My acclaimed book, from The New Press, The Beginning or the End, explores the startling story of the first movie on the atomic bomb, from MGM, and how Truman and the Pentagon sabotaged it to defend the use of the new weapon — and building bigger ones. In crucial ways, J. Robert Oppenheimer — the subject of the new Christopher Nolan epic coming on July 21 — plays a central role in this movie drama, also titled The Beginning or the End, as he did in real life as the so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb.”
Oppenheimer, known to friends as “Oppie,” is pictured above with the actor, badly miscast, hired to portray him in the MGM disaster, on a visit to the set. Oppenheimer had just watched a scene on a soundstage and when the director yelled “Cut,” he sailed his trademark hat to Hume Cronyn, yelling “Hello, Oppie!”
The book, available in hardcover, audio and e-book, has been awarded top prize from the prestigious Theater Library Association, and received numerous positive reviews, see below.
Since publication, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood — and America — Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, my 12th book, has been selected one of the 21 best books of the year by Vanity Fair and one of the seven top books about film by the revered Sight & Sound. Excerpts have appeared in more than a dozen publications, including Newsweek, Mother Jones, Daily Beast, LitHub and American History. Now, with the pending release of Nolan’s Oppenheimer, it is drawing much new attention.
Soon after atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, MGM set out to make a movie studio chief Louis B. Mayer called “the most important story” he would ever film: a big budget dramatization of the Manhattan Project and the invention and use of the revolutionary new weapon. Over at Paramount, famed producer Hal B. Wallis was ramping up his own film version. His screenwriter: the novelist Ayn Rand, who saw in Oppenheimer the model for a character she was sketching for Atlas Shrugged. Rand interviewed Oppenheimer, and his wife, twice.
Meanwhile, MGM producer Sam Marx was chasing “Oppie,” attempting to get him to sign a contract to allow him to be portrayed in the movie. A pivotal moment in the story arrives when the physicist, after his usual soul-searching, caves to MGM demand, despite feeling that the script was distortion of history — a bad “joke,” really. This mirrors Oppenheimer’s postwar moral conflicts, as he shifted wildly from questioning the use of the first bombs to defending them, and his role in the enterprise and Truman’s decision. At the same time, the FBI was tapping Oppenheimer’s phone and tailing fellow physicist Leo Szilard.
The Beginning or the End chronicles the wild first efforts of American media and culture to process the Atomic Age. A movie that began as a cautionary tale inspired by atomic scientists aiming to warn the world against a nuclear arms race would be drained of all impact due to revisions and retakes ordered by President Truman and the military―for reasons of propaganda, politics, and petty human vanity (this was Hollywood).
It is based on hundreds of letters, FBI documents, and dozens of scripts that show how wise intentions were compromised in favor of defending the use of the bomb and the imperatives of postwar politics. Order here or elsewhere and see quotes from reviews below.
“It can safely be said that when it comes to collisions between art and politics, art usually gets maimed and as Greg Mitchell’s quietly amusing book shows, [this film] was no exception.”
―The Wall Street Journal
“It is a deceptively breezy book that reveals its depths and its profound questions only slowly in the reader’s mind, and one of these is how easily the powerful can sell the country a narrative. . . . A vivid examination of where we are now.”
―Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
“This is an obvious ‘must buy’―especially if you are interested in WW2, cinema, or modern American history”
―Rod Lurie, director of The Outpost and other movies
“Mitchell has done a genuine service by using the rueful history of a subpar MGM production to highlight issues of towering moral and ethical concern.”
―David Sterritt, Quarterly Review of Film and Video
“MGM’s little-seen 1947 docudrama about the creation of the atomic bomb‚ The Beginning or the End‚ provides the unlikely but fascinating subject for this rich look at the early nuclear age. . . . While the film bombed at the box office‚ Mitchell’s rich account of its making and larger implications should draw both history buffs and those concerned with the continuing issues around nuclear weapons”
“A great new book that you’re going to want to read. The book conjures up a compelling cast of characters who got caught in the Cold War propaganda machine.”
―Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer
“[Greg Mitchell] uses his sharp investigative reporting skills to unearth this detailed, behind-the-scenes story about Hollywood’s first movie on the atomic bomb. . . . Excellent research and rich dialogue give Mitchell’s book a novelistic flair as he recounts the battles between MGM and the military over actor choices, deletions, revisions, and retakes concerning fact vs. fiction”
“This intriguing, behind-the-scenes look at a disjointed creative partnership is sure to be of interest to readers of history and cinema”
“Fascinating but also, weirdly, enjoyable to read”
“Greg Mitchell’s The Beginning or the End is an engrossing, wry, and always lively look behind the scenes of a historic Hollywood flop. But it’s also much more than that: a deeply serious, meticulously researched account of how the movie industry―and the American public in general―embraced a comforting myth to justify one of the most controversial decisions in history. This is a first-rate piece of work by one of our most accomplished nonfiction storytellers”
―Gary Krist, author of Empire of Sin and The Mirage Factory
“A story of dishy Hollywood doings but with atomic bombs and a screenplay by Ayn Rand―what more could a reader ask for?”
―Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award
“A fascinating and brilliantly researched account of how Hollywood and Washington grappled with how to portray and profit from the new nuclear age. Another great read and exposé from Mitchell. “
―Alex Kershaw, bestselling author of The Liberator and Avenue of Spies
“A fascinating, sharp-eyed study of Hiroshima’s cinematic aftershocks. Mitchell expertly chronicles the gradual transformation of a gigantic, and still-radiating, moral catastrophe”
―Nicholson Baker, author of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and Double Fold, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
“From the nation’s top secret to the silver screen: Mitchell tells an unforgettable tale about a forgotten film and the tug-of-war between scientists‚ the White House and the Pentagon over the Hollywood version of the bombing of Hiroshima”
―Peter Biskind, best-selling author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and award-winning The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California. He has also directed three films since 2021: Atomic Cover-up, which won three awards and was selected for twenty festivals; and two films that aired over PBS, The First Attacks Ads and Memorial Day Massacre.