Historical Fiction – the Movie Version

Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer is a must see, as far as I’m concerned, for it reminds us of the dangers of technology, the perils of war, the race between superpowers, and the individuals caught in the midst of it all. The story is based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the atomic race among America, Germany, Austria, England, and Russia during WWII.

American Prometheus – plays on the notion of Prometheus as the god of fire. Definitely an apt title for the book. Certainly Oppenheimer and all the scientists attempting to create an atomic bomb were playing with fire.

My husband and I attend lectures that go by the name of 4 O’Clock at the Movies. Elaine Newton presents these lectures to rapt audiences, but I’m probably the only one who takes notes! During the 90 minutes or so of these lectures she discusses the director, the movie’s background, the actors, the messages, the movie’s Oscar potential, the cinematography and much more.

In 1939, Albert Einstein (played by Tom Conti) wrote to Roosevelt to warn him of Germany’s efforts to build an atomic bomb and urge him to bring together the right scientists so that the US would develop the bomb first, a belief that Oppenheimer also firmly held. Once Roosevelt agreed, he gave the role of establishing and overseeing this enormous enterprise – the Manhattan Project – to General Leslie Groves a USACE officer (Matt Damon) – US Army Corps of Engineers. It was Groves who chose Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to bring scientists from around the world and to lead the scientific work involved.

Christopher Nolan’s challenge was to get the audience into Oppenheimer’s mind, to understand his genius and what haunted him. In my opinion, Nolan does an amazing job of this. In novels, authors can write a character’s thoughts. In movies, we come to understand their thoughts through dialogue, movement, silence, dress, lighting, music, and other techniques.

Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), a scientist in her own right, is relegated to the role of housewife and the film includes scenes of her coping with their young children and hanging laundry on the outdoor clothesline. The Manhattan Project team was almost exclusively male – as one might expect of that time.

Apparently, although Nolan and his crew investigated the use of Los Alamos, they chose to build a new town from the ground up, just as was done for the Manhattan Project. This choice added authenticity to the movie with scenes of various buildings going up. The crew was able to use a few authentic interior spaces from the original site for various scenes and Nolan was given permission to use the original house used by Oppenheimer and his family during the project. To add to the movie’s authenticity, Nolan moved the entire cast to Los Alamos during filming and the cast ate together just as the real families did during WWII.

Elaine Newton mentioned the superb use of music to build up fear and tension leading to the Trinity Test blast along with Oppenheimer’s finger poised above the button during the countdown. Following that blast – where those watching wore sunglasses for protection!! – the audience sees only visuals on screen for 30 seconds before hearing any sound – to replicate the real experience.

Apparently, Christopher Nolan shot 12 miles of film (how’s that for a long manuscript and editing process) before choosing what would appear. He also made effective use of scenes in colour versus scenes in black and white to differentiate the Manhattan Project work (colour) and subsequent efforts to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance and prevent him from continuing his work on atomic energy (black and white).

This is one of those movies that despite knowing the ending, you are on the edge of your seat for the entire time. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this film, we are immersed in a moment in time in the most powerful way. Highly recommended!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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