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Oppenheimer: The true story behind the Christopher Nolan film

Cillian Murphy is set to play the father of the atomic bomb

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. (Universal)
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer. (Universal)

Very soon cinephiles will be able to enjoy Oppenheimer, a new Christopher Nolan film on the big screen which comes out this week on Friday 21 July. It's an epic three-hour drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer with Cillian Murphy taking on the title role.

Oppenheimer is based on a true story, the creation of the atomic bomb, which is one of the most horrific acts of war in human history that has been both hailed and abhorred.

Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer?

Often called “the father of the atomic bomb”, Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist who was hired by General Leslie Groves Jr — director of the top-secret Manhattan Project, played in the film by Matt Damon — to lead the research team in 1942.

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In 1943, a research lab was established in Los Alamos, New Mexico whose aim was to design and produce atomic bombs for the Manhattan Project.

On the test ground for the atomic bomb near Almagordo, N.M., Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, University of California physicist, smokes his pipe as he contemplates the site on Sept. 9, 1945. (AP Photo)
J. Robert Oppenheimer at the test ground for the atomic bomb in 1945. (AP Photo)

Following the extensive research done by Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists at Los Alamos, they were able to test the first nuclear explosion, known as the Trinity nuclear test, in July 1945.

The bomb

Oppenheimer famously said of the first testing of the bomb: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. (Universal)
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (Universal).

"I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

The debate over when and how to use the atomic bomb was first discussed on April 12, 1945, and it took 135 days to come to a decision. Germany had surrendered in April 1945, but Japanese forces continued to fight and as the war raged on the casualties increased ever further.

FILE - This July 16, 1945 sequence of file photos provided by the U.S. Army, a mushroom cloud is recorded by an Army automatic motion picture camera six miles away as the first atomic bomb test was conducted at Alamogordo, N.M. A new PBS special looks into the creation of the atomic bomb in the city of Los Alamos and will feature newly-restored footage of nuclear weaponry.
US Army photos from 16 July, 1945, showing the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo. (AP Photo/U.S. Army, File)

In the documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb, physicist Leo Szilard's wife read a letter in which he described what it was like during that period of time working on the Manhattan Project.

He said: "In the spring of '45 it was clear that the war against Germany would soon end so I began to ask myself what is the purpose of continuing the development of the bomb? And how will the bomb be used if the war with Japan has not ended by the time we have the first bomb?

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, atomic scientist, appearing before the Senate Atomic Energy Committee in Washington, Dec. 5, 1945, declines to estimate in public the damage one of the atomic bombs would inflict on a fleet of ships. (AP Photo)
J. Robert Oppenheimer, atomic scientist, appearing before the Senate Atomic Energy Committee in 1945. (AP Photo)

"Initially we were strongly motivated to produce the bomb because we feared the germans would get ahead of us and the only way to prevent them from dropping bombs on us was to have bombs in readiness ourselves. But now with the war won it was not clear what we were working for."

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

As the war in the Pacific continued, President Harry Truman called for Japan to surrender with the Potsdam declaration in July 1945. When Japan refused to surrender, the decision was made to use the nuclear weapons.

The atomic bomb was dropped twice on Japan over the course of Second World War, first on Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945 and then on Nagasaki three days later on 9 August.

World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
After the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, either immediately or from their injuries and exposure to radiation. Japan acquiesced to the Potsdam Conference on 10 August, the surrender was announced officially to the public on 14 August, 1945.

Post-war controversy

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. (Universal)
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (Universal)

Nolan's film is also expected to explore Oppenheimer's life after Second World War, and he was part of the US Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War.

As part of this commission, he opposed the construction of a hydrogen bomb, which would have been a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb, and argued for more thought to go into the use of nuclear weapons in future.

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Oppenheimer was later blacklisted during the second Red Scare of the 1950s, which aimed to expose alleged communists within positions of power. In 1954 his security clearance was revoked and he could no longer work on the Atomic Energy Commission.

FILE - Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atom bomb, is shown at his study at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 15, 1957. The Biden administration has reversed a decades-old decision to revoke the security clearance of Oppenheimer, the physicist called the father of the atomic bomb for his leading role in World War II’s Manhattan Project. (AP Photo/John Rooney, File)
J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atom bomb, is shown at his study at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton in 1957, after he was blacklisted during the Red Scare (AP Photo)

Despite this, in 1963 President John F. Kennedy awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi Award for scientific achievement and leadership.

The physicist continued to speak on the subject of nuclear technology up until his death in 1967 of throat cancer, he was 62. It was only in December 2022 that the decision was made to undo the revoking of his security clearance.

Oppenheimer will be released in cinemas an IMAX on Friday, 21 July.

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Watch a clip from Oppenheimer