J. David Wargo thought he was an expert on J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team at Los Alamos, New Mexico. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, he had been taught physics and advised by professors who worked on the atomic bomb. Then he traveled there in 2002 on an MIT trip open to alumni.
The president of Wargo & Co. Inc., a private investment company based in New York City specializing in the communications industry, learned so much more about the atomic bomb and the team of scientists, engineers, technicians and other experts during that four-day visit “Behind the Fence.”
“We were lectured to by scientists who worked on the project,” the 70-year-old Clairton native said. “They would come and talk to us about what it was like — working and living at Los Alamos, dealing with the military. I never heard anything like this before. I thought, someone needs to make a documentary about this. … This is history.”
Following that trip, Wargo tried for years to convince television companies to create one with no success. In a journey that included working with a team on a documentary his Peters Creek Entertainment Co. created about the bomb’s development, he bought the rights to Kai Bird’s and the late Martin Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus,” an acclaimed biography of Oppenheimer, in 2015. Then he spent more than five years until actor James Woods connected him to Chuck Roven, an accomplished producer, who took the movie idea to Christopher Nolan in 2020. Ultimately, Wargo became an executive producer alongside Woods on the star-studded “Oppenheimer,” which opened on July 21 in the U.S.
Roven was a producer of the three-hour film with director Nolan and his wife, Emma Thomas.
Wargo, who had to keep renewing his rights to the book, said Roven and Woods were instrumental in finally getting the book to Nolan and ultimately to the screen.
Woods, whom Wargo has known for years and worked with during his time on the then-Discovery Inc. board, introduced them in the middle of the pandemic. Roven, who produced the “Dark Knight” trilogy of Batman movies with Nolan among other major films, wanted to be sure Wargo had clear title to the rights to the book and asked a number of questions important for the legalities involved in film work.
“It was learning Hollywood the hard way,” Wargo said. Roven said he’d tell him and Woods in a week if he was interested, and he was indeed. “Then we commenced getting parties interested in getting attached to the project — director, actors and more. That was the fun part. They treated me as an equal and listened to my ideas because I was knowledgeable about the subject matter and have seen hundreds of movies throughout my adult life.
“Chuck and Woods, I cannot praise them enough. He [Roven] is so smart, so practical and so honest.”
Wargo screened the movie with a group of six — which included Nolan — in June at the largest IMAX theater in New York City before the actual release date. He had visited one location during filming, and his emotions took over. “I couldn’t keep myself from crying at the end,” he said. “I apologized to [Nolan], said I didn’t mean to cry. But I was overwhelmed with emotion.”
Since then, he traveled to Paris and London for premieres, coming back to see it again at the New York event on July 17. He also went to China for the film’s premieres in Beijing and Shanghai.
Science has always been a passion for Wargo, even though he ended up in the financial investment business and founded his own firm, Wargo & Co. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from MIT’s department of physics, a Master of Science degree from the department of nuclear engineering and a Master of Science degree from the Sloan School of Management. He is also a member of Sigma Xi, the honorary Scientific Research Society.
He recalls vaguely hearing about Oppenheimer in a Clairton High School history class, but at MIT he learned about the physicist and the atomic bomb “in an adult way.” Wargo said at least four or five of his professors, and 10 total from MIT, had worked on the Manhattan project, notably Vannevar Busch, played by Matthew Modine in the movie, and Philip Morrison, who is a graduate of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. His thesis adviser did as well.
MIT during his time there in the 1970s and 1980s had an atomic bomb design contest for its students. “I remember the person who won it,” Wargo said. “The military came in and classified it, the design. I never forgot that.”
As an undergraduate there, he thought he might become a nuclear physicist. But just like theoretical physicist “Oppie,” as his colleagues called him, Wargo disliked working in a lab. So first engineering and then financial investment work became more practical options.
The Los Alamos visit in 2002 also connected him with Ellen Bradbury Reid, an expert who led his tour. Her father, a physicist, worked on the bomb, so like many others her family lived there during the war years. Later she married the son of Norris Bradbury, a physicist who also worked on the bomb and directed Los Alamos after Oppenheimer left in 1945.
In 2010, MIT offered another travel group trip there, and Wargo joined in again. Following that, he was invited to a scientific conference in New Mexico that included Manhattan Project scientists who were to spend a weekend describing their experiences. He was the only nonscientist invited.
Wargo found out they were not going to film the conference, so he suggested that organizers create a video record. They agreed, and he arranged for a crew to do so for historical reasons and, frankly, because most of the scientists were getting up in age. His father-in-law’s death precluded him from attending the conference, but Wargo said others thought what was collected there was really good. And Wargo was right. “One of the Los Alamos scientists most involved in the discussions died a week after they filmed him,” he said.
From there Wargo was introduced to other scientists, and a crew interviewed them, too, as atomic bomb experts.
The resulting 90-minute documentary Wargo’s film production company produced in 2016 — “1,000 Days of Fear: The Deadly Race at Los Alamos” — narrated by Woods was primarily distributed in Europe but not yet in the U.S.
Wargo then set out to learn everything he could about Oppenheimer, toured his New Mexico cabin and kept in touch with Bradbury Reid. She recommended the “American Prometheus” book to him.
Wargo became determined to find a studio to turn it into a film.
“First of all, the impact of what Oppenheimer did still resonates in the world today,” he said. He pointed to the Russian war against Ukraine as the obvious example, with the threat of nuclear weapons.
Anecdotally, he has found that very few younger people in the U.S. have ever heard of Oppenheimer’s name, which was not true in Europe. The film has changed that, Wargo believes.
“Because it’s a Christopher Nolan film, the chatter among young people [on social media] was enormous,” he said. “This movie is historically accurate. It follows the book. People will learn historically what really happened. It’s important as an educational tool.”
Wargo’s quest to create one dates back to that original documentary on the subject, as well as several other science-based films his company produced. “I wanted the people who worked on the Manhattan Project to talk about the projects firsthand.”
And another important facet loomed large. “It’s important to me as someone who studied science that you get to know Oppenheimer as a person,” he said. “What was he like as a young man? What was his family like? What was his relationship to the people he worked with?
“It’s important to understand them and learn about what Oppenheimer did to protect the world, what we were facing with WWII with Japan. I learned the government had prepared hundreds of thousands of Purple Hearts for [the military] ahead of an invasion of Japan. It [the bombs] saved hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American lives.”
His next project, though, may lead him back to New Mexico and a drive to find a route to preserve Oppenheimer’s cabin there. That history, he believes, needs to be preserved for future generations, too.
Editor’s note: Fallon and Wargo are both proud graduates of Clairton High School, class of 1971 and are longtime friends.