Oppenheimer author on the film: 'I knew most people would come out of the theatre troubled'

Kai Bird, who co-authored the Pulitzer winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that formed the basis of the Oscar-winning film, on why it's a cautionary tale for all times


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Wed 10 Apr 2024, 6:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Apr 2024, 12:32 PM

It was March 13, 1980, when American historian Martin Sherwin finally signed the deal for a book project on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist who came to be known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. However, 20 years later, the book had not seen light of day. Kai Bird, his co-author on the project, recalls that Sherwin was possibly suffering from biographer’s disease in that he had 50,000 pages of archival material and more than 150 interviews to pore over.

When he asked good friend Bird to come on board, the latter initially rejected but eventually joined Sherwin. The result of that collaboration is the Pulitzer-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which also formed the basis of Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning film.

Sherwin passed away in October 2021, two weeks after learning that Nolan would helm the monumental project. Bird, however, has been witness to the coming of life of a book that was deemed difficult to turn into a film. A biographer and historian who grew up in the Middle East, Bird has had his own fascinating journey through the region, as documented in his 2010 book Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, and has been among the world’s leading biographers, having documented lives of American president Jimmy Carter and Bundy brothers. In an exclusive conversation with wknd., Bird talks at length about the challenge of writing biographies and why Oppenheimer resonated en masse. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How would you describe your childhood growing up in the Middle East? As an 'outsider', how did you understand this world?

Middle East had been my childhood home. My father was a foreign services officer, and we moved every two or three years around the Middle East — from Jerusalem to Beirut to Cairo. In the course of these years, there had been several wars and we had to evacuate several times. As an American expatriate, I was growing up in privileged circumstances, hence I was an observer to all the tragedies unfolding in the region. I was aware of the plight of the Palestinian refugees and their tragic circumstances. And yet, when I came back to America for college, I met a young woman who was the only daughter of two Holocaust survivors. She eventually became my wife. She gave me insights to the other side. A reason why I try to be empathetic to both sides.

Years later, when you revisited the Middle East as a reporter, how did it alter the way you looked at the region as opposed to the vantage point of a young American boy growing up there?

I was always curious about the region. As a young reporter, I was trying to learn more about the actual history of the region. This led me to write a memoir about my experiences in the Middle East as a child, which is based on my memories and my parents’ correspondence. But it was an opportunity for me to convey a lot of complicated history. Memoirs are very powerful vehicle to not just convey a personal story, but also difficult histories. That book, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, came out in 2010, but it is still relevant today because of the Gaza war and the tragedies taking place there. The publishers have decided to come out with an edition that has a new introduction.

You write evocatively about the need to “protect my Middle East from my America”. Why is there a 'need' to do so?

I wrote that because it is quite clear that America has this enormous influence in the Middle East. But Americans do not understand the region. Sometimes, we intervene, and in doing so, make things worse. A part of me thinks the whole region would be much better off without the interference of United States and other external powers. The politics is complex. A part of me is very passionately and emotionally involved in the Middle East and fears what my America could do to my Middle East.

You have written several biographies. How challenging is it to enter another person's world, absorb the ambiguities and write about him with objectivity?

Well, biography is a very powerful art form. But it is extremely difficult to write the story of another human being, who is complicated. You have to get inside the head of another person — whether they are alive or dead. The biographer has an enormous challenge in telling a story that encourages people to read and turn the page. But a biographer cannot possibly be objective. It’s a subjective art form — it’s my story about J. Robert Oppenheimer or Jimmy Carter.

A biographer is writing a novel with hundreds of footnotes. Every quote and fact needs to have a citation because you have a pact with your reader in which you are trying establish trust. You want to persuade your reader that as a biographer, you are making choices about what is important in this story, in this life, and you are doing so with good judgment. So, it’s a very delicate balance — you are conveying the truth but you cannot possibly convey the whole truth of another human being’s life because parts of it are complicated.

It’s a difficult job, which is why some biographies take at least five years, sometimes 10. It’s an arduous form of scholarship, but it is subjective artistic endeavour. As a biographer, I am the first to admit that I bring my prejudices and views to the story. But I try to be open about that.

In that sense, of all the biographies you have penned, which one has been the most challenging?

Every biography has its own challenges. My first biography was about a powerful Wall Street lawyer. It took me 10 years to write. On the other hand, for my last biography on Jimmy Carter, I was awashed with millions of pages of documents. His presidential library has more than two million pages of formally classified material. You cannot possibly read all that. So it was a big challenge and took me six years.

If you ask me which was the most difficult biography, I have to admit, in retrospect, it’s American Prometheus, the book on which the film Oppenheimer is based. In it, you are writing about a scientist who died a long time ago, and who was a very complicated personality. That book took 25 years.

My co-author Martin Sherwin researched for 20 years and then I joined him on this project and spent another five years. It’s a big story about the beginning of the atomic age, which we are still living in. It’s a book about science and politics, where Oppenheimer became the victim of the McCarthy era. At the same time, it is a very personal story about Oppenheimer’s politics, his love life.

My next biography is about a man named Roy Cohn, who was the chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and later became chief lawyer for a New York real estate developer called Donald Trump (laughs). Roy Cohn was known to cut corners and indicted four times for bribery and other misdeeds, but got off. As a biographer, you don’t have to love your subject, but you have to bend over backwards to understand them to show to your reader why they did what they did.

How do you choose your subjects?

I choose them very carefully because I know I will be living with this other person for many years. You have to be intensely curious about their life story. At the same time, you are hopeful that the story will appeal to other readers, that the book will find an audience and become a commercially viable project. It’s a delicate balance. Mainly, I choose my subjects out of my own curiosity. I had been fascinated with Jimmy Carter because I thought of his presidency as a tipping point between old-style Democratic liberal politics and the Reagan age, which was much more conservative. I wanted to understand why an obscure peanut farmer from Georgia came to be elected. He seemed to be a politician who was a non-politician, he was intensely driven by religion.

Martin Sherwin
Martin Sherwin

You mentioned Martin Sherwin came to you after 20 years of research on J. Robert Oppenheimer because he was suffering from some sort of 'biographer's disease'. How did you structure the material that was already present?

Marty had gone through all the archives and had done 150 interviews. He gathered 50,000 pages of archival material, an enormous treasure trove. It was a big challenge to sit down to write with him. A biographer generally has a simple structure — since it’s a life story, you have a chronology. You do break that rule once in a while to structure the material. For the book, Marty and I chose what was important to Oppenheimer’s life. We thought science was important, we did not use a lot of physics in the book.

We were interested in the Oppenheimer story as the father of the atomic bomb, the scientific director of this secret city of Los Alamos that developed the bomb that was used in two Japanese cities. And then we realised the story was driven not just by what he did at Los Alamos, but there was an arc — the triumph in 1945 when he becomes America’s most famous scientist and nine years later, when he is brought down at a kangaroo court, humiliated and eventually stripped off his security clearance.

He was a famous public intellectual giving speeches on the danger of the atomic bomb and then suddenly, he is a political pariah. He retreats into a private life. We were curious about that aspect of the story. At one point, Marty explained to me that we would not be spending all these years working on a story if it was just about Oppenheimer’s triumph in creating the atomic bomb and the tragedy that unfolded. The real important part of the story was what happened to him in 1954 when he becomes the victim of the McCarthy era. I am very glad that Christopher Nolan’s film actually reflects those choices we made as biographers. It’s a good reflection of the book.

At which point did you realise that this monumental work was in safe hands with Christopher Nolan helming the project?

The book came out in 2005. In 2006, it was actually auctioned for film by a Hollywood director who spent four years trying to make it. Then another party came and tried for four years and failed. I am telling you this just to underscore what an enormous achievement it was that Nolan was able to succeed in telling this very complicated historical story and transform it into this different artistic medium.

Nolan reached out to me in September 2021. He invited me to a meeting in New York, where he revealed that he had spent last four or five months writing a script, which he wasn’t prepared to share. But he was willing to take any questions I had about what was in the script and what was not. After questioning him, I learnt he was focusing quite a bit on Oppenheimer’s trial of 1953.

He seemed, in general, to be quite unusual. He doesn’t present himself as this stereotypical Hollywood director. There is no fluff about him — he is very serious, low-key, intellectual, emotionally intelligent. He had read the book several times and understood the importance of the story. So, I came back from that meeting quite optimistic that something would finally happen. A few months later, he shared the script, which was fascinating and emotionally riveting. When I finally saw the film, I was quite astonished at the artistry and how, in three hours, he had captured all key elements of the Oppenheimer story.

A certain section of the audiences contended that making a film on J. Robert Oppenheimer is also glorifying the creation of the atomic bomb, even though that's never shown in the film. As a chronicler of Oppenheimer's life, what are your thoughts on this?

I understood the fear that it might celebrate this terrible weapon of mass destruction. But I was confident, having read the script and watched the film, that most people would come out of the theatre troubled, with many questions about history — was the bomb necessary to end the war, what does it say about our current situation? Many people came out of watching this movie thinking of the Ukraine war, where many veiled threats of using tactical nuclear weapons have been made. The film underscores the fact that humanity has become complacent, having lived with the atomic bomb for 75 years. We think it happened a long time ago and so it won’t happen again. The film and the book underscore the fact that the dangers of living with the bomb are very much real.

I also know that there was some criticism of the movie for not depicting what actually happened to the victims of Hiroshima and Naga Saki. But I understand Christopher Nolan’s artistic decision not to do that because that would have taken the viewer out of the moment. Instead the film is told from Oppenheimer's point of view. Nolan wanted viewers to see Oppenheimer watching news footage of Hiroshima. You see him wincing, being emotionally distraught at the sight unfolding before him. Similarly, there is another scene in the film where he is giving his victory speech and hallucinates, imagining a woman’s face melt. That conveys the enormity of the problem.

In one of your early columns for The New York Times, you write about “the need for scientists as public intellectuals”. In the light of what is transpiring in the artificial intelligence (AI) space, do you feel it's become all the more important to make room for men and women of science in public dialogue?

We live at a time when the whole of humanity is drenched in science and technology. The world is changing at a very rapid pace. AI is going to change our economies, how we communicate with each other. Unfortunately, for far too long, scientists have been trained to keep in their narrow lane of expertise, to not get outside and talk about public policy or politics.

So, we don’t have scientists who are trained to be communicators. And this is very unfortunate because an average person does not understand the choices we face and their consequences. We need scientists to be able to explain the choices, to regulate the science and technology. We need to be able to interrogate these scientists about the choices we face. I think AI has the potential of providing many benefits to humanity but it may carry many burdens and costs, which we could avoid if we were to have an intelligent discussion about it.



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