Art and science form a combustible fusion in Jon Else’s elegant and wide-ranging “Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic.” A dazzling case of the right filmmaker attached to the right subject, Else comprehensively captures the making of the 2005 San Francisco Opera world premiere of composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars’ opera, “Doctor Atomic,” on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the first atomic bomb. Though funded by and set to air next year on public television, the film is best seen in cinemas, where it seems certain to capture select auds in top-flight fests and in release Stateside and abroad.
Since Oppenheimer never left behind diaries or an autobiography, his life remains an open book for interpreters, which Adams and Sellars eagerly would like to be. Originally intended to span Oppenheimer’s entire career involving the bomb, which covered a number of year, Adams explains that the dramatic need to compress dictated that the narrative concentrate on the final two days in Los Alamos, New Mexico, leading to the 1945 test.
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Given that Else has explored this exact topic before (and also lensed in the same opera establishment for his 2000 pic, “Sing Faster”), he risked repeating himself as a filmmaker. But with so much excess archival material not used in “Trinity” and with the chance to observe how artists re-imagine and stage actual events, an extremely different — though similarly majestic — documentary results.
Else’s camera is allowed into Sellars’ and Adams’ separate, sun-drenched, homey work spaces, as they go about building a libretto from bits and pieces of text taken from sources as disparate as a work on the military uses of atomic energy to “The Bhaghavadgita” (cited by the highly cultured Oppenheimer after the test). The intent, says Adams, is to find “faux verse” that can be sung.
Since the underlying intent of “Wonders Are Many” is to erase distinctions between science and art, inclusion of engrossing physicist and Oppenheimer colleague Freeman Dyson is enormously helpful to the film’s overall substance and sense of humanity. The urge to want to see what happens when the atom is split is, as Dyson says, citing early atomic pioneer Lord Rutherford, in our child-like nature: “We want to take the watch apart to see how it works.”
Docu’s triumph is to implicitly suggest how this same tinkering operates in the making of opera, and Else fills the screen with a host of elegant correlations between the Trinity project and the production. Most striking of these is matched footage of the bomb itself with the bomb set piece, built from scratch in the opera workshop following archival photos and drawings.
Fans of Adams and Sellars will be in hog heaven, since their working methods have never been so intimately and thoroughly viewed. Sellars is as enthusiastic with his cast and chorus as he is privately or publicly. Close observers of his work will note that in this staging, he dispenses with his wilder stagecraft imaginings, creating stage pictures that closely adhere to the buildings and objects of the Trinity experiment.
Adams works in his San Francisco studio on a keyboard and computer set-up, and then later retreats up the coast to a quieter haunt in forested Mendocino. The sight of one of the country’s great composers writing on severe deadline is like peering in on extremely private space.
A last-minute cast change rocks Sellars’ ensemble (particularly lead tenor Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer), further deepening the film’s connection between science’s inherent risk of experimentation and art’s risk of failure.
HD lensing is clean and sharp, accented by vibrant colors and contrasted by the grainy texture of Trinity footage. Music soundtrack is drenched in Adams’ signature minimalist music, whose mathematical and clock-like precision seems perfectly married to Oppenheimer’s world.