The Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb and the lingering threat of nuclear holocaust offered a wellspring of inspiration for some of rock’s biggest names.
In turn, one of these topical songs — Sting‘s “Russians” — planted a seed in director Christopher Nolan’s mind that would eventually germinate into his new biographical epic, Oppenheimer.
“I first heard about [J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist often called “the father of the atomic bomb”] when I was a kid,” Nolan said in a recent Entertainment Weekly “Around the Table” discussion. “That Sting song ‘Russians’ refers to ‘Oppenheimer’s deadly toys.'”
Nolan had deadly toys on his mind a lot as a child. “I was growing up in the U.K. at a time when people were very concerned about nuclear armaments,” he explained. “When I was 12 or 13, my friends and I were absolutely convinced that we were going to experience a nuclear war at some point in our lives.
“And then over time that fear recedes, and Oppenheimer stuck with me as a figure, and I learned more about him over the years — including learning this information that he, along with the key scientists at the Manhattan Project, they couldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of starting a chain reaction that would destroy the world. And for me, that was the hook.”
Sting was similarly fascinated by Oppenheimer’s role in the Manhattan Project and escalating Cold War tensions in the ’80s. The former Police frontman explained in 2010 that the inspiration for “Russians,” which appeared on his 1985 solo debut The Dream of the Blue Turtles, came from watching Soviet TV via illegal satellite signal.
Watch Sting’s ‘Russians’ Video
“We’d have a few beers and climb this tiny staircase to watch Russian television,” he said. “At that time of night, we’d only get children’s Russian television, like their Sesame Street. I was impressed with the care and attention they gave to their children’s programs. I regret our current enemies haven’t got the same ethics.”
The resulting song took an empathetic view of both Americans and Russians, with Sting musing in the chorus: “We share the same biology / Regardless of ideology / Believe me when I say to you / I hope the Russians love their children, too.”
Nolan’s preoccupation was slightly more harrowing. “I’m very interested in taking the audience into that room and being there and living in that moment,” he said. “What would that have been like, to push that button knowing there was any possibility?”
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