The mysterious sanctuary hidden in the Jemez Mountains was known only as Box 1663 in the mid-1950s. The mission of its 13,000 inhabitants was to create “the gadget”. Living there was a challenge. “It’s a prison camp for eggheads,” whispered one scientist.
As a young journalist, I was determined to find a way to visit Los Alamos, even though I knew it would take time—perhaps years. I finally did it in 1956 (details below). And I revisited it this week when I saw Christopher Nolan’s new epic Oppenheimeran extremely engaging film that received rave reviews from critics.
Audiences worldwide will discover not one film, but two with contrasting themes – one a gripping heroic thriller about the dawn of a turbulent nuclear age, the other an engaging, if conversational, political drama steeped in Cold War politics.
Moviegoers will be enthralled by Nolan’s concise yet unflinching scenes depicting the intrigues facing a pioneering quantum physicist. Some will enjoy Cillian Murphy’s performance as “the most important man in the world”, an intellectual who reads TS Eliot, listens to Stravinsky, learns Sanskrit in two weeks and hovers adoringly in front of Picasso paintings.
Others may be surprised by the unexpected appearances of Rami Malek and Josh Hartnett, thrown in between these science wizards, or Robert Downey Jr. as a benevolent bureaucrat or Matt Damon as the general in charge of it all. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh are excellent in the supporting roles.
Watching the three-hour film, I found myself inescapably drawn back to my memories of my simultaneous visit to Los Alamos and my encounters with its haunted and suspicious inhabitants.
As a neophyte reporter for Wall Street Journal, I had heard rumors that Los Alamos was being quietly opened to foreigners who offered non-political credentials. My editors at JOURNAL were skeptical about my mission. “No one will talk to you,” they advised. “Besides, what’s the story?”
They surrendered. The guards manning the gates seemed friendly, if puzzled. “I don’t understand why you’re visiting,” explained one.
“It’s not a very interesting community.”
But within hours I knew he was wrong. Almost everyone I met had a PhD or its equivalent. They were young and talkative – but careful about using their names.
“We are basically hostages of the government,” explained one young scientist. “They took care of us during the difficult period of the war, but provided us with strict accommodation made in accordance with the status. You had to be lucky to live up to their idea of a big shot.”
Most of the apartments were dormitory style. Senior scientists were assigned houses, but fireplaces or carports were available only to the most important. Many of the houses did not have kitchens.
“I love my customers, but I hate my business,” explained a young woman who ran a clothing store. “It’s impossible to get a loan because the bankers know that one wrong move can put you out of town.”
Secrecy was widespread. “Before the bomb was dropped in 1945, there were constant rumors of spies,” said one resident. “Some locals suspected the ‘device’ was indeed a bomb, but what kind of bomb?” said one resident. “Only Oppenheimer himself seemed to understand that Los Alamos was playing with the future of humanity. But everyone was following the dirty little secret.”
During the war years, a quiet debate raged among scientists in the community about whether the bomb should ever be dropped. The war with Germany was over. Would Japan have surrendered anyway – a debate scrupulously settled in Nolan’s film.
Some of the top scientists believed that Los Alamos should have been closed for symbolic reasons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Atomic Energy Commission and its allies insisted that it had more important missions to perform.
As Nolan’s film makes clear, Oppenheimer himself was committed to the goals of nuclear control and cooperation. He predicted a worldwide movement towards peace.
As a reward for his outstanding achievements and loyalty, his security clearances were withdrawn. He would no longer have access to the universe he had created – an absurd decision that would later be reversed.
Oppenheimer realized, mid-career, that he had helped create, not only weapons of the battlefield, but also instruments of terror and mass destruction.
Had Oppenheimer’s colleague Albert Einstein made the film, he would likely have argued that Oppenheimer lost his soul when he first introduced the tools of quantum physics to the ominous politics of the arms race.
“The tragic mistake of Los Alamos was that it fooled scientists into thinking they could play god,” as one physicist told me at the time.
The film takes a lot of its information American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimera book by Kai Bird and Walter J. Sherwin.