Oppenheimer Prometheus

Oppenheimer, the hotly anticipated new biopic from Christopher Nolan about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” is based on the astonishingly detailed 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

If you didn’t catch the Prometheus illusion — or it just reminded you of the 2012 Alien prequel of that name by Ridley Scott — you aren’t alone. Prometheus doesn’t match Zeus and Hercules in terms of name recognition from Greek mythology.

But Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the authors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus, chose an apt and brilliant title, given the themes of their book and Nolan’s upcoming film, which has earned, so far, outstanding reviews.

They explain the title of their book in its opening, which cites Apollodorus’ The Library:

“Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years.”

Interestingly, there are questions about who actually wrote The Library — though it is sometimes credited to a historian and scholar named Apollodorus who lived from about 180 to 120 B.C., that appears to be an error.

Nonetheless, the symbolism stands. And, as American Prometheus notes on the same page that cites The Library, Scientific American first made the comparison between Oppenheimer and Prometheus in 1945, as he tested atomic bombs in the New Mexico desert to help the U.S. defeat the Nazis.

“Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus,” the publication wrote.

(This raises the question of whether the readers of 1945 easily followed references like this. Our modern mythical Gods are more in line with Batman, thanks in no small part to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s easy to see why Nolan went with simply Oppenheimer as his title, especially considering the inevitable brand confusion that could result from the Ridley Scott film of just over a decade ago.)

Also Read: Christopher Nolan Says Early Oppenheimer Viewers Leave ‘Absolutely Devastated’: ‘They Can’t Speak’

Who Was Oppenheimer?

The film, out next week, stars Cillian Murphy as the famed theoretical physicist — raised by well-off, strictly ethical parents — who directed the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II as the United States raced with the Nazis to create a weapon that could quickly bring the horrific war to a halt. Their research and development efforts became known as The Manhattan Project.

In addition to Murphy, a mainstay of Nolan films from Batman Begins to Dunkirk, Nolan’s last World War II epic, the film includes Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh and a who’s who of other Hollywood A-listers, often appearing in small but pivotal roles.

The film is both a history of the Manhattan Project and, like American Prometheus, a character study of one of the most pivotal, complicated, and misunderstood figures in American history.

The Fall of Prometheus

The “Prometheus” in the title is especially good not just because Prometheus snatched fire, but because of his punishment afterwards — a fate that the editors of Scientific American could not have predicted in 1945.

As Bird and Sherwin illustrate in their book, and as (SPOILER, though this all really happened, decades ago) the movie also details, Oppenheimer was initially heralded as a hero for helping the U.S. win the war. But he soon found himself a subject of government inquiry and suspicion.

No, investigators didn’t go after him for introducing a weapon that could destroy the world. In fact, he pleaded against using the atomic bomb after the war, and placing strict ethical limitations on atomic weapons.

Rather, during the Red Scare, his loyalties and supposed past communist ties were deployed against him.

Oppenheimer arrives in theaters July 21.