J. Robert Oppenheimer through the eyes of his biographer Kai Bird

Kai Bird co-wrote 'American Prometheus' on which Nolan's biopic is based

63-Kai-Bird-Oppenheimers-biographer Kai Bird, Oppenheimer’s biographer | Kritajna Naik K

There is one question that haunts many viewers of Christopher Nolan’s film on the creator of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—J. Robert Oppenheimer—which swept the Oscars this year. Did Oppenheimer endorse the use of the bomb on an essentially defeated enemy? And if so, how can we hail such a man as a hero? One of the reasons he endorsed it might be because of his ego. He had spent three years building the bomb with his team at a secret facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and now he wanted to see the consummation of his efforts. Greatness was within his grasp. Also, he reasoned that the bomb’s power would ensure the end of all wars in future.

When Oppenheimer discovered quantum physics, he could hear the music of the science that explains this world. —Kai Bird

But the truth might be more complex than this, and encapsulated in a scene in the film right after the Trinity test, when the bomb was first successfully tested on the plains of the Alamogordo Bombing Range. While giving the victory speech to the thumping cheers of his colleagues and friends, Oppenheimer (played by a brilliant Cillian Murphy) blanks out and in the flash of a blinding light, he sees a woman’s molten skin. As he walks out, he imagines stepping on the ashen remains of a corpse.

“Oppenheimer knew the exact human suffering that his bomb would cause,” says Kai Bird, who co-wrote American Prometheus, the theoretical physicist’s biography on which Nolan’s film is based. “Yet this is the same man who gave instructions on the altitude at which to drop the bomb in order to inflict maximum damage.” Bird was speaking at a session of the Jaipur Literature Festival in February.

This complexity in Oppenheimer’s character is converted in the film into a meditation on the complexities of the universe from which the bomb’s power is harnessed.

Bird feels that what made Oppenheimer a great scientist was that he was a polymath. He read Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot, and the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. “He was never good with his hands and failed in Cambridge as an experimental physicist,” says Bird. “But when he discovered quantum physics in the 1920s, he could hear the music of the science that explains this world, and he had the imagination to ask the right questions. He predicted the existence of black holes when we did not have X-ray telescopes. When we could not see anything out there in the universe, he could imagine it. He was a brilliant scientist precisely because he was a humanist.”

Film Review - Oppenheimer Director’s take: Cillian Murphy (left) and Christopher Nolan during the shooting of Oppenheimer | AP

Interestingly, in the film, this versatility is shown through a sex scene when Oppenheimer’s paramour, a young communist named Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh), gets up from the bed and rifles through his collection of books. She picks out the Gita and asks him to translate a passage in Sanskrit. She is not satisfied by his attempt to paraphrase it. “No, read the words,” she tells him. And he does: “And now I am become death. The destroyer of worlds.” The camera focuses on the electric gaze of Oppenheimer. It is almost as if he knows that the words are a prophecy whose fulfilment hinges on him.

That is why, says Bird, Nolan was the right person to make the movie on Oppenheimer. Because there is much that is common to the filmmaker and his subject—both are interested in the human condition, in poetry and in stories. THE WEEK meets Bird during the JLF. The sessions are winding up for the day and he looks tired. Yet, he obliges us sportingly. He has answered questions on Oppenheimer countless times since the release of the book and the movie, but he shows no tiredness in recycling his views. He is mild-mannered, yet with a steadfastness that reminds one of the many scientists at Los Alamos, but Bird laughs it off. “My only link with science is the course on physics I took in college. It was called ‘physics for poets’,” he chuckles. “So yes, I had to try and understand a little quantum physics to write this book.”

In fact, it was Bird’s co-writer, Martin J. Sherman, who started researching American Prometheus back in 1979. In 20 years, he had collected “some 50,000 pages of interviews, transcripts, letters, diaries, declassified documents and FBI dossiers, stored in seemingly endless boxes in his basement, attic and office”. By 1999, he had got what Bird calls “the biographer’s disease”, when you cannot start writing because you want to do one more interview or visit one more archive. So, he enlisted the help of Bird, his friend who had by then written two biographies.

Initially, Bird refused, but Sherman was persistent. “He told me that if I didn’t agree to co-write the book, his gravestone would read, ‘He took it with him’,” says Bird with a laugh. The book released in 2005 to much critical acclaim and won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Unfortunately, Sherman died of lung cancer in 2021, the same year that Nolan read the book and was gripped by it. Within five months, he had finished writing a screenplay.

He asked to meet Bird in September to discuss the book. “We met at a small boutique hotel in downtown Manhattan. And we spent two and a half hours drinking tea,” says Bird with a laugh. “Nolan is half British, and he is a great tea drinker.” He says that there is nothing frivolous about Nolan. He is very intense, and does not do small talk. “My first question to him was whether he had managed to include in the screenplay Oppenheimer’s favourite toast when he was mixing his gin martinis. Which was, ‘To the confusion of our enemies’. Nolan laughed and told me that it had been in the screenplay initially, but he had to take it out for reasons of space,” says Bird.

Instead, what Nolan attempted is the sketch of a man who drew too close to the sun not to be scorched by the heat of what he discovered. The power of the universe is too wild to be tamed, and anyone who attempts to do so must pay the price. There is a scene in the film where Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” (played by Benny Safdie), tells Oppenheimer: “Nobody knows what you believe. Do you?” And in history’s final reckoning, do we? Are we to hail him as the “father of the atomic bomb”—as TIME did when it featured him on its cover—who forced us to confront our own mortality? Or is he to be remembered as the “destroyer of worlds” because of whom, as Bird says, we teeter on the precipice of Armageddon?