Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Nolan’s Oppenheimer treats New Mexico as a blank canvas

In Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic “Oppenheimer,” released last week, the Manhattan Project comes to New Mexico largely because J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) wishes it so. The film was shot in the Land of Enchantment with a hastily assembled Ghost Ranch set serving as the film’s freshly constructed Los Alamos. “Oppenheimer” features New Mexico as setting, backdrop, and refuge for the transplant scientists and military men who spent World War II developing the atom bomb. The film does not show the people already living in New Mexico, neither before the first shovel hits the dirt nor after Trinity’s radioactive fallout creates the first downwinders.

Audiences leaving “Oppenheimer” will come away with a sense of the biography of the foundational figure in atomic history. Nolan’s film runs parallel narratives of Oppenheimer’s life from graduate school through Trinity, the 1954 closed-door hearing which upheld his security clearance revocation, and the 1959 confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss’ nomination to be President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s commerce secretary.

The film capably describes how Oppenheimer built the first theoretical physics department at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1930s, next door to the radiation laboratory founded by Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett). It’s on a vacation with Lawrence and his brother Frank Oppenheimer (Dyland Arnold) in northern New Mexico that Oppenheimer quips that he would be truly happy if he could find a way to combine his two passions, New Mexico and Physics. 

The discovery of atomic fission makes this possible, as Oppenheimer and others quickly realize a split atom can theoretically become the core of a powerful bomb. Soon, wartime demands and concern that German physicists might have a year head start lead the War Department to fund the creation of a secret research complex. Oppenheimer, together with General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) settle on the Los Alamos mesa.

“New Mexico was not remote and uninhabitable. Those were the very words that were used when they sited Los Alamos, that it was remote and inhabitable,” said Myrriah Gomez, assistant professor at UNM, at a panel after a Saturday screening of the film in Santa Fe. “Neither the project-wide site nor the Trinity site met the stipulations that the government required for either site.”

In the film, Oppenheimer and Groves find only a ranch school in their way. Left out of the film are the New Mexicans who lost land to the lab, did manual labor for it, and would be caught in the fallout from the world’s first atomic test.

“I knew clearly that this movie would be an over-glorification of the science and scientists, and there would be no reflection on the fact that without the people of New Mexico, we would not even have a Manhattan project for a trinity test,” said Tina Cordova, one of the founders of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

They don’t talk about how New Mexicans did the dirtiest jobs, how we were part of building the roads and the bridges and the buildings. And then when that was completed, they sent us into the dirtiest jobs inside of the labs handling radioactive waste.

– Tina Cordova, Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium

The panel was put on by a collection of nuclear threat reduction groups, led by Aligning Action in partnership with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Ploughshares Fund, and Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. The attendance, as remarked upon by a panelist, was largely white, and gray hair predominated among the crowd. There was an audience for a critique of New Mexico’s nuclear policy, but the scene at the panel was somewhat different than the crowds making “Barbenheimer” a historic weekend for multiplexes.

Uranium mined in New Mexico was part of that refined and used to fuel Gadget, the Trinity Test bomb, as well as Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The miners are not depicted in the film, and only slight mention is given to the work of uranium enrichment undertaken at Oak Ridge Tennessee or plutonium refining that occurred at the Hanford reactors in Washington State.

“They don’t talk about how New Mexicans did the dirtiest jobs, how we were part of building the roads and the bridges and the buildings. And then when that was completed, they sent us into the dirtiest jobs inside of the labs handling radioactive waste,” said Cordova. “They also didn’t depict the women that they bussed up there, Native women and the Hispanic women that literally cooked every meal, cleaned every house, changed every diaper, and made every baby bottle. They won’t show that in a film like this.”

After the second act of the film builds to the Trinity detonation, it takes careful detail capturing the reaction to the flash and then the sound wave from the assembled scientists. The thousands of residents of New Mexico who lived within 50 miles of the blast are given no screen time, or mention. The fallout, which the New York Times reported reached 46 states as well as Canada and Mexico, is not depicted or mentioned on screen.

“I have been dealing with a great deal of angst before watching this movie. It has left me with continued anger over the idea that they came to New Mexico when they established the Manhattan Project, invaded our lands and our lives, and they walked away. And when they made the Oppenheimer movie, they came here and took advantage of our tax incentives, they invaded our lands and our lives, and they walked away,” said Cordova. “It would’ve taken nothing away from this movie if they had added a panel at the very end and acknowledged our sacrifices.”

There is no such acknowledgement in the film of the existence of downwinders from the test, in New Mexico or elsewhere. Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” once assigns a number to the atomic dead, offering the 110,000 estimate produced by the US military in the 1940s. A higher estimate, of at least 210,000, was produced in the 1970s, and was the number used by panelists.

John C. Wester, Archbishop of Santa Fe, spoke against the continued and renewed development of nuclear weapons in the world and in his diocese. The Basilica of St. Francis “is only about roughly a hundred footsteps away from 109 East Palace Avenue, which was the gateway during the Manhattan Project,” said Wester, repeating a line he has honed in his appeals for disarmament. “And the secret was the Los Alamos lab that, as we just saw very dramatically, developed the atomic bomb that incinerated more than 200,000 souls at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In response, I seek to make the St. Francis Cathedral, in downtown Santa Fe, a gateway to universal, verifiable, global nuclear disarmament.”

The perils of the Atomic Age are not just the past harm done through bomb development, use in World War II, and testing before and after. It is the continued legacy of the bomb and its development, with Los Alamos as a crucial node in the nuclear enterprise, that adds urgency to righting the wrongs of the past.

“We’ve been slept-walked into a new nuclear arms race, arguably far more dangerous than the first,” said Wester. “I grew up in the duck-and-cover generation. Perhaps some of you remember that. I felt chills many decades later when I read that Robert McNamara, defense secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis, said that we survived that crisis only by luck. Luck is not a sustainable strategy for the survival of the human family.”



Jay Coghlan, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, emphasized the danger from renewed plutonium pit production at Los Alamos, which he sees as both unnecessary for nuclear deterrence, and as risking development of new nuclear weapons.

In the shadow of “Oppenheimer,” with its close focus on the policy fights at the dawn of the Atomic Age, it was clear that everyone felt the film, flaws and all, at least afforded a moment for the nation and the world to challenge the status quo on nuclear weapons. Still, another way to make that point stick home would have been to include what happened to the people of New Mexico, the first victims of nuclear colonialism and nuclear weapons.

When Gomez began her research, she interviewed her great aunt, in her 90s at the time, to ask what it was like when the Manhattan Project came to land where her family had lived.

“She had her hands about two feet apart. She said the bean plants were this high when the federal government came and bulldozed over them,” said Gomez. “These were people’s livelihoods. My great-grandfather took his crops and took them into town, and traded them or sold them. They were subsistence farmers. It wouldn’t have taken a lot of work to do that research to represent that New Mexico was not remote and uninhabited.”

In the blast sequence, too, Nolan could have found room to tell the stories of the people who lived in New Mexico long before Oppenheimer and Groves ever set to work on building a secret lab.

“It would’ve been fantastic if they would’ve included the histories that have been shared with us by the people that lived through the blast,” said Cordova. “The fact that I know people who told me stories about how they dropped to their knees, they got out of their car, they dropped to their knees and they started praying the rosary because they thought they were experiencing the end of the world. Or the mother that gathered up all of her children in bed with her and said, ‘If we’re gonna die, we’re all gonna die together.’”

 “Those kinds of stories could have been easily depicted as part of this,” continued Cordova, “because I think some people are going to ask the question, maybe not, but some people will, you know: What happened to the surrounding area?”

In Nolan’s telling, that’s left up to the audiences’ imagination. It didn’t have to be.

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