Coinciding with Oppenheimer, To End All War: Oppenheimer & The Atomic Bomb follows the rise and fall of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
I went into this documentary with the thought that it would be around 40-44 minutes long. Instead, it is a feature-length documentary running about 87 minutes long. Regardless, it is a very informative and insightful documentary should one wish to learn about the scientist prior to seeing the film. I can also say that Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, is on my list of books to read at some point. Christopher Cassel’s documentary, much like the Nolan film, draws inspiration from the book.
It may just be a coincidence that the documentary is airing less than two weeks before the Christopher Nolan film is released. Nolan appears in the documentary multiple times to offer his own thoughts on J. Robert Oppenheimer.
“He was obviously a very, very brilliant man but I think he may have underestimated the power of the establishment–the machine–and the inability of one individual to stand against that,” says Christopher Nolan, the director of Universal’s upcoming Oppenheimer due out in theaters on July 21. “Unquestionably, he changed the world and he changed the world forever. There’s no going back.”
Oppenheimer is a tragic figure in American history. We see it throughout the film. Here’s a guy who grows up as this socially awkward student before evolving into Oppenheimer 2.0 while studying abroad in Germany. He becomes the leading scientist on the Manhattan Project when America seeks to beat Hitler to building an atomic weapon. The efforts may have changed the war’s outcome on the Pacific front but Oppenheimer realized he had blood on his hands. Cassel includes footage of victims in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s shocking footage–as described in the film–and heartbreaking. Knowing what the weapon could do, it’s no wonder Oppenheimer would oppose the building of the H-bomb or similar thermonuclear weapons. Unfortunately, his opposition would also be his downfall during the Red Scare.
The scientist’s role in history was reassessed in late 2022 as the Department of Energy vacated their McCarthy-era hearings, clearing him of a “Black Mark.” The hearings were what led to his security clearance being revoked. It’s a shame that Oppenheimer never lived to see this, having died from cancer in 1967 at the age of 62. However, it also speaks to the darkest witch hunt in American history. The 1940s and 50s were a very different time in America as World War II soon gave birth to the Cold War. Even before WWII, many politicians viewed communism, not Nazism, as a grave threat to America. If you want to learn more, read Hitler in Los Angeles.
“I think we’re still talking about Oppenheimer because he was so influential,” Bill Nye says. “We have this respect and fear of science and Oppenheimer represented both sides of that, for sure.”
Cassel’s film does more than just weave in the usual archival clips and footage. A number of his Los Alamos colleagues, including Edward Teller, appear through archival clips and interviews. Oppenheimer himself appears via the same way so it’s not just people discussing him during contemporary interviews. Meanwhile, there’s also animated clips of some moments in his life, be it as a child or meeting with an ex-girlfriend. Going the animation route is much better than trying to recreate footage in live-action. Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete film without including the Trinity test of the atomic bomb. It’s one thing to spend years building up to a moment but it’s another to witness the mushroom cloud.
To End All War does not hide the fact that the dangers that J. Robert Oppenheimer warned us about are still relevant today. We especially see this during the closing moments of the documentary. All one needs to do is take a look at the biggest threats to America. And again, he knew it the very moment that he saw the footage coming out of Japan. Whether one watches To End All War ahead of watching Oppenheimer or out of curiosity, it’s an insightful look into the scientist’s rise and fall.
DIRECTOR: Christopher Cassel
FEATURING: Bill Nye, Charles Oppenheimer, Hideko Tamura, Ellen Bradbury Reid, Michio Kaku, Jon Else, Kai Bird, Richard Rhodes, Christopher Nolan
To End All War: Oppenheimer & The Atomic Bomb will air on MSNBC on July 9, 2023 at 10 PM ET and will be available July 10 on Peacock. The documentary will be available on July 15-16 on NBC News Now. Grade: 4/5
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