Independent Lens: Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic

I have a certain amount of respect for that atomic bomb.

–“Robert Wilson,” Doctor Atomic

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

–John Donne, “Holy Sonnet XIV”

“What drew me were the people,” says John Adams. “And Oppenheimer is, of course, every dramatist’s dream because he’s so complex, almost theatrically so.” In making Doctor Atomic, an opera about the making of the atomic bomb, Adams took on a series of challenges, not least being the portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the inspired, famously tormented director of the Manhattan Project.

These challenges form the core of the excellent documentary Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic. The film, directed by John Else, ingeniously considers the parallels between the opera’s conception and development and that of the bomb, exploring the creative process as such, in particular its many costs. In the case of “Oppie,” these costs are well known, as he went on, following the completion of the Trinity Test at Los Alamos, to fight to control the spread of nuclear weapons. But by then, Wonders Are Many narrator Eric Owens intones, “The secret of the bomb was no longer secret.” And the nuclear arms race, the outcome that theoretical physicist Oppenheimer most desperately dreaded, was underway.

This specific trajectory from theory to reality serves as the case study for Doctor Atomic, which Adams made with director Peter Sellars (their fifth collaboration). Oppenheimer, who died of throat cancer in 1967, left behind no journals or autobiography, only “thousands of pages of official correspondence, memos, scientific papers, and a few poems.” Out of these, as well as he “a lot of classified material that has just become declassified,” the opera conjures its own poetry, at once painfully abstract and urgently material, a combination of image and sound that conveys the impossible dilemmas facing Oppenheimer and his team.

Assembled in 1945, the scientists of the super-secret Project Trinity, men mostly in their 20s, were assigned to “build a bomb before the Nazis.” Though Oppenheimer, just 40 himself, hoped their success would “not only end [World War II], but would make all future wars unthinkable,” in fact it expanded the possibilities of destruction for generations to come. As team member Robert Wilson puts it in a 1973 interview, “Theoretical physicists were deeply troubled when they realized that our beloved physics had been pushed into the darkest part of reality, and we, who were rather unworldly people, had somehow to understand that and deal with that.”

Such “dealing” took different forms. By the time of the Trinity Test, which serves as the climax for Doctor Atomic (“How do you put the bomb on stage?” asks Sellars, quixotically), the six-foot Oppenheimer weighed just 115 pounds and was smoking four packs of Chesterfields a day, incurring a wracking cough. The documentary links images of the bombs devastation with shots of Oppenheimer at the time — often featuring his trademark fedora and topcoat — as well as the stage performance by Gerald Finley, who essentially genuflects in interviews to John Adams’ frankly awesome compositions. Drawing from Oppenheimer’s interviews and writings, the lyrics quote John Donne as well as the Bhagavad Gita (“When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent, / Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow, / With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring — / All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled”).

These allusions are one way the opera reflects the contradictions and crises provoked by the team’s very intensive work. While the film shows rehearsals for one especially lengthy and difficult scene where Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty (Kris Jepson) appear in bed, Sellars explains the historical context. The population at Los Alamos, which included the scientists’ families, increased during the project; as Sellars puts it, “These men were not just creating the atomic bomb, they were creating new people.” Oppenheimer’s own thinking about Trinity’s moral and spiritual tensions (a name he took from Donne) is evident in archival interviews, integrated into the film’s analysis: “There aren’t secrets about the world of nature,” he says in one, “There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they’re secret because man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.”

The film — following the opera — attempts to uncover secrets, or at least to reveal their existence. Sellars describes his own “mission” as a director, his effort not to show his own questions: “People want you to tell them what to do in a way that’s lucid and gives them permission to be their best selves,” he says, “So your doubts don’t help anyone.” Still, he and Adams discuss openly the philosophical and political dynamics of such a project. Following a glimpse of Picasso’s Guernica, Sellars appears on screen to ponder what might be considered the opera’s central question: “What does it take to make something that is regenerative?” The bomb is impossible to portray, he says. “Because the sheer horror itself, art is not up to that. There is nothing you can put on a stage or in a painting that matches the suffering of those people. And therefore, the art itself becomes, if it’s sincere, strangely inadequate and if it’s insincere, really obscene.”

In looking at these and other oppositions, Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic considers, more broadly, what it means to “make” — weapons and people, rationales and excuses, art and history. How is it possible to reconcile making with destroying, to see death and life connected inextricably and inexplicably? Wonders Are Many doesn’t pretend to answer all such questions. It does, however, ask them brilliantly.

RATING 9 / 10