1 9 8 0 (UK/USA)
7 x 60 minute episodes
This splendid, well-acted seven-part, factually-based dramatic anthology series concerned the controversial life of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the top secret “Manhattan Project” at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop and deploy the first atomic bomb.
Ethical and moral concerns over the use of nuclear weapons would later plague the scientist and bring him into conflict with colleagues and government officials.
In the debut episode, “Oppie” was a university physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, which brought him into marginal contact with a series of communist organisations.
It was more an academic interest in ideas than politics, and he did not join the party, but his younger brother Frank (Garrick Hagon) and girlfriend, Jean Tatlock (Kate Harper), did – and those associations would be part of a later smear campaign to discredit Oppenheimer in the 1950s.
The discovery that Germany had been conducting experiments with atomic fission prompted fears in America about the development of a potent new weapon, and as Germany and the United States raced to develop an atomic weapon, Oppenheimer was chosen by the US Army to serve as the head scientist in the bomb design project at Los Alamos.
Ethical issues and anguish over the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw the project into temporary confusion.
Following the deployment of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which effectively brought World War II to a lightning-quick end with the immediate surrender of Japan, Oppenheimer was given celebrity status.
Then it all began to crumble.
As the hysteria of the Cold War seized the US, Oppenheimer began to articulate grave reservations over the development of a hydrogen bomb which brought him into disfavour with American political and military leaders in the early 1950s.
He was stripped of his security clearance by President Eisenhower, ending his career, and the FBI conducted hearings to examine his past connections to communist organisations, which greatly damaged his reputation.
Some of the dialogue in the later episodes came directly from the hearings conducted before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.
In 1963, President Johnson presented Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Prize – the Atomic Energy Commission’s highest honour – “for contributions to theoretical physics as a teacher and originator of ideas, and for leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years”. He died three years later at the age of 62.
The series was produced by the BBC and written by British screenwriter Peter Prince, who gained access to Oppneheimer’s actual FBI files through the American Freedom of Information Act.
Oppenheimer was aired in the US over seven weeks in 1982 under the PBS American Playhouse umbrella.
J Robert Oppenheimer
General Leslie Groves
General Wihelm Styer
Colonel John Lansdale
Colonel Kenneth Nichols