On July 16, 1945, in the remote desert of New Mexico, the first nuclear bomb was detonated.
Looking at first like a macro-scale soap bubble, it leapt 7½ miles into the sky to take the form of a heaven-bound jellyfish. The explosion was brighter than the light of the sun. It was the birth of a new scale of death, and it was magnificent.
The detonation site was dubbed “Trinity”—under inspiration from John Donne’s poem—by the bomb’s chief architect, J Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, a horseman, a sailor and a brilliant physicist who read poetry in five languages, was smoking upward of four packs of Chesterfields a day and was all of 115 pounds on a 6-foot frame by the time of the detonation.
The lead up to the top-secret Trinity detonation (so secret even Vice President Harry Truman didn’t know about it), which was responsible for Oppenheimer’s sickly, emaciated state, is the subject Doctor Atomic, which premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2005. It was directed by the postminimalist Peter Sellars and features a libretto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams.
Now, a new documentary, Wonders Are Many, both echoes Doctor Atomic’s subject matter and goes a step further, becoming a meta-document on the opera’s creation. These two narrative threads—the preparation for detonation in 1945 and the preparation for performance in 2005—are woven together by director Jon Else, who made his own award-winning documentary about Oppenheimer in 1981 called The Day After Trinity, and who returns to the subject with gusto, flair and a gift for synthesis.
The smoothly told portions about Oppenheimer and the bomb provide a thorough history refresher and feature archival interviews with Oppenheimer, noted British physicist Freeman Dyson and lots of well-managed archival footage and voice-over.
But it’s the parts that are focused on the staging of Doctor Atomic that really shine in Else’s film. Here we are privileged to have an intimate glimpse at the mesmerizing Sellars as he directs his actors.
Sellars, with the physique of a pit bull runt, an eccentric cubist coiffure and a different garishly bright paisley button-up in nearly every scene, is quite a sight to behold. We are also treated to the collaborative working process of John Adams, several of the actors, the choral director, the San Francisco Opera’s art crew as they assemble the (fake) bomb, the conductor and, of course, a great deal of fantastic music.
As Wonders Are Many builds toward its surprisingly ecstatic dénouement, it becomes as much a testament to the creative process—scientific as well as artistic—as it is an awe-inflected exploration of the great destruction that was devised in the New Mexico desert.