The film centers upon Robert Oppenheimer, whom it calls “the man responsible for building the bomb.” That is an exaggeration, of course—virtually the only point where inaccuracy creeps in—but it makes good sense to take Oppenheimer as the focal point of this inquiry. The film sketches his early years with a few quick strokes. It then concentrates, for about half of its length, on the years 19431945 when he directed the Los Alamos laboratory where the first atomic bombs were designed and assembled. In this central part of the story, the camera concentrates on the exhilirating life of the Los Alamos community as a whole, and on the later reflections of some of the people who were there.
There is not much footage available to a film maker who wants to show Oppenheimer in these years. Else makes excellent, sometimes ingenious use of the available still photographs and short clips of film, but the work must ultimately be carried by interviews. Else transforms this necessity into a great virtue. Three-quarters or more of the film’s words are not the narrator’s but those of people who knew Oppenheimer, and especially physicists who worked with him, each a remarkable person. Frank Oppenheimer, Robert R. Wilson, and Freeman Dyson each appear more than a dozen times; Hans Bethe, I. I. Rabi, and Robert Serber almost as often; and a number of others more briefly. All of them speak clearly and from their hearts, so that the viewer cannot help but understand these people and why they built atomic bombs.
The Los Alamos physicists explain that they, like Oppenheimer, felt atomic bombs were essential to counter the evil of Nazi aggression, and that their work was part of a war eifort enthusiastically pursed by almost all Americans. Archival footage of German soldiers, Americans in combat, and the incendiary bombing of Japanese cities (desolate landscape comparable to that at Hiroshima) puts the Los Alamos work firmly in its context. The film never attempts to draw parallels and keeps rigorously to history, yet anyone can tell that the same motives operate today: the hatred and fear of a perceived external evil, and the consensus in each nation for developing maximum military responses.
But the question does not stop there. Alongside its straightforward narrative and interviews the film presents a more subtle level of answers. Partly it does this through its recurrent visual theme of the beautiful, desolate southwestern landscape where Oppenheimer took his vacations in the 1930s and subsequently placed his laboratory. On the one hand, this scenery helps show Oppenheimer’s humanity, his love of wilderness, friendship, and peaceful adventure. On the other hand, however, this is dry and strange country, investing the secret city of Los Alamos with an atmosphere of wild magic.
The film carries this theme into recently declassified color footage of preparations for the first bomb test at the barren Trinity site. In a sequence that has particularly impressed reviewers, the film transforms a routine shot of the spherical device being hoisted up the tower; in a low voice, the narrator reads from a 1945 memo that emphasizes the technical complexity and dangerous power of the bomb, until the eerie tension might recall a Frankenstein’s monster being elevated to receive vivifying thunderbolts in the famous 1930s horror films.
We have now come far from Oppenheimer’s poetic love of nature, entering a realm of dark and mythic images. Just what was involved is explained by Dyson, who occupies a unique position in the film. Of all those interviewed, he is the only one who describes events which he did not himself witness (a distinction that only a very attentive viewer might notice). Possibly Dyson appears simply because of his wonderful eloquence and thoughtfulness, but I suspect that he also appears because he presents a view that the film makers felt was important, but did not elicit from physicists who worked at Los Alamos.
“I have felt it myself,” Dyson explains at the film’s end, “the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands—to release this energy that fuels the stars...to lift a million tons of rock into the sky.” (The screen shows awesome explosions.) This “technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds,” according to Dyson, is partly “responsible for all our troubles.”
I believe that is a just warning: the human hunger to command vast, almost divine forces must always be remembered as a part of the reason why so many of us support nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, once one begins to discuss such feelings it is hard to avoid falling into mythical language. The scientist begins to seem not just like someone who might dream of wizardry but like someone who is, in truth, a wizard or a Dr. Frankenstein. Dyson comes close to evoking such images when he says that Oppenheimer struck “a Faustian bargain if ever there was one,” selling his soul to the United States Army with General Groves cast as the devil, in return for knowledge and power. The conclusion from this is that “once you sell your soul to the devil, then there’s no going back on it.” Although I doubt that Dyson intended it, such language can evoke the common belief that nuclear physics really does involve powers so magical and terrible that they are beyond human comprehension and control.
The film is not encouraging about the question of control. Its title calls attention to a statement that Oppenheimer himself makes in 1959 footage, near the film’s end. Responding to a question about halting the spread of nuclear weapons, he says: “It’s twenty years too late now. It should have been done the day after Trinity.” This despairing feeling that Faust’s soul is irrevocably lost, that the omnipotent genie is out of the bottle and beyond action of ours, is reinforced by the film’s treatment of what did happen in the days after Trinity. Oppenheimer and other scientists are shown as incapable of effective action against the use of their weapons. That may or may not have been true at Los Alamos in July 1945, but in the longer run physicists have been leaders in the effort to manage the situation brought about by our new weapons. The Day After Trinity simply does not have time to get into that, giving only a few superficial minutes to events after 1945. Anyone using this film in teaching should therefore take care to point out that it has limited value for discussions of current control issues. I do not say this as a criticism; the film simply does not address such issues. It concentrates all its energy on the prior question of how atomic bombs came to exist in the first place; this it handles with excellence.
Overall, there is little risk that a viewer will come away thinking of Oppenheimer as a Frankenstein or a Faust. In moving sequences we see his complex personality develop, for better and for worse, in the unique human and historical context. This is a superb film, the definitive work on its subject, terrifying and beautiful. It conveys a great deal of wisdom about how scientists have thought and acted regarding nuclear weapons, in the words of people who have pondered the matter for half of their lives. Such wisdom is surely useful in our present situation. I hope everyone will try to see, and show, this film.
by Spencer R. Weart
In: American Journal of Physics., Vol. 50, No. 9, September 1982, p. 862-3.
Produced and directed by Jon Else for KTEH-TV. Distributed by Pyramid Films, 2801 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. 16 mm or 3/4-in. videocassette, color, 1980. $950 (16 mm) or $450 (videocassette) purchase, $125 rental. (Reviewed by Spencer R. Weart, Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, 335 E. 45th St., New York, NY 10017.)
Physicist Robert Oppenheimer by Ernest Hamlin Baker. © Image is copyright of its respective owner, assignees or others.