Book - American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Book cover - photo of Oppenheimer

Steve Taylor-Bryant didn't become the destroyer of worlds but did write some words about American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin...

When Christopher Nolan announced his new film I got quite excited. Nolan is an exceptional filmmaker that always delivers something interesting and new, regardless of whether you like it or not. I was not a fan of Tenet but, whether it’s the twists in Following, or Memento, or the sheer scale of Inception, or the reinvigorating of a genre like he did for superhero films with his Batman trilogy or the freshness he brought to war movies with Dunkirk, there is always something to at least give a go. When you start to throw intriguing characters like J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic age into the mix then even people underwhelmed by Tenet are going to get a little excited. Nolan, though, likes to manipulate his audience with multiple strands of story and to do that with what is essentially an expensively produced biopic means you need real depth and detailed research to draw from. This is where American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin comes in.

There are so many books on Oppenheimer, another load on the people involved in the science behind the bomb (Trinity: The Treachery and Pursuit of the Most Dangerous Spy in History by Frank Close is the most recent one I’ve read, a fascinating look at the UK side of the operation with the story of the bomb's metaphorical father, Rudolf Peierls; his intellectual son, the atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs) that a lesser filmmaker may not know where to begin. However, since Nolan announced his project, it was always American Prometheus he was going to turn to for inspiration and what Bird and Sherwin have produced is the definitive tome on not just J. Robert Oppenheimer but also the period and the politics.

The science in this book takes a back seat, which is quite a relief as it is a huge book and if I was overwhelmed with anything more than primary school level physics I may have not bothered. Instead American Prometheus concentrates on who Oppenheimer was, how this guy born to wealth became the man that changed the world and then tortured himself afterwards. It is a book that reads like an epic screenplay whilst also feeling like the most reliable of research papers and treads that fine line between entertaining espionage thriller and important history document.

Because there is an important lesson to learn from history and nobody in history was more important than Oppenheimer, he literally lived the saying “just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” but I appreciate a biopic about a scientist from the 1940’s may not be everyone’s cup of tea. With a book so rich with detail and a filmmaker that puts bums on seats though, I hope more people will learn about a vital turning point in humanity.

Follow Steve on Twitter at @STBwrites

Image - Amazon

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