Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the biggest pop culture event about nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. The film, inspired by the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is a frenetic and action-packed portrait not just of a man but of a changing world. The film’s intimate focus on Oppenheimer ironically obscures the scientist’s most urgent message about the catastrophic and world-altering nature of the weapons he helped to create. Nevertheless, his life is a useful lens through which to reflect on the hopes and the fears of the new nuclear age as well as the question — left unresolved — of whether human civilization will survive the destructive forces we have set into motion.
What matters are the lessons of Oppenheimer’s life, not his legacy
Hundreds of thousands of people contributed to the work of the Manhattan project, but after the secret weapons program was revealed, one man became its face. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the team of scientists at Los Alamos that designed and tested the first nuclear weapon, became known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” A brilliant, complicated, and contradictory man, Oppenheimer has inspired books, films, television, a theatrical production, and even an opera.
Christopher Nolan adds to this body of work with his latest film, Oppenheimer. It’s easy to see why Nolan, who has made other period films set in the early 21st century, was drawn to the subject matter. His highly-regarded film Dunkirk (2017) depicts the famous battle of World War II. One of his earlier films, Prestige (2006), blends history with fantasy; the protagonist, driven by competition with a rival, acquires a machine from David Bowie’s Nikola Tesla that accelerates his descent into amorality.
Indeed, Nolan has shown consistent fascination with morally complex figures for whom the power and temptation of technology leads them and those around them to cross ethical boundaries. This is Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer: not just a physicist but a humanist and philosopher, a man who yearns for peace but also recognition, recruited to create a new weapon of unimaginable destruction.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer is best when it leans into the paradoxes of a man who urges the United States to commit a mass atrocity in the name of peace. Oppenheimer believed that it was essential to complete the atomic bomb before the war ended — not to defeat Japan, an enemy already “essentially defeated,” but to demonstrate to the world what nuclear weapons could do. As the Manhattan Project careens recklessly onward despite the defeat of Nazi Germany, Oppenheimer clings to the naïve conviction that nuclear weapons would “end all wars” by making the cost of conflict unbearable. And he is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of civilian lives to test this theory.
The first half of the film is punctuated by the Trinity Test, the first successful nuclear detonation depicted in a powerful and excruciating scale. As the fire of nuclear fission comes to life on the Earth’s surface for the first time, the silence is broken only by the gentle, almost reverent breathing of onlookers. Then the roar of the explosion arrives, a visceral declaration that it is not a “new weapon” that has been birthed, but “a new world.”
The second half of the film is preoccupied with the 1954 show trial over Oppenheimer’s security clearance that ended his political career. After the end of World War II, Oppenheimer used his status as a celebrity scientist to warn the public about the dangers of the nuclear age and advocate for international controls of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer’s message threatened to undermine the preferences of the security establishment, so his opponents used his former left-wing associations to challenge his trustworthiness.
This was certainly an unjust process, and one that speaks to our present political anxieties about government secrecy and the suppression of science, as well as the role of scientists in arms control. However, after the film raises powerful and frightening questions about the future of the human race, Oppenheimer’s political persecution seems anticlimactic, even inconsequential. In the film, Lewis Strauss, who orchestrated the campaign against Oppenheimer, is convinced that Oppenheimer bad-mouthed him to Albert Einstein. Strauss’s assistant replies, “Maybe they were talking about something more important.” It is an admonishment of Strauss’s petty obsession, but it can also be seen as an admonishment of Nolan’s film, which spends so much screen time on small-scale political drama.
An incomplete history
While there are instances of dramatic invention, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is largely faithful to the historical record. Kai Bird, who wrote the biography of Oppenheimer that Nolan’s film is based on, is credited as one of the film’s writers. Lots of dialogue, even entire scenes, are lifted directly from transcripts, diaries, and other records. This includes some of the most affecting and improbable encounters, such as Oppenheimer’s meeting with President Truman shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Despite this fidelity to history, a critical perspective is almost entirely absent from Nolan’s account: the victims of the first nuclear weapons.
When President Truman asks Oppenheimer what should be done with Los Alamos after the Manhattan project, Oppenheimer responds offhandedly, “Give it back to the Indians.” This is the closest the film comes to acknowledging the people who were forced off their land to make room for the laboratory. Otherwise, the film represents the desert around Los Alamos as a wild, empty country.
In reality, tens of thousands of people lived within 50 miles of the Trinity test. The local civilian population was not warned or evacuated; within hours, fallout was settling on crops, water, cattle, and people. Children played in the radioactive ash like it was snow. Contamination spread through New Mexico and beyond, leaving behind a legacy of sickness and death that continues to this day. The United States has never recognized the communities around Los Alamos in programs for the victims of nuclear testing, and they are still fighting for adequate health care and compensation.
The film takes more effort to portray the horrors of the atomic bombings. At Los Alamos, Oppenheimer takes the stage to announce the first successful nuclear attack. In the raucous, disquieting applause, he is troubled by visions. A room full of people disappear in a flash of bright light. A woman is veiled in peeling layers of her own skin. Oppenheimer takes an uncertain step forward, and his foot cracks open the torso of a human body that has been transformed into a brittle shell of charcoal.
It’s a disturbing sequence. But it is also brief, and the human toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is never revisited except in a sterile accounting of casualties. This serves to obscure more than it reveals about the true terror of nuclear weapons, ironically one of the most important messages that Oppenheimer championed.
Compare this to the power of the direct testimony of Hiroshima survivors. In the animated documentary short Obon, Akiko Takakura describes what she experienced while scientists celebrated at Los Alamos. The morning of the bombing, she was cleaning desks at the Bank of Hiroshima, only 300 meters from the epicenter of the blast. She remembers a sudden, bright light before waking in darkness, covered in burns and lacerations. Her friend’s back was broken, but together they managed to escape the wreckage of the bank. Outside, the city had transformed into a nightmare of fire and flesh. Over the rush of the flames, Akiko heard a distinctive snapping sound: “it was the sound of human arms charring.”
In one scene, Oppenheimer depicts a group of scientists as they are shown photographs of the burn victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer looks away, unable to bear this evidence of the suffering he helped create. Unfortunately, by focusing so narrowly on Oppenheimer’s point of view, Nolan also allows his audience to look away.
The dawn of the second nuclear age
The world of Oppenheimer is familiar in frightening ways. Today, geopolitical tensions between major world powers have come to a rolling boil. After decades of reductions, states are expanding their nuclear arsenals, ready to trip over the starting line of a new arms race. As faith in arms control efforts erodes, our military leaders urge us to chase the deadly illusion of supremacy.
We are still trying to figure out how to survive in the nuclear world. Oppenheimer offers no answers, but it offers insight into the questions we should be asking and an opportunity to learn from our own history. In an interview, Christopher Nolan said that his intention with this film was to “reiterate the unique and extraordinary danger of nuclear weapons. That’s something we should all be thinking about all the time and care about very, very deeply.”
Jennifer Knox is a research and policy analyst for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she develops the program’s research agenda, connects research to legislative strategies, and contributes to legislative outreach.
Courtesy of Union of Concerned Scientists. By Jennifer Knox.
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