Los Alamos sees tourism boost as ‘Oppenheimer’ fame grows

Christopher Nolan’s $1 billion-grossing “Oppenheimer” hasn’t just lined the pockets of Hollywood studio executives — it has also brought an unexpected windfall to the secretive community of Los Alamos.

The movie, the clear frontrunner to win best picture at the Oscars on March 10, tells the story of the invention of the atomic bomb.

Much of the action takes place in Los Alamos, a town built around a top-secret lab that was created from scratch in New Mexico at the suggestion of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had a lifelong passion for the surrounding mountains.

Since the film’s release last July, tourists have been flocking to sites like the Oppenheimer House, and Fuller Lodge, where nuclear scientists held parties to celebrate their success in building the bomb.

Visitor numbers leapt by 68 percent last year, town officials say.

“We started seeing a huge influx” last spring, even before the film hit theaters, said Kathy Anderson, a tour guide for the local historical society, which had to triple the number of daily tours.

“If it does win Oscars, I think we’re going to see a lot more interest.”

But the success shrouds a complicated relationship that Los Alamos has with its past and with Oppenheimer, who is still widely referred to around town by his affectionate nickname “Oppie.”

– ‘Very complicated’ –

On the one hand, the tourist boom could help raise the $2 million needed to restore the century-old home where the Oppenheimers lived, which is in dire need of repairs.

“Oppenheimer was renowned for his martinis and for being a very accommodating host. A lot of history happened just in these rooms,” said Los Alamos National Laboratory historian Nic Lewis.

On the other hand, there is no escaping the destruction caused by the nuclear bombs forged in this town — where 15,000 scientists and staff still work at the same high-security lab.

As the film shows, Oppenheimer himself became a vocal critic of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War.

Oppenheimer even later confessed, “I am responsible for ruining a beautiful place,” according to “American Prometheus,” the book on which Nolan’s film is based.

“We do recognize here that he was a person, who had flaws, who made mistakes,” said Lewis.

“He was very complicated. He was very thoughtful. I think Nolan very accurately depicted that part of Oppenheimer.”

Still, Nolan’s decision to shoot many scenes in the very Los Alamos buildings where they occurred caused enormous excitement around town.

An ad in the local newspaper called for the lab’s actual scientists to appear as extras.

Shane Fogerty, an astrophysicist and Nolan fan, ended up explaining nuclear fusion and the genesis of the Moon to stars Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr between takes.

“Chris (Nolan) would have to remind everyone, ‘We’re at work, quiet down, please. Let’s go to the next take,'” said Fogerty.

It is an anecdote he frequently shares with the growing number of tourists he meets in town these days.

“It is harder to get a reservation at the few restaurants in town,” he said.


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