New Oppenheimer documentary connects Los Alamos’ first director to its mission today

‘Oppenheimer: Science, Mission, Legacy’ available for the public to watch free online

October 18, 2023

Oppenheimer Documentary
Alan Carr and other Lab historians provided insights about Oppenheimer.

A new documentary released by Los Alamos National Laboratory connects J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project to the Lab’s mission today. 

Created by the Lab’s National Security Research Center and Multimedia Production Group, “Oppenheimer: Science, Mission, Legacy” is a one-and-a-half-hour documentary made up of three episodes that include interviews with experts and feature Oppenheimer-related materials from the National Security Research Center’s unclassified collections, much of which has never been shared publicly. It is now available online for the public to watch for free.

“Because we live and work within the legacy J. Robert Oppenheimer left behind, we felt we were best able to tell his story from when he first took the reins of the Laboratory to today,” said Dave Tietmeyer, who led the yearlong creation of the documentary. “His legacy continues, and this documentary connects his achievements to the Lab’s mission today.”

The NSRC began as Oppenheimer’s wartime technical library 80 years ago and today curates millions of holdings that are accessed daily by researchers in support of our national security.

“The renewed interest in Oppenheimer has been an incredible opportunity for us to share information through the creation of this documentary,” said Brye Steeves, NSRC director. “The NSRC curates the Lab’s history, and now, we’re helping make it.”

What’s in the documentary?

Alan Carr, Laboratory senior historian, provides narration throughout the documentary. Interviewees include Lab Director Thom Mason; former Deputy Lab Director for Science, Technology & Engineering John Sarrao; Associate Lab Director for Weapons Physics Charlie Nakhleh; and Deputy Lab Director for Weapons Bob Webster. 

Also interviewed are Oppenheimer biographer Kai Bird, co-author of “American Prometheus”; retired U.S. Senate staffer Tim Reiser, who was instrumental in the 2022 vacating of Oppenheimer’s revoked security clearance in 1954; Laboratory historians Ellen McGehee and Roger Meade; and James Kunetka, author of “The General and the Genius.”

New footage and interviews include Energy secretary and Robert Oppenheimer’s grandson

The documentary includes footage of Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who talked about signing the order vacating the 1954 revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Granholm’s first-ever visit to the Laboratory in August was to attend a screening of a shortened version of the film and participate in a panel discussion with Lab Director Mason, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s grandson Charles Oppenheimer and DOE Under Secretary and National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Jill Hruby. 

Granholm’s discussion centered, in part, on the injustice of the decision regarding J. Robert Oppenheimer’s clearance revocation. “The due process component of this hearing … it was such a railroad,” said Secretary Granholm. Her decision to vacate this decision overturned a purposeful misinterpretation. “It was clearly a decision that was made … to find the outcome they wanted as opposed to having it be the truth.” 

Oppenheimer’s grandson Charles Oppenheimer is also featured in the documentary’s final cut. Following the panel discussion, he toured the home his grandfather lived in from 1943 to 1945 (which is now preserved and maintained by the Los Alamos Historical Society) and sat down for an on-camera interview in what was once his grandfather’s study.

The importance of the interview’s historic setting — the office where J. Robert Oppenheimer likely considered the implications of his work in Los Alamos — was not lost on Charles Oppenheimer. “He was interested in helping end a war and ushering technology into the world that he fully understood would be very powerful,” he said. “Theoretical physicists were seeing many steps ahead. They saw that we couldn’t see war in the same way.” 

Lab Director Mason added, “As this documentary reminds us, thinking many steps ahead when it comes to science and technology remains as critical for the Lab’s mission today as it was for J. Robert Oppenheimer in his day.”