The life and career of J. Robert Oppenheimer was tailor-made for dramatization. A brilliant theoretical physicist who taught at the University of California-Berkeley, Oppenheimer is best known for serving in the 1940s as director of research at the US government laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, that built the first atomic bombs. Oppenheimer oversaw the creation of the bomb exploded in the “Trinity” test and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although one of the most famous scientists in the world, Oppenheimer’s career suffered in the 1950s. A complicated mix of professional rivalry, Cold War-era concerns about Oppenheimer’s Communist associations, and Oppenheimer’s growing unease with the nuclear arms race led to him being quasi-blacklisted. He was stripped of his government security clearance and retreated from public life in his remaining years.
Oppenheimer played a pivotal role in building weapons that can destroy humanity. His life offers an irresistible natural metaphor for this self-destructive process: the tale of a scientist whose most impressive creation contributes to his downfall. Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin accordingly called their Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus, after the titan who stole fire from the gods and paid a terrible price.
This story has now received a cinematic dramatization in Oppenheimer, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on American Prometheus. The resulting movie is not for the faint-hearted — for two reasons.
Oppenheimer requires careful, sustained attention. Running to three hours, with perhaps over two dozen significant characters, the movie follows the complex, interlocking storylines of both the atomic bomb’s creation and Oppenheimer’s later disgrace (with detours to cover Oppenheimer’s messy personal life). The dialogue is packed full of important information, with the first hour or so being mostly exposition. Further complicating matters is Nolan’s penchant for jumping back and forth in time and withholding key details until revelatory moments later.
Despite these demands on the audience, Oppenheimer succeeds at conveying the horror and threat of nuclear weapons and does so with extraordinary power. That is the other aspect of the movie that makes it difficult viewing.
After a somewhat slow first act focused on the scientist’s early life, the movie kicks into high gear once Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) is charged with overseeing the bomb’s construction. Without delving deeply into the technical side of the construction, the movie provides enough information for viewers to grasp the basics and it generates thriller-like suspense as Oppenheimer and the other scientists involved approach the dreadful day of the bomb’s creation.
The moral issues raised by nuclear weapons receive attention. The movie records how many physicists, such as I.I. Rabi (David Krumholtz) and Leo Szilard (Máté Haumann), expressed reservations about building the bombs or using them. It also shows how Oppenheimer dismissed those reservations and, unlike others, did not protest dropping atomic bombs on Japan. These dismissals receive their poetically apt reply when Oppenheimer’s own concerns about a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and building a more powerful hydrogen bomb are later dismissed by colleagues and politicians.
The recreation of the July 1945 Trinity test of the first atomic bomb is terrifying. Nolan and his team’s skillful use of visual effects and, more crucially, sound convey the culmination of Oppenheimer’s work as something both awesome and monstrous. Similar techniques are used even more powerfully in a later scene when Oppenheimer contemplates the consequences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Oppenheimer becomes less involved in its final act dealing with Oppenheimer’s blacklisting through the efforts of Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). However, the movie ultimately justifies this focus on the scientist’s post-war troubles, using it to cross-examine Oppenheimer’s actions and highlight his responsibility for the atomic bombings and the nuclear threat we all live with today.
Nolan saves his most memorable moment for the final scene, when the full significance for humanity of what Oppenheimer and his colleagues wrought so many years ago is revealed with nightmarish imagery. I hope many people see and remember this conclusion, especially policymakers in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and elsewhere.
Oppenheimer has been justly criticized for not giving greater attention to the Japanese victims of the atomic bombings and ignoring Americans harmed by the Trinity test’s nuclear fallout. The movie also regrettably presents, largely without considering alternative views, the conventional view that ending World War II with atomic bombs saved more lives overall.
However, these problems should not obscure the value and importance of Oppenheimer. Against all odds, one of the most prestigious directors alive has made a major Hollywood movie about the dangers of nuclear weapons. With Los Alamos slated to produce nuclear weapons again and nuclear war a real possibility today, a movie such as Oppenheimer is sorely needed.
Peace activists should take advantage of the renewed attention to the nuclear threat. The Back from the Brink Campaign offers an array of educational and advocacy resources related to the movie.
J. Robert Oppenheimer helped create a nightmare for humanity. It is time to wake up.