One consonant away from an icon of American innocence, “Oppie,” as the spindly genius and nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was known to his friends, had become a pariah by the time Opie Taylor hit the scene in the 1960s. Oppie had been an innocent in his own right 20 years earlier, when unyielding curiosity about the mysterious force of the atom led him and a band of scientists at Los Alamos to build the most catastrophic weapon known to man. Jon Else’s Wonders Are Many closes in on the Trinity atomic test of July 1945, twinning it with the production of an opera based on those events called Doctor Atomic and offering the creative dilemma faced by both operations as common ground. Opera director Peter Sellars calls the phlegmatic Oppenheimer “every dramatist’s dream,” and composer John Adams’s libretto is a pastiche of interview material, Donne poetry, and the Bhagavad Gita, which makes for some seriously clunky going in the rehearsals. And director Else’s decision to blend recently declassified footage of nuclear testing with interviews of major players from both the Manhattan Project and the San Francisco Opera Company results in an unusual, occasionally uncomfortable mélange. The historical narrative easily outpaces that of the opera, and at times, the difference between crying “bomb” in a crowded theater and the New Mexico desert takes this otherwise engrossing film one juxtaposition too far.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 27, 2008