Stan(islaw) Ulam was a brilliant mathematician and nuclear physicist who was teaching at Harvard when Hitler invaded his home country of Poland. In order to make a contribution to the war, he joined the Manhattan Project to work on the hydrogen bomb, moving to New Mexico’s secret Los Alamos lab with Francoise, a French exchange student whom he marries to save her returning to a dangerous, war-torn country (maybe the strangest euphemism for “I want to bone you” I’ve ever heard).
But these equations aren’t just hypothetical anymore. Solving them may mean the end of war, but also the loss of life, sometimes even civilian life. To what extent do Ulam and his fellow scientists owe their work to a cause that isn’t pure? And while both Stan and Francoise are losing friends and family to the Holocaust, the human cost weighs heavily on them.
Make no mistake, Ulam may be Polish born, but Adventures of a Mathematician is an English-language film and a uniquely American story, one of immigration and sacrifice, success and ambition, exceptionalism and confidence. The Manhattan Project united some of the world’s greatest minds of the time, kind of like the Avengers, but less punchy. With great power, of course, comes great responsibility, and perhaps the most important calculations Ulam ever made were in weighing these risks.
Don’t worry, there won’t be any pop quizzes. In fact, Adventures of a Mathematician is more an exploration of ethical quandaries than scientific ones, asking of our protagonist and his colleagues just how far they’re prepared to go, and under what conditions. War is complicated. Humans are complicated. Morality is flexible. Those are some pretty big thoughts to broach in any one movie, and writer-director doesn’t get the chance to treat them equally or adequately, but his attempt to bring this little-known story to the screen is admirable, and while it may not have proved a big draw in theatres, it’ll be a worthwhile watch when it hits VOD October 1st.