Let’s get this out of the way now: the short-lived WGN America drama Manhattan is the best show or movie about the making of the atomic bomb. Created by the incomparable Sam Shaw, the series takes place in Los Alamos, the makeshift town built by the U.S. government to house the scientists working on the atomic bomb and their families. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) is the perpetually ornery (and habitually unshaven) leader of the team helping to design the implosion model of the bomb; he gives a scintillating performance that turns out to be one of many. You have pre-Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Rachel Brosnahan, pre-Evil Katja Hebers, pre-The Crown Olivia Williams, and pre-Succession Ashley Zuckerman, who at one point gives a terrifyingly arresting monologue justifying the bomb. Manhattan is the show that developed your favorite actors into your favorite actors.
The show was so good that Nolan brought one of its actors, Christopher Denham, to Oppenheimer to play a character with a different name (Klaus Fuchs), but the same role.
Oppenheimer may not be the central focus, but we get glimpses into who the man is in ways Oppenheimer never could. One example? Getting patched through by eavesdropping switchboard operators to Jean Tatlock for some mid-day BDSM phone sex. It leaves him with the freakiest bowtie request you may ever see in a show about scientists.
The show only ran for two seasons, but for 23 (mostly immaculate) episodes, you get to see the betrayal and mind games that went into building the atomic bomb and hear one of the most accurate lines ever uttered from a fictional Manhattan Project: “In war, scientists are soldiers.”
The Day After Trinity (1981)
This Academy Award-nominated documentary film traces Oppenheimer’s life from heralded nuclear bomb mastermind to regretful nuclear proliferation opponent. Featuring candid interviews with scientists and individuals involved in The Manhattan Project and previously classified footage, The Day After Trinity allows you to see the real emotional stakes of this historically destructive endeavor.
Before Sam Waterson fought for convictions as Jack McCoy on Law & Order with the swagger of a sage elder statesman, he was J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 1980 BBC miniseries Oppenheimer. The series tells Oppenheimer’s story with a similar level of governmental suspicion over his communist ties as Nolan’s movie. What differs is Oppenheimer’s relationship with Jean Tatlock (Kate Harper), which is more fleshed out in all of its tender complexity rather than the few scenes dedicated to it in the film. Oppenheimer is a great companion series for your theatrical experience.
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Oppenheimer put its titular genius in a moral hell in the aftermath of the bombs’ deployment over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries Chernobyl puts you in the ash-filled skies and building rubble of Ukraine from the 1986 nuclear plant disaster that left dozens killed. Instead of simply seeing the bureaucrats and scientists, Chernobyl does a historically accurate and gripping job of placing you in the lives of the firefighters, volunteers, miners, and litany of regular people who risked their lives to help save others.
To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb (2023)
Just before Nolan unveiled his grim masterpiece to moviegoers, Oppenheimer’s grandson Charles Oppenheimer and a collection of others discussed the legacy of not only the father of the nuclear age, but also how his contributions reverberate to this day. The most insightful part of this 87-minute documentary is the Hiroshima survivor Hideko Tamura’s traumatic firsthand account of life directly after the bombing. This is a worthwhile documentary for those who want to see what Oppenheimer means to their lives and others in the present day.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Oppenheimer may have put you in the mood for the mishandling of genius in the name of patriotism, and if so, The Imitation Game has hat in spades. Playing famous British cryptanalyst Alan Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on one of his greatest roles yet, a mercurial and arrogant mathematician who helped the Allies decrypt Soviet Union messages during World War II. The similarities between Oppenheimer and Turing—obsessively curious and internally tortured— will have any Oppenheimer fan glued to the screen.
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The Day After (1983)
This 1983 ABC movie is about a fictional war between countries that results in a nuclear skirmish between the United States and the Soviet Union. One of the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Soviet soldiers, and all of Kansas City are victims of nuclear attacks in a sobering look at what could happen if nuclear war is not averted. More than 100 million people watched its initial broadcasting in 1983, and it was selected as one of the greatest TV programs ever by Time Magazine in 2007. Even today, a look into a darker world shaped by Oppenheimer feels relevant in the worst way possible.
The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2009)
Through a mix of archival footage, interviews with scholars, and reenactments of an interrogative trial of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Bourne Ultimatum‘s David Strathairn), The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is relentless in its dissection of not only the man but also the myth. The film answers why America turned on the man who ostensibly ended World War II while not painting Oppenheimer as a victim of any sort. Oppenheimer was on trial for Nolan’s entire film, but it bounced around fictional interpretations of history. In The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, you get the historical context at the heart of the dramatizations so you can draw your own conclusions.
Christopher Nolan is one of the preeminent modern filmmakers when it comes to large-scale epics, and Dunkirk is one of his finest. While World War II was a looming shadow over everything in Oppenheimer, in Dunkirk, Nolan immerses you deep into the dark past of the deadliest war in modern history. Little is said, but the weight of war and despair is palpable.
Although it may take you over 4 1/2 hours (and a few months until you can buy or stream Oppenheimer), a back-to-back viewing of the two, starting with Dunkirk, can really give you a panoramic view of one of the most transformative times in world history through the brilliant mind of one of the greatest directors of the 21st century.
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The Theory of Everything (2014)
Nothing stopped Oppenheimer from gifting America the atomic bomb. That same unstoppable genius is central to The Theory of Everything, a biographical drama whose central figure, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), didn’t let his body breaking down from motor neuron disease prevent him from unlocking the secret of the universe’s creation. The heart of the film is the touching yet tragic relationship between Stephen and his ex-wife Jane Hawkins (Felicity Jones) that also includes a genius in a dying marriage finding love elsewhere. Rule of thumb: Don’t date geniuses.
Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
The title may sound like a lost Chris Farley and David Spade buddy comedy, but there isn’t anything funny about Fat Man and Little Boy. Named after the two atomic bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, Fat Man and Little Boy takes a slightly different approach to telling the same story as Oppenheimer. Instead of U.S. Army General Leslie Groves appearing sporadically as he did in Oppenheimer, he and Oppenheimer often are at odds on the timeline of the bomb’s creation, adding a level of tension within The Manhattan Project noticeably absent in Oppenheimer. There’s also more wrangling with consciences amongst the scientists, as opposed to Oppenheimer’s arguments around what type of bomb to make. But the main draw of this 1989 classic is the absolute wealth of talent—John Cusack, Paul Newman, Laura Dern, and Dwight Schultz, to name a few. Come for the bombs; stay for a masterclass in acting.
A Compassionate Spy
If you saw Oppenheimer and didn’t remember any of the other scientists, you’d be forgiven— they were mostly Oppenheimer acolytes. One name you surely didn’t hear in the movie is Theodore Hall, an actual spy who was leaking sensitive information from The Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union from Los Alamos. But you’ll learn all about him in the documentary film A Compassionate Spy. Oscar-nominated director Steve James uses great nuance to lay out a shockingly true tale through archival footage, interviews with people like Hall’s wife, Joan Hall, Hall himself, and at least one man who thinks Hall should’ve been shot dead for his treachery. You heard in Oppenheimer there was a spy; now come to find out about him.
Keith Nelson is a writer by fate and journalist by passion, who has connected dots to form the bigger picture for Men’s Health, Vibe Magazine, LEVEL MAG, REVOLT TV, Complex, Grammys.com, Red Bull, Okayplayer, and Mic, to name a few.