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Wonders Are Many
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by Mel Valentin

"Dr. Atomic gets his own modern opera."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams and dramaturge/director Peter Sellars have collaborated several times, most notably on "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer." As a composer, Adams other works include "Harmonium," "Shaker Loops," "The Chairman Dances," "Grand Pianola," and "El Nino," often adopting a wide range of music styles from jazz to minimalism and late Romanticism. Sellars has staged hundreds of musical productions in the United States and elsewhere, including "Saint Francois d’Assise," "Mathis der Maler," and the oratorio for Adams’ "El Nino."

Their most recent collaboration, Dr. Atomic, an opera centered on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the testing of the first nuclear bomb in 1945, premiered two years ago at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, California. No stranger to the subject matter, writer/director Jon Else (The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb), opted to follow Adams and Sellars over the course of a year as they prepared for the premiere of Dr. Atomic opera. The end result, Wonders Are Many: The Making of Dr. Atomic, documentary gives us an often insightful behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to mount a modern opera, with all the anguish and grief associated with a large-scale taking on one of the seminal issues of the 20th century, the creation and use of the atomic bomb.

In 1942, theoretical physicist and university professor J. Robert Oppenheimer was tapped by U.S. Army General Leslie Groves to head up the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer helped to select the best minds of his generation, their families, and support staff with one goal: to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany did. As project leader, Oppenheimer had unique access to all facets of developing an atomic bomb, including the objections of some scientists to its ultimate use as a weapon likely to kill tens of thousands of people in just a few seconds. While one young physicist openly challenged the military use of the bomb, even going as far as circulating a petition saying as much that was eventually forwarded to President Harry S. Truman in 1945. Wilson obviously didn’t succeed, but before Oppenheimer and Groves could test their bomb, Nazi Germany surrendered, leaving Japan, a nation without an active atomic bomb program, as the likeliest target. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945, on a site Oppenheimer dubbed “Trinity” from a line in a John Donne poem. Less than a month later, atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands instantly and tens of thousands more with radiation poisoning over the next year.

Besides introducing us to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the complexities of social and political history and theoretical physics (if only briefly and superficially), Wonders Are Many follows Sellars as he puts the lyrics together for the opera, Adams as he composes the opera, performers as they rehearse their lines, set designers, technicians, and crafts people as they build and light the set, and later, Sellars again as he meticulously stages the opera. Adams and Sellars also decide to compress the timeline covered in Dr. Atomic from two weeks to the last 48-hours before Oppenheimer and his team detonate the atomic bomb, forever changing the world. Not surprisingly, Wonders Are Many catches Sellars many moods and Adams’ self-deprecatory description of composing as a craft first, art second. Controversy erupts less than a week before the premiere when Sellars decides to replace the second lead with his younger, more age- and ethnic-appropriate understudy.

If "Wonders Are Many" has any faults, it’s in how little we actually see from the final production. Most of what we see is drawn from the rehearsals, some rough, some polished, but almost always incomplete. While Wonders Are Many" spends some time describing Oppenheimer’s background and changing beliefs, it purposely skims over his later efforts as an ant-nuclear activist and the subsequent loss of his security clearance and, with it, access to Los Alamos. In other words, we get hints, glimpses of Oppenheimer, but never a fully rounded picture of who he was, what he contributed to the Manhattan Project (besides acting as team leader), or ultimately why his views about the atomic bomb changed. Those answers might be obvious to anyone familiar with Else’s documentary on Oppenheimer or someone who’s done their research on Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, but not to casual viewers without a background or interest in the subject. Despite that, "Wonders Are Many" will prove a fruitful starting point for anyone interested in Adams, Sellars, and "Dr. Atomic."

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16075&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/10/07 00:44:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jon Else

Written by
  Jon Else

Cast
  John Adams
  Peter Sellars



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