It is a truth universally acknowledged that, if you’re going to make a movie about nuclear physicists, one of them must eventually fall victim to a lab accident that causes them to die an excruciating death by radiation poisoning. If in the course of this accident, they heroically sacrifice themselves to save their fellow scientists, all the better.
However, standing between Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Oppenheimer and the obligatory radiation-poisoning death scene is the same historical fact that has bedeviled all other depictions of the Manhattan Project: The only two such occurrences at Los Alamos, the tragic deaths of Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin, happened after the bomb had already been dropped.
This will not do. How else can a filmmaker represent the terrible dawn of the atomic age than by showing the devastating effects of radiation on a single American scientist? (Before you say, “What about the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians?,” sorry, that’s not allowed.)
The 1989 movie Fat Man and Little Boy got around this issue by killing off a fictional character, John Cusack’s Michael Merriman, who was loosely based on Slotin. Could Oppenheimer do the same? Let’s go down the 70-person cast list one by one, crossing off the people who canonically did not die of radiation poisoning, until we find the most likely suspects.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy)
We’ll start with the easy ones. Since Oppenheimer also delves into what happened to Robert Oppenheimer after the war, we know Nolan is not going to invent a fictional death for him. A lifelong smoker, the real Oppenheimer died of throat cancer in 1967 at age 62.
Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt)
After her husband’s death, Kitty started dating his old colleague Robert Serber, who’d recently lost his wife. In 1972 they bought a sailboat and set off on a trip through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific. However, they only got as far as Panama, where Kitty died of an embolism in a U.S. Army hospital.
Frank Oppenheimer (Dylan Arnold)
Robert Oppenheimer’s little brother also worked on the Manhattan Project, but as tragic as it would be for him to perish in the name of science, he lived to age 72.
Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), Gordon Gray (Tony Goldwyn), Thomas Morgan (Kurt Koehler), Ward Evans (John Gowans), Lloyd Garrison (Macon Blair), Senator McGee (Harry Groener), Chairman Magnuson (Gregory Jbara), Senator Bartlett (Tim King), Senator Pastore (Tim DeKay), Senator Scott (Steven Houska), William Borden (David Dastmalchian), Joe Volpe (Michael Andrew Baker), and Kenneth Nichols (Dane DeHaan)
You see Jason Clarke’s name in a cast list, you naturally assume he’s either going to get cucked, or he’s going to die. (Or sometimes both!) But these all appear to be characters from Robert Oppenheimer’s security-clearance hearings in 1954, which ipso facto means they will not die in a terrible nuclear accident ten years earlier.
Patrick Blackett (James D’Arcy), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Hartlan Snyder (Rory Keane), Kurt Gödel (James Urbaniak), and Leo Szilard (Máté Haumann)
All of these people are real scientists who crossed paths with Robert Oppenheimer, sometimes as mentors, sometimes as friends. They survived the war without being killed by rogue masses of plutonium.
Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Harry Truman (Gary Oldman), and Lyndon Johnson (Hap Lawrence)
Similarly, I do not think Oppenheimer is going to invent fictional deaths for these famous historical figures.
Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer)
During World War II, U.S. intelligence reportedly considered assassinating the Nobel laureate if they learned he was helping Germany produce an atomic bomb. He wasn’t, so they didn’t, and he lived until 1976.
Leslie Groves (Matt Damon)
Listen, it would be hilarious for Damon to be killed in yet another Christopher Nolan film. But Groves, the general who directed the Manhattan Project, didn’t die until 1970.
Luis Alvarez (Alex Wolff), Robert Serber (Michael Anganaro), Edward Condon (Olli Hasskivi), Donald Hornig (David Rysdahl), Kenneth Bainbridge (Josh Peck), Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), George Kistiakowsky (Trond Fausa), Seth Neddermeyer (Devon Bostick), and Philip Morrison (Harrison Gilbertson)
Did you think Dunkirk had a lot of young actors who were impossible to tell apart? Welcome to Oppenheimer’s squadron of nerdy young hunks, all of whom are playing real Los Alamos scientists who made it through the war.
Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham)
On the TV series Manhattan, Denham played a fictional scientist at Los Alamos who turned out to be spying for the Soviets. In Oppenheimer, he’s playing the real-life scientist who turned out to be spying for the Soviets. The guy knows his type. Anyway, Fuchs was caught, sent to prison, then moved to East Germany, where he died the year before the Wall fell.
Rossi Lomanitz (Josh Zuckerman)
Lomanitz was denied a spot at Los Alamos due to his membership in the Communist Party. He wound up fighting in the Pacific Theater, but survived, dying of cancer in 2002.
Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh)
Oppenheimer’s Communist ex was found dead in her apartment in 1944. Was her death a suicide, as the official story goes, or was she murdered? The authors of American Prometheus, the book Oppenheimer is based on, admit that much of the evidence is consistent with suicide, but they also quote a doctor who says, “If you were clever and wanted to kill someone, this is the way to do it.” Anyway, there’s enough drama to Jean’s story without making nuclear physics the culprit.
Jackie Oppenheimer (Emma Dumont), Mary Washburn (Sadie Stratton), Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall), Barbara Chevalier (Britt Kyle), and George Eltenton (Guy Burnet)
Jackie was Frank’s wife and Robert’s sister-in-law. She and everyone else in this section were Communists who crossed paths with Oppenheimer without dying of radiation poisoning.
Richard Tolman (Tom Jenkins) and Vannevar Bush (Matthew Modine)
Science bigwigs! Much too important to be doing hands-on research with radioactive elements until the fateful moment their hand slips, just for an instant …
Ruth Tolman (Louise Lombard)
Richard Tolman’s wife, who allegedly had an affair with Oppenheimer. She died in 1957, for reasons unrelated to the development of the atom bomb.
Lili Hornig (Olivia Thirlby)
The rare woman working for the Manhattan Project. Hornig died in November 2017 at age 96, meaning she theoretically lived long enough to see Dunkirk in theaters.
Charlotte Serber (Jessica Erin Martin)
The librarian at Los Alamos; Serber died by suicide in 1967.
J. Ernest Wilkins (Ronald Auguste)
A Black nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, though not at Los Alamos. He lived until 2011, and Oppenheimer wouldn’t dare put him in New Mexico just to kill him off.
David Hill (Rami Malek)
I gotta be honest, when I began this project, I thought Malek was going to be the one to bite it for sure. A name like “David Hill”? That sounds like a fictional character. And can’t you just see Malek’s eyes go wide (or wider) in panic when he realizes he’s doomed? But no — Hill was a real guy too, who lived to 89.
Lyall Johnson (Jack Cutmore-Scott), Boris Pash (Casey Affleck), Henry Stimson (James Remar), George C. Marshall (Will Roberts), James Byrnes (Pat Skipper), and James Conant (Steve Coulter)
U.S. government employees of varying ranks: Johnson was a lowly security officer; Marshall was secretary of state. What they all have in common is that none of them died of radiation poisoning.
With them, we’ve come to the end of all the named characters in the Oppenheimer credits, all of whose deaths are accounted for. Could it be that Oppenheimer will somehow not include the obligatory movie scene of a scientist dying in a lab accident? Perhaps! However, the movie’s credits also include a handful of characters who lack proper names. Let’s run through them quickly to see if any of them are candidates.
Senate Aide (Alden Ehrenreich), Counsel (Scott Grimes), and Congressman (Jeff Hephner)
These guys also seem like they come from the 1950s scenes. They’re safe! (Sidenote: Five years ago, Ehrenreich was the future of Star Wars. Now he’s playing an unnamed character in the framing device of a Christopher Nolan film. Time moves fast in Hollywood.)
Dutch Student (Petrie Willink)
He’s listed in the section with people Oppenheimer met as a young man traveling Europe, so I think he’s probably safe as well.
AAF Officer (Jeremy John Wells), Weatherman (Sean Avery), Army Captain (Adam Kroeger), Soldier (Drew Kenney), and AAF Officer 2 (Bryce Johnson)
Every World War II movie needs guys like this. I don’t expect any of them will have the screen time to die in a nuclear accident.
Burn Victim (Flora Nolan)
A possibility from the name alone, until you realize she’s being played by Nolan’s college-age daughter.
Laughing Woman (Kerry Westcott), Kissing Woman (Christina Hogue), Kissing Man (Clay Bunker), Weeping Man (Tyler Bearsley), and Consoling Woman (Maria Teresa Zuppetta)
I like to imagine these characters will all appear together in the summer’s weirdest sex scene.
Presidential Aide (Kate French)
Concerned Scientist (Brett Delbuono)
If Oppenheimer is going to make a supporting character die of radiation poisoning, it all comes down to this guy.