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