Mark Walsh reviews Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed thriller about the “father of the atomic bomb”.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the publication founded in 1945 by Einstein and others to educate the world about the dangers of the nuclear age, is the keeper of the famous doomsday clock. Since 1947, the clock has served as a simple metaphor for humanity’s precarious future: time to midnight representing our proximity to nuclear Armageddon. The clock is updated based on analysis by some of the world’s top scientists. At present, it reads ninety seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent nuclear threats, political instability in the United States, and the abandonment of long-standing nuclear arms control treaties have all heightened the risk of nuclear annihilation. According to UN general secretary António Guterres, “the world has entered a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.” How appropriate then that into this frightening reality comes Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer, a biopic of the man regarded as the “father of the atomic bomb”.
The legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist most famous for his role in developing the atomic bomb, is unsurprisingly steeped in controversy. A central theme of the film is the ethical responsibility scientists bear for the research they do and the fruits of that research. To what extent can scientists abdicate that responsibility to generals, presidents or captains of industry, the ones who decide how new technologies are deployed? This is an old question and one which is raising its head yet again with developments in so-called artificial intelligence. These problems are even more difficult to disentangle in a world which throws up horrible dilemmas. Many scientists, including those with left-wing and anti-war credentials felt that supporting allied governments in obtaining nuclear weapons was necessary when faced with the prospect of a nuclear armed Nazi Germany. Oppenheimer was one of those scientists who, as Nolan’s film shows, felt compelled like many others, to help open the nuclear pandora’s box for precisely this reason.
Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who expects a great deal of his audience and is not afraid to tackle profound and complex subjects, something which is increasingly a rarity in mainstream cinema. His films, like Memento, Inception and Tenet, are often highly non-linear, dealing with complicated ideas and taking place over multiple timeframes. They are always beautifully shot and pack a significant emotional punch. My personal favourite, Interstellar, is a visually ravishing portrayal of some of the human consequences of Einstein’s theory of general relativity (with some artistic license) in a highly plausible future Earth on the brink of environmental collapse. No one is better suited, then, to bring to the screen the story of Oppenheimer and all the complexity, conflict and contradiction this entails.
I should say from the outset that Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an immense cinematic achievement. The story told is one of enormous complexity and profound significance, one most filmmakers would not and probably should not touch. Nolan wrote his script based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, itself the result of twenty-five years of meticulous research.
Watching the film is an intense experience. Though it is roughly three hours long, I found myself completely absorbed and even haunted by the experience for days afterwards, by the events portrayed, the moral questions raised, and the consequences for humanity. Beautifully filmed, Oppenheimer is visually engrossing with a wonderfully atmospheric soundtrack. Cillian Murphy in the titular role is extraordinary and manages, often through facial expression alone, to convey the inner turmoil of Oppenheimer’s seemingly tortured soul.
Born in New York in 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was a polymath, excelling in literature and languages as well as science and mathematics. Though plagued by ill-health and bouts of depression, Oppenheimer (helped by his wealthy family) completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard before travelling to Cambridge to pursue research in physics at the renowned Cavendish Laboratory. It is during this deeply unhappy period in his life (Oppenheimer soon left Cambridge to complete his doctorate in Göttingen) where Nolan’s film begins its account. As the film beautifully conveys in its opening sequence, Oppenheimer grew up in a world that was in unprecedented flux. Amazing new technologies like the internal combustion engine, the radio and the aeroplane were reshaping society. Radical new innovations, by figures like Picasso and Joyce, were driving revolutions within art, literature and music. Political revolutions and social upheaval abounded as the modern world was being born.
In physics, long held common sense views about space, time, matter and energy were now upended. Over the previous three centuries, since the time of Newton and reaching its peak when Maxwell wrote down his laws of electricity and magnetism, a naïve optimism had taken hold. Barring some details, it was thought humanity had essentially worked out the fundamental laws of nature. This view was now in tatters. The revolutionary new theories of relativity, and especially quantum mechanics, had shown that the universe was far more mysterious than we had supposed. Moreover, nature contained sources of energy on a scale beyond anything we had previously imagined. This permeated popular culture as well. As early as 1914, the new physics inspired HG Wells in his novel The World Set Free, to describe the power that could be unleashed by splitting the uranium atom and to imagine a bomb which utilised this power. The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, was apparently a fan of the book.
An old joke among scientists is that there is no difference between theory and practice, in theory, but there is in practice. In liberating the energy trapped inside the atomic nucleus, this transformation of theory into practice was anything but straightforward. The Manhattan Project that Oppenheimer directed, employed tens of thousands of the world’s leading scientists and engineers. Three years of intense, highly secretive work culminated in the “Trinity Test” on 16th of July 1945, where the world’s first nuclear weapon (nicknamed the Gadget) was exploded in Los Alamos, New Mexico. A fact which is not mentioned in the film but is worth noting is that the nuclear fuel used to make this bomb, Uranium-238, from which the necessary plutonium was extracted, was mined at Shinkolobwe in the Belgian controlled Congo. The miners were effectively slaves, and no concern was given for their safety or the lands they inhabited, as they dug toxic materials from the Earth.
Over the coming decades, the race by the great powers to accumulate uranium and the labour practices involved would leave a trail of death and ecological devastation. Between 1944 and 1986 for example, 30 million tonnes of uranium were extracted from Navajo territories in the American West. The miners, poorly paid and badly equipped, had no idea of the dangers inherent in inhaling particles of uranium dust. In the 1990s compensation was paid out by the US government. Today, the still contaminated Navajo territories are littered with abandoned uranium mines.
The Trinity explosion itself (which is spectacularly depicted in the film) caused a shockwave felt more than 160km away and lifted hundreds of tonnes of sand and soil into the sky in the form of a 12km high mushroom cloud. The intense heat turned some of this into glass which rained down in green shards, a substance later named trinitite. Over the coming days, ash and dust fell from the sky, often hundreds of kilometres from the explosion site which to unsuspecting (mostly Native American) locals would have looked like snow, though would have felt warm on contact. Today, we call this radioactive fallout, and we know a great deal about its lethal effects. Of course, this was only a prelude. On the 6th and 9th of August 1945, the United States Air Force dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only time in history that nuclear weapons have been specifically targeted at civilian populations. It is thought as many as 200,000 people may have perished as a result, many incinerated in the initial blasts and many more succumbing over the subsequent weeks to an agonising death from radiation sickness.
Since 1945, humanity has lived under the shadow of the nuclear threat. Over the ensuing decades, the great powers raced to accumulate ever more devastating nuclear capabilities, developing weapons (such as hydrogen bombs) many orders of magnitude more powerful than those unleashed on Japan. They usually tested their weapons on lands and seas of the indigenous peoples they once colonised: the US on Native American lands and Pacific Islands, the British in aboriginal Australia, the French in Algeria and French Polynesia, the Russians in Kazakhstan, the Chinese in western provinces home to the Uygur peoples. Today, there is no place on Earth which does not bear the signature of the cumulative effects of nuclear testing: either in soil, water or polar ice. Enormous quantities of wealth and scientific talent have been consumed by the nuclear arms race and, as we are learning more and more, our species has come perilously close to nuclear war on multiple occasions.
The events depicted in Nolan’s film are among the most consequential in human history. In tackling the eye-wateringly intricate story of the creation of nuclear weapons, albeit through the eyes of Oppenheimer, Nolan takes on an enormous task and, one might argue, a great responsibility. The story has real human victims: the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mostly Native American population who lived in the vicinity of Los Alamos, or the slave labourers in central Africa who dug uranium ores from the ground. It is also an exceedingly complicated tale to tell and one whose events have historically been shrouded in secrecy and propaganda. For example, the myth that the atomic bombing of Japanese cities was some sort of “necessary evil”, that “it ended the war” or that “it saved more lives than it cost” is one that is accepted almost without question across mainstream media and popular culture in the United States. This is something we will return to.
Historically, Hollywood does not have a great record on this subject, in large part due to the intense suppression of anti-nuclear sentiment by the US establishment. In his book (and later film) Atomic-Cover Up, anti-nuclear activist Greg Mitchell exposes the suppression of Japanese and American film footage of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the interference and censorship by the Truman administration of an MGM film, “The Beginning of the End”, which was about the attacks.
Christopher Nolan is one of the most popular and respected filmmakers in the world. Many saw his Oppenheimer as an opportunity to set the record straight to a global (and indeed American) audience. In this, according to Los Angeles Times writer Emily Zemler, Nolan disappointed many critics who felt that he failed to acknowledge the full horror of the US nuclear attacks on Japan or to describe the experience from a Japanese point of view. While these attacks are mentioned, no footage is shown (with the exception of some early scenes in Europe, the entire film is set in the United States) and the audience must deduce the fate of Japanese civilians from the reactions of Oppenheimer and his colleagues. There is also no mention of the effects of radioactive fallout, although it is true that the extent of that danger was less understood at the time. These are objections we will return to.
Oppenheimer is necessarily long and exceptionally detailed. While impossible to summarise, it is roughly divided into three acts, each representing a different time period in Oppenheimer’s life. Scenes representing Oppenheimer’s point of view are in colour while black and white is used seemingly to indicate a more objective narration of the story. The first act concerns Oppenheimer’s early life, his growing reputation as a brilliant theoretical physicist, his left-wing political activism and love affair with psychiatrist and communist activist Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh) and his recruitment by General Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon), despite his political views, to lead the top-secret Manhattan Project. In this act, we are also introduced to Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr), a wealthy businessman who would later go on to lead the US Atomic Energy Commission and play a major role in Oppenheimer’s downfall.
The second act focuses on the Manhattan Project itself and is set mostly in Los Alamos, in Oppenheimer’s beloved New Mexico. Oppenheimer, now married to biologist Kitty Vissering (played by Emily Blunt) must somehow coordinate the thoughts and activities of thousands of scientists working over several locations, compartmentalised for the sake of secrecy, in turning abstract mathematical theory into awesome and terrifying practice. Indeed, the mutual dependency between theory and practice is a common thread throughout. Oppenheimer, a brilliant theoretician, was not adept at laboratory work. His extraordinary insights are displayed in several gorgeous graphic sequences, artistically conveying the essence of some of the twentieth century’s most profound scientific ideas. Oppenheimer’s theoretical talent is complemented in the film by the practical experimental nous of his Berkley colleague Ernest Lawrence (played by Josh Hartnett).
The third act deals with events which took place in the 1950s when, having become something of a national hero, Oppenheimer was now head of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. Conflicted by his role in creating the bomb, seeking to halt the nuclear arms race and harness nuclear energy for the good of humanity, Oppenheimer desperately tried to embed himself in every aspect of government decision making on nuclear policy. His firm opposition to the development of fusion based nuclear weapons (such as the hydrogen bomb) and his desire to share nuclear technology with the Soviet Union, in a bid to enhance cooperation, put him in direct conflict with the establishment. This plays out through a hearing engineered by Lewis Strauss to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance (thus destroying his credibility and ability to contribute to policy). Given Oppenheimer’s left-wing sympathies and relationships with members of the US communist party, this was easily done. There is some small salvation later when Strauss’ nefarious role is exposed by some of Oppenheimer’s colleagues denying Strauss’ a US cabinet position and embarrassing him in front of a senate confirmation hearing. But the message is crystal clear. Oppenheimer’s talents were no longer needed, while his fame, reputation and willingness to speak out against the nuclear arms race meant that he needed to be cast out.
A great deal has already been written about Nolan’s film. The story is a finely woven tapestry, and it is impossible to even list let alone properly analyse the multitude of threads therein. While the film has received considerable and well-deserved praise, it has also received criticism for what is omitted or undeveloped. Some of this concerns the portrayal of female characters. For example, writers such as Sophie Marchionne have remarked that the depiction of Jean Tatlock, a remarkable woman in her own right, was one-dimensional and diminished her importance in Oppenheimer’s intellectual development. Susan Bryant of the Associated Press writes on a lack of acknowledgement of the effects of radioactive fallout, following the Trinity Test, on those who lived close to Los Alamos. The most widespread and significant criticism though, as we mentioned earlier, is of the film’s handling of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The second act culminates with the spectacular fury of the Trinity Test. Nolan’s depiction of the first human made nuclear explosion is absolutely riveting and left me feeling awestruck and terrified. Oppenheimer’s role in the decision to use the bomb on Japanese cities as well as his reaction to the bombings is shown in detail. It is also made clear that many of the scientists involved in its creation objected strongly to this decision. This includes Oppenheimer’s friend Isidor Rabi who memorably expresses fear that “the culmination of three centuries of physics would be a weapon of mass destruction”. Oppenheimer finds himself tortured by the consequences of the decision he supported, although which in reality he had little say in.
It is at this point however that critics, such as Greg Mitchell, argue that Nolan misses two opportunities. The first problem is that the film does not directly challenge the standard arguments put out at the time (and regurgitated ever since) that the bombing was somehow just or necessary. Secondly, the film does not depict the direct effects of the weapon on Japanese civilians. Instead, the audience learns something of the horror inflicted only through Oppenheimer’s reaction. In a pivotal scene, Oppenheimer, reeling from the knowledge of the Hiroshima attack, must speak to an audience of colleagues and their families, paying tribute to their efforts. Deeply disturbed, he has a brief vision of a young American woman horrifyingly maimed by an imagined nuclear blast. This lasts for only seconds and is the only visualisation we get of the human consequence of what has happened. The fact that this woman is a white American is also a point of controversy.
My first instinct is to be deeply sympathetic to both points. It is important to recall that the justification given for pursuing the Manhattan project in the first place, the one used to win over reluctant scientists to the cause, was the fear that Hitler’s Germany might develop an atomic weapon first. This point is made clear by Nolan on numerous occasions in the film. The fact that Oppenheimer, like many of the world’s leading physicists, was Jewish, only added to their visceral understanding of what a nuclear armed Germany might do. Whatever one makes of this argument for pursuing nuclear weapons, it became substantially weaker after the German surrender in early May 1945. At this point, many Manhattan Project scientists lobbied for the work to be discontinued. Indeed, Nolan shows how Oppenheimer argued them down from this position on the grounds that humanity needed to see the bomb used to truly understand it.
It was abundantly clear to everyone that Japan posed no nuclear threat. Moreover, by August 1945, Japan was in ruins with a Soviet invasion imminent, something many historians argue was a much greater factor in the Japanese surrender than the nuclear attacks. The notion that the US was faced with the prospect of a bloody ground war in Japan if it forewent the nuclear option is a false choice. Given the weakness of the Japanese position, it is simply not believable that some form of resolution could not be found without use of atomic or at this stage even conventional weapons. It is also important to remember that the Pacific war was primarily a colonial war between rival imperial powers and that the US record in the region, which included a horrific occupation of the Phillipines, was hardly benevolent.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen among cities left untouched by conventional bombing. This was in order to better test the effects of the bomb and demonstrate its destructive power. Such a grotesque decision was made undoubtedly easier by the pervasive anti-Japanese racism of the time. Film footage of the horrifying effects of the explosion and of the radioactive fallout were hidden from the general public. Some exceptional journalists wrote vital accounts of what happened, challenging the official view; John Hersey’s book Hiroshima is compulsory reading. However, it is no exaggeration to say that the dominant view pushed in the United States has been to both downplay or ignore the horror of what happened while seeking to justify it as a necessary evil.
Given the history, the reaction of Mitchell and others to Nolan’s film is completely understandable and as I mentioned, I am sympathetic. However, on reflection I think there are some problems here. Firstly, there is no sense in which Nolan’s film can be said to be pro-bomb. Indeed, the film ends with a stark warning. Moreover, while Nolan does not directly make the sort of arguments against the bombing of Japan that anti-nuclear activists like Mitchell might make, there is plenty in the film to expose the callousness of the US establishment’s decision. Nolan has chosen to tell the film from Oppenheimer’s point of view and in that context, one can understand why he does not depict events on the ground in Japan. It is also not clear exactly how Nolan should have included this and how it would play out. It is possible that if Nolan got it wrong, he might be accused of exploitation or disrespect. The approach he takes is arguably too subtle, but Nolan trusts his audience and, in my view, still manages to convey the horror of what has happened.
There is a temptation for those of us involved in political activism to judge a piece of art by its contribution to the argument or to the struggle. This is something we must be wary of. This is not to say that art should not be political or that its political content is not relevant.
But we should not constrain an artist by expecting them to satisfy the often-stringent requirements of the political activist. For art to flourish, the artist needs to be granted a certain amount of flexibility. Nolan’s film may well have flaws, and like any piece of art, another take may improve or disprove it. But Oppenheimer is still a terrific film and a timely reminder of the threat our species faces.