Set against the backdrop of World War II, Adventures of a Mathematician tells the true story of Stanislav Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski), a Polish immigrant and mathematicians who emigrated to the United States during the 1930s. Hired by the military, Ulam’s incredible intellect made him an essential member of the team tasked with developing both the atomic and hydrogen bombs, as well as the first computer.
While Adventures of a Mathematician feels like somewhat standard fair for a biopic, some particularly enjoyable work by lead Tlokinski keeps the film from dragging. Written and directed by Thor Klein, the film becomes an engaging and surprisingly emotional film that underscores the importance of human life, especially at a time of war. By following the work of Ulam during the 1930s and 40s, Klein brings a unique spin on the events surrounding the discovery of the atomic bomb. Instead of focusing on the wartime efforts on the field of battle, he instead spends his time with those who never carried a gun themselves. Choosing to focus on Ulam’s emotional journey and family relationships, he is able to tell a story that feels so much more human, without getting bogged down by set pieces or special effects. (After all, who would’ve expected a film about the atomic bomb to feature no explosive footage?)
The most surprising aspect of Mathematician is its conscience. Despite the fact that Ulam and his team worked tirelessly to create weapons which changed the landscape of the world, the film goes to great lengths to also show these men grapple with the ramifications of their actions. One example of this comes when the team of scientists responsible for developing the atomic bomb gather after the desolation of Nagasaki. Despite the fact that they have supposedly accomplished their goal, Ulam and his teammates are quietly despondent, broken by the devastating losses that they are responsible for creating. Whereas past films of this nature have celebrated the ingenuity of its developers or honouring American pride for defeating their enemies, Mathematician sits in the sadness of the moment. Recognizing that their goal was never to cause suffering, this group of men are left mourning the deaths of the innocent. Having believed that the US would only use the nuclear bomb as a deterrent, they are shattered by the heavy losses. (“Aren’t we supposed to be having a party or something?” one scientist laments.) For them, the loss of human life far outweighs the importance of their discovery.
In this way, Mathematician highlights the moral responsibility of knowledge. Rooted at the heart of the film is Ulam’s struggle to reconcile what he knows he can do with whether or not he should do it. To him, science is the opportunity to do the impossible yet those around him consistently misappropriate his knowledge to do evil. As a result, Ulam wrestles with the implications of applying his knowledge in ways that could be misused. While Mathematician never suggests that scientific advancement is problematic, Ulam’s journey points to the fact that there is always a moral question that hovers over their discoveries. Although Ulam believes that the scientific works that matter most are those that better the lives of others and keep people safe, there are those who are willing to abuse them for the sake of power.
Backed by a likable performance from its star, Adventures of a Mathematician is an entertaining look at history from an alternative perspective. As he leans into the moral implications of the discovery, Klein offers a different look at the lives of those that have created weapons of mass destruction and the burden that it placed on their souls. Most importantly though, the film is willing to ask whether or not having all the mathematical equations outweighs having to add up the losses that result.
Adventures of a Mathematician was available on VOD on Friday, October 1st, 2021.