Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic

The creation of a monumental opera based on the mysterious and paradoxical career of the “father of the atomic bomb,” Dr. Robert Oppenheimer.

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
December 16, 2008
90 minutes
Funding Initiative
Series and Special Projects

Jon Else

Jon Else is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose film The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb won the first-ever documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1980 and has been broadcast repeatedly around the globe for the past 28 years. It is used widely in schools, universities, and institutions including the Show more Pentagon, the CIA, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. A MacArthur Fellow from 1988 to 1993 and winner of four National Emmys for writing, producing, directing, and cinematography, Else also produced and directed Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven; Cadillac Desert: Water and the Transformation of Nature; Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle; Open Outcry; and part of the PBS series The Great Depression. Other honors include several Alfred I. DuPont, Polk, and Peabody awards, the Prix Italia, the Sundance Special Jury Prize and Sundance Filmmaker’s Trophy as well as several Academy Award nominations. Else just returned from Afghanistan after doing camera work for a PBS documentary about that country’s new constitution called Democracy Afghan Style. Else received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley and his Master’s degree in communication from Stanford University. He currently heads the documentary program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and directs the university’s experimental Center for New Documentary. Show less


Bonni Cohen

Bonni Cohen started Actual Films in 1998 with her partner and husband, Jon Shenk. Bonni recently co-directed and produced The Rape of Europa, a feature-length documentary for primetime PBS. The film is an adaptation of Lynn Nicholas’ National Book Award-winning history of the same name. Bonni also produced Wonders Are Many, a film by Jon Else about the Show more making of the John Adams’ opera, Doctor Atomic. It had its national television broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens series. In 2004, Bonni co-produced a film about Afghanistan’s constitutional process for PBS’s Wide Angle series. She also produced and directed a number of films for a PBS series called The New Heroes. Bonni produced and directed a one-hour special for national PBS entitled The Nobel: Visions of Our Century, an analysis of 100 years of the Nobel prize told from the perspectives of 11 different Nobel laureates. For the BBC Correspondent series, she directed and produced Eye of the Storm, an intimate, verité portrait of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan that follows his diplomatic efforts from Baghdad to Nigeria to New York. Eye of the Storm has been shown around the world in over 125 countries. She co-produced They Drew Fire, a feature documentary about the combat artists of World War II which aired nationally on PBS in 2000. Bonni is currently making a film for National Geographic’s Explorer series about Guantanamo Bay. Before coming to documentary film, Bonni worked as a journalist for Reuters Television and was based in London and Jerusalem. Show less

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The Film

Theirs was a project so cloaked in secrecy that not even Vice President Truman knew it existed — a team of top scientists from around the world, assembled high on a mesa in New Mexico, were brought together in 1941 by mastermind physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer to create the most horrifically destructive weapon in human history — the atomic bomb.

Sixty years later, John Adams, a composer with strong roots in minimalism, and stage director Peter Sellars, renowned for his contemporary staging of classical operas and plays, joined forces to forge a monumental new opera. The film Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic chronicles the creative journey to craft an opera that captures the 48-hour period leading up to the Trinity Test, the first-ever detonation of The Bomb.

Weaving together both archival footage and interviews, Wonders are Many mirrors the staging of the opera with the frenetic pace of the top secret Manhattan Project team; they grapple with their doubts and ambitions, personal struggles, practical challenges, and moral dilemmas presented by their terrifying invention.

Looming at the center of both the opera and the film is the enigmatic and exceptional figure of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer himself — the brilliant physicist, the frail aesthete who spoke five languages including Sanskrit, a man who read poetry and married a former Communist.

Dramatic, recently declassified footage of nuclear testing, John Adams’ avant-garde score, and the antics of a 250-person opera company racing toward opening night under Peter Sellars’ direction all culminate in one explosive film.