Falling for Oppenheimer

How a feature film and a documentary shaped the nation’s understanding of Los Alamos

By Tricia Ware | December 19, 2023

Falling for Oppenheimer

As the feature film “Oppenheimer” exits theaters and streams on TV screens everywhere, you might be wondering: “How can I experience Los Alamos?”

You’re not alone! Thanks to a movie that was in theaters for a nearly unheard of 16 weeks (four weeks is the cinematic average, and some films last no longer than two) in more than 50 countries worldwide, the Lab saw record amounts of curiosity and inquiry about our history and current mission.

One great way to get started is with “Your Manhattan Project road trip,” a popular travel story that’s relevant year-round and filled with where-to-go and how-to-get there information. Get even more important details with “Not your typical tourist destination” — while the Manhattan Project is no longer a secret, Los Alamos is still a working national security laboratory that is not open to the public.

More ways to visit ‘The Secret City’

Since the movie’s debut in July, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park averaged 140 phone and email inquiries per month and traffic to its website doubled. Surrounded by Laboratory property currently in use, the park includes sites used during the top-secret Manhattan Project and is open for tours in April and October only.

Our Bradbury Science Museum (1350 Central Avenue, Los Alamos, free and open Tuesday through Sunday) saw 45,023 visitors over the previous year — a 50% increase and more than three times the population of the town of Los Alamos itself!

“Most visitors come here for our ‘origin story,’ to learn more about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project,” says Linda Deck, Bradbury Science Museum director. “Here you can see artifacts such as an original part of the Fat Man atomic bomb assembly and samples of trinitite, the mineral created by the first atomic bomb test. Because the museum is the only part of Los Alamos National Laboratory consistently open to the public, this is their visit to the Lab. Our exhibits document the science of its 80-year history including advances in supercomputing, nuclear nonproliferation, biotechnology and climate science.”

Visitors in the summer and fall of this year were treated to the museum’s collaboration with the National Security Research Center’s “J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Exhibit,” on view July 5 through Oct. 22. The exhibit included items such as Oppenheimer’s personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita, Kitty Oppenheimer’s calling card and art pieces inspired by the Lab’s first director. (The National Security Research Center (NSRC) is the Laboratory’s classified library.) While no longer on display, you can still see items from the exhibit on the museum’s Instagram page.

By the time this special onetime exhibit closed, the museum geared up for its annual, educational, only-in-Los Alamos signature event, High-Tech Halloween, where spooky science is the primary treat and kids come in costume. The museum served 2,300 visitors of all ages and distributed 100 pounds of candy during the two-hour event.

Down the street at Fuller Lodge and the Los Alamos History Museum, buildings in use during the Manhattan Project that are now owned by the county of Los Alamos, visitors increased by 68% over the course of FY23, to a total of 22,993.

More curiosity about history, science and the Laboratory today

The Lab’s National Security Science magazine devoted its summer 2023 edition to Oppenheimer. The issue was so popular, they completely ran out of copies and had to reprint. Email magazine@lanl.gov for your copy or read it online.

Meanwhile, the NSRC and the Lab’s Multimedia Production group created the documentary “Oppenheimer: Science, Mission, Legacy.” Released this September, the 90-minute film is made up of three episodes that include interviews with experts and feature 

Oppenheimer-related materials from the NSRC’s unclassified collections, much of which has never been shared publicly. It is now available online for the public to watch for free and is also on view at our Bradbury Science Museum.

“The Lab is in a unique position to tell this story, thanks to our historic collections, which actually began as Oppenheimer's wartime technical library during the Manhattan Project,” said Brye Steeves, director of the NSRC. “Oppenheimer’s legacy is part of our legacy today. His story is ours to tell and we do so through photos, documents, audio and film.”

So far, approximately 12,000 people have watched the film on YouTube, which includes interviews with Lab historians Alan Carr, Ellen McGehee and Roger Meade; U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm; Lab Director Thom Mason; “American Prometheus” author Kai Bird; “The General and the Genius” author Jim Kunetka; J. Robert’s grandson, Charles Oppenheimer; and many more of today’s Lab leaders and physicists.  

For some Oppie enthusiasts, the question is: where does fact merge with fiction — or at least feature filmmaking as opposed to straight documentary? The feature film is based on the Pulitzer-prize-winning biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin — but it’s an adaptation.

Our “Down to a Science” podcast addresses this in its latest episode, in which Lab historian Alan Carr acknowledges that in many instances, feature filmmakers had to simplify certain elements to fit a large-scale story into a three-hour dramatic interpretation.

“There are a lot that the movie did get historically right,” Carr said in the podcast. “And I would emphasize, it is a movie. It is not history … It is a representation of something that happened in the past but made for entertainment.”

Listen to find out more about the gaps between the film adaptation and the historical record.

As Americans turn their attention to new movies, or cocoon in front of the TV at home, Los Alamos National Laboratory continues with its national security missions, which extend beyond military applications to include the security of the country’s energy supply, food supply, environment, public health and economy.

An unprecedented number of inquiries, news stories and Los Alamos road trips are, for now, in the rearview mirror — unless “Oppenheimer” lives up to the Best Picture Oscar buzz next February.

Read even more about Oppenheimer here.