July 5, 2023

Opening of “Oppenheimer” Inspires Tours, Talks, Commemorative Events

By Anne Levin

Local excitement is building for the film Oppenheimer, set to open on July 21 at the Princeton Garden Theatre and across the nation. It was in Princeton that famed physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer — who was instrumental in creating the atomic bomb — lived with his family while serving as director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) from 1947 to 1966.

Christopher Nolan’s movie stars Cillian Murphy in the title role, supported by Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, and Kenneth Branagh. Portions of the film were shot last summer at the IAS, at Princeton University, and around town, adding to local anticipation. Some Oppenheimer-themed events are planned around the opening.

This Friday, July 7 at 1 p.m., the Institute is hosting a special virtual roundtable, “What Goes Unseen: Reimagining the Legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” with panelists George Dyson, Graham Farmelo, Siobhan Roberts, and Alex Wellerstein. Participation is free, but registration is required; visit ias.edu to sign up.

On July 19 at 7 p.m., the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) and the Princeton Garden Theatre host a screening of Jean Renoir’s 1937 anti-war film Grand Illusion, introduced by Eve Mandel, the HSP’s director of programs and outreach. According to various accounts, Oppenheimer was brought to tears when he attended the film decades ago, at the same theater, with his wife Kitty.

Oppenheimer is the subject of a special walking tour sponsored by the HSP,

being held at Oppenheimer-related sites on July 28, August 6, and August 13. Guiding the tours is Steve Yacik, familiar to participants from previous excursions he had led for the organization.

“We’re waiting until after the movie comes out so we can see which locations they actually use,” Yacik said. “We know we can’t go to his home and the Institute, since they are too far to walk from the Garden Theatre, where the tour begins. But we’ll be using the campus of Princeton University.”

Before hitting the pavement, participants will hear Yacik talk about the film director Nolan. “He came to Princeton University at the students’ request a few years ago,” Yacik said. Nolan was guest speaker at Class Day in 2015. “He basically said, ‘Follow your reality’ as his theme. I use that to say, ‘Yes, there is a movie, but we’re going to step into the reality of these actual people.’ There is such a connection with Princeton.”

Yacik is considering assigning roles to the tour participants — Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, General Leslie Groves, and others. “These are all people who have connections not just with The Manhattan Project [to create the atomic bomb], but with Princeton itself,” he said. “For example, what is now the Frist Campus Center was originally the Palmer Physical Laboratory, which is engraved over the doorway. And 75 percent of Princeton’s physics department left the University to work on The Manhattan Project.”

The Frist Center is on the tour, along with the exterior of Alexander Hall, where Oppenheimer’s funeral was held. “Two of the three eulogies at the funeral were given by people connected to Princeton,” Yacik said. A shady bench in the back of Prospect Garden will likely be included because of a connection to Bohr.

Yacik said he will tell stories about Oppenheimer and his family, who spent their last years, before his death in 1967, at the Institute. “It was very much a sanctuary for him,” he said.

After holding a test tour a few weeks ago, Yacik got some helpful, constructive comments from participants. “The task is to realize that the range of people’s understanding when they arrive at the tour varies considerably,” he said. “Given that it’s Princeton, you can have a nuclear physicist and someone who has no idea who Oppenheimer was. That’s the challenge.”

Tickets for the walking tour are $15. Visit princetonhistory.org.