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Kai Bird muses on the journey and cultural significance of the Oppenheimer film, saying, “I was brought to tears.”

Not only was Christopher Nolan’s 2023 masterpiece Oppenheimer a box office hit, but it also contributed to a global cultural frenzy that occurred the same year. The creation of the movie was almost as controversial as the Manhattan Project itself. It is a cinematic classic that delves into the life of J Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” and his battle to reconcile scientific advancement with its catastrophic repercussions.

Kai Bird, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus, which serves as the basis for the movie, was recently in Bengaluru and reminisces about the lengthy “production hell” that the project had to go through.

According to Bird, “it was optioned for adaptation even before it won the Pulitzer; it’s not every day a 720-page book gets this opportunity.” She also notes that “Marty [Sherwin, co-author] and I were thrilled.” After four years, a screenplay was prepared, but it was not very interesting. After that effort failed, the rights were acquired by another party.

The years passed, with dreadful writing interspersed throughout. “The criticism was that it was too contentious, complicated, and historical. In addition, they asked whether anybody had heard of Oppenheimer,” quips Bird grimly. The writers weren’t pleased with one specific Hollywood effort to make the topic more “interesting.”

He says, “Marty and I thought that script was so bad that we wrote a memo with 108 historical errors.” The script also included strange parts like a ghost reading poetry and a scenario where Oppenheimer thought he was poisoning Edward Teller.

Only in 2021, about 15 years after American Prometheus had aroused attention in Hollywood, did the two learn that Oppenheimer would be the subject of Christopher Nolan’s next film. “We had doubts about whether it would be based on our book. After contacting our agency, I got a call to schedule a meeting with Nolan.

Kai Bird
Bird says of the Hollywood filmmaker, “He was unlike any other person I’d met; he was intelligent and down to earth in a quiet intimidating way. He mentioned reading our book in March 2021 and spending the next five months writing a 200-page screenplay.” Following the meeting, Marty and I felt upbeat. Sadly, he died shortly after, never having met Nolan but knowing that the movie would eventually come to be.

When Bird saw the movie for the first time, what was his impression? “I was brought to tears. Two of my recommendations were taken up by Nolan, and the movie was a huge creative triumph that stayed quite true to the novel. The 72-year-old says, “Watching it alone, I was brought to tears, thinking of what Marty would have thought of it.” She also emphasizes the story’s profoundly relevant relevance in the modern day.

Artificial intelligence pioneer Sam Altman has hypothesized that we are about to see another “Oppenheimer moment.” He is saying that we need to be attempting to control this new technology and address the philosophical issues it raises. Exactly how Oppenheimer was attempting to grapple with the dawn of the atomic era,” he says.

‘Oppenheimer’ movie still in pictures | BAFTA Awards 2024: Oppenheimer leads with seven honors.
Oppenheimer wished for us to listen closely to scientists. Regretfully, his ordeal during the McCarthy era delivered a message to all scientists instructing them to stay inside their specialized fields. Avoid assuming the role of a public intellectual and refrain from discussing politics or policy, since you may be targeted and destroyed. Consequently, there aren’t many fully fledged scientists among our public intellectuals. That is amazing considering how much technology and science permeate our lives today.

In the meanwhile, Bird lived in South India for a couple of his crucial adolescent years. Bird remarks, “It is great being back for the first time after 1968,” about his experience returning to Bengaluru. It’s great to be able to return to South India since I actually attended the Kodaikanal [International] School in Tamil Nadu for the last two years of my high school education. Growing up in the Middle East and India shaped my career as a journalist and, subsequently, as a biography, providing me with a diverse perspective on the globe. And my work was undoubtedly influenced by it.

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