Oppenheimer: The Man Who Split the Atom and His Soul

Adérito Vicente reviews one of the two blockbusters of this summer: “Oppenheimer” by Christopher Nolan.

Adérito Vicente is a nuclear policy scholar, holding a Ph.D. in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute. He is the co-author of the forthcoming edited volume “Russia’s War on Ukraine: Implications for the Global Nuclear Order.” Presently, he serves as a Non-Resident Fellow at the Odesa Center for Nonproliferation at Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University in Ukraine, and he is also a Researcher at the Political Observatory in Lisbon, Portugal.

“How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” The enigmatic question from Sting’s 1985 single, “Russians,” emerged at the height of the Cold War when the United States and the former Soviet Union, the world’s dominant superpowers, stockpiled over 60 thousand nuclear weapons (a notable contrast to the current count of 12 thousand). The lyrics poignantly address the alarming threat of these weapons, evoking the artist’s heartfelt concern for protecting innocent children from the ominous specter of nuclear holocaust.

Deadly fascination

Through this captivating pop song, a young Christopher Nolan was introduced to the legendary figure who split the atom, the eminent J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Celebrated for his pivotal role as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico during the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer left an indelible mark in the world of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics. 

Amid the tumultuous Second World War, this groundbreaking scientific research brought the creation of the world’s inaugural atomic bombs (also known as fission bomb). This achievement forever branded the American theoretical physicist with the enduring title “the father of the atomic bomb.”

Over the passing decades, Nolan’s fascination with Oppenheimer and nuclear weapons deepened. In an interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (interestingly, a magazine founded in 1945 by Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists), Nolan revealed that the scientists at Los Alamos faced the unnerving possibility that the Trinity test could ignite the atmosphere, potentially leading to the annihilation of all life on Earth. This profound discovery served as a powerful wellspring of inspiration for his film “Oppenheimer.”

In his previous movie, “Tenet,” Nolan cleverly references Oppenheimer’s profound dilemma: Can we reverse the consequences of knowledge once it’s unveiled? The film delves into this idea using a science-fiction lens, likening it to attempting to put toothpaste back in the tube—an impossible task, highlighting the irreversible nature of knowledge. After grappling with that intriguing concept in the “Tenet’s” conclusion, Nolan found himself left with that lingering question. And so, it evolved into an opportunity for him to explore this question deeply and to confront it in his new film “Oppenheimer”. But before venturing into the answer, let us immerse ourselves in the intricacies of the movie.

A chiseled product

Similar to Stanley Kubrick´s style, Nolan is renowned not only for his visually stunning films that explore thought-provoking themes, but also for posing complex questions that can be answered through the art of cinema. In “Oppenheimer,” Nolan took on the roles of director, producer, and screenwriter, embarking on the ambitious task of adapting Kai Bird and Marty Sherwin’s remarkable work, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, published in 2005, presents a brilliant and multifaceted account of Oppenheimer’s life, becoming a treasure trove of information and a formidable challenge for film adaptation. Bird and Sherwin’s meticulous research spanning over 25 years provided a solid bedrock, empowering Nolan to craft a script that masterfully combines historical accuracy with compelling storytelling.

Although not a scientist himself, Nolan highly valued expert insights and sought the guidance of renowned figures like Nobel laureate Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, who had made significant contributions to “Interstellar” and “Tenet”.

Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan’s old collaborator, brought his expertise in captivating visuals and natural light to “Oppenheimer.” The motion picture, shot in 70mm, offers a visually stunning and enthralling experience, particularly in IMAX theaters, enhancing its overall gravitas. The cast, led by Cillian Murphy’s riveting portrayal of Oppenheimer and his internal struggles, delivers a performance of profound intensity.

Last but not least, the weight of sound effects and music in the film cannot be overstated. Nolan relies on movie composer, Ludwig Göransson, to craft an immersive and atmospheric score. Combining electronic and orchestral elements, the music forms haunting melodies evoking a profound sense of foreboding and transcendence. Together, they aim to authentically portray Oppenheimer’s life and the profound impact of the Manhattan Project.  

Structuring the plot

“Oppenheimer” is divided into three acts that intertwine like a puzzle throughout the movie. In Act I, Oppenheimer’s early life and scientific journey unfolds as we follow him from his upbringing in New York City to his studies at Cambridge University and in Germany during the 1920s. The 1930s mark his rise as a prominent scientific figure, establishing a physics program at the University of California, Berkeley, and earning a prestigious joint appointment at Caltech. Despite his contributions to theoretical physics, Oppie, as his friends and colleagues affectionately call him, also developed an interest in political causes aligned with left-leaning ideologies after the Great Depression.

He associated with progressive circles, including members of US communist and socialist groups, driven by his intellectual curiosity and ethereal belief in addressing the inequalities of capitalism through the Marxist equality paradigm. Furthermore, the American physicist was profoundly troubled by the rise of fascism in Europe and perceived the Spanish Civil War as a critical battleground between fascism and democracy.

Despite denying any formal affiliation with the Communist Party, Oppenheimer provided financial support to the Spanish Republicans through the same organization.

His interactions with certain individuals, particularly Jean Tatlock (whose portrayal by Florence Pugh humanizes her beyond the stereotype of a mere communist villain-spy/Oppenheimer’s lover), led to FBI surveillance and wiretapping even before he became the director of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. In this act, Nolan skilfully explores Oppenheimer’s multifaceted personality and his growing fascination with the potential of nuclear fission.

In Act II, the spotlight shifts to the Manhattan Project, the US top-secret program to create the atomic bomb. The race against Nazi Germany to develop the atomic bomb was a challenging period for Oppenheimer. His Jewish heritage heightened his awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism, compelling him to aid the United States in developing the bomb to thwart the Nazis and their potential victory. Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s decision was shaped by his heritage, fear of the Nazis, and his earnest desire to save lives.

Under our protagonist’s scientific leadership and General Leslie Groves‘ military direction (enhanced by Matt Damon’s authoritative portrayal), the brilliant minds at Los Alamos, many of whom sought refuge from the Third Reich, unite to prevent Werner Heisenberg and others from building a Nazi atomic bomb.

Amidst it all, Oppenheimer’s enigmatic and sensitive soul comes to the fore, delving into interests that extend beyond physics. From psychotherapy to poetry, Eastern religion, and the captivating landscapes of New Mexico, his explorations reveal a multifaceted, complex and vulnerable persona. In relation to the Trinity Test, Nolan captures the beauty and terror of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in a way that is both visceral and poetic. With jaw-dropping cinematography and immersive sound design, the film inventively and realistically grasps the nuclear explosion’s sequence, from the brilliant light to the delayed sound and blast, exemplifying the awe and dread felt by scientists and military personnel witnessing the birth of the atomic age. 

In Act III, Oppenheimer grapples with post-war challenges, including the moral conundrum of using atomic bombs against Japan and the controversies surrounding his role in the Manhattan Project. The truth is that these events gave rise to a nuclear taboo, establishing a norm of non-use of nuclear weapons in warfare, leading to widespread inhibition over their deployment. Nevertheless, after the bombings, Oppenheimer emerged as a fervent proponent of international control of nuclear weapons. However, Oppenheimer’s views on nuclear weapons were not always popular.

Nolan depicts the intricate relationship between Edward Teller (portrayed by the actor Benjamin Safdie) and Oppenheimer. Their contrasting perspectives on nuclear weapons caused a profound rift, with Teller’s staunch advocacy for the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer’s opposition to this endeavor resulted in accusations of being a “traitor” and a “communist sympathizer,” culminating in a security hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which ultimately led to the denial of his security clearance.

Father of the atomic bomb on trial

The trial poignantly highlights the perils of McCarthyism and sheds light on Kitty Oppenheimer’s remarkable fortitude, portrayed with candid authenticity by Emily Blunt, as she steadfastly supports her husband through this trying phase of his life. In this segment, the film employs a style reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” presenting the process as unfair and instigated by former AEC Chair Lewis Strauss, which deeply weighs on Oppenheimer’s conscience as he wrestles with the moral dilemma of his significant role in creating a weapon of mass destruction.

The conflict between Oppie and cynical Strauss lies at the heart of this epic drama, embodying personal grievances and their contrasting perspectives on the role of nuclear weapons.

In this regard, Robert Downey Jr. delivers a mesmerizing performance in interpreting the character of Lewis Strauss. His portrayal draws intriguing parallels to the complex dynamics between Salieri and Mozart depicted in Milos Forman’s 1984 film “Amadeus.” Like Salieri, Strauss is jealous and vindictive of Oppenheimer’s brilliance and determined to undermine him. Nolan’s artful blend of color and black-and-white in “Oppenheimer” masterfully captures distinct perspectives. Color delves into Oppie’s subjective view, while black-and-white reveals Strauss’s objective vantage point.

A nuclear Faust

In a profound sense, Oppenheimer embodied a “nuclear Faust,” haunted by his conscience and the consequences of his creation until his death in 1967. Much like the German legend of Faust, where an erudite trades his soul for power, the American physicist made a Faustian pact by developing the atomic bomb—an achievement of immense power and potential evil. After the war and his “trial,” Oppenheimer’s soul remained torn between the monumental creation of the atomic bomb and the potential global destruction it could unleash, igniting a profound inner conflict.

As a result, despite the exhaustive use of some hermetic language in lengthy dialogues, especially for those moviegoers without basic knowledge of nuclear physics and history, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is a masterful film that poses questions on the immense power of nuclear weapons and the weighty responsibilities carried by scientists and political leaders alike. Skilfully balancing historical accuracy with compelling storytelling, it thoughtfully delves into the morality of nuclear weapons.

A movie for our times

Simultaneously, the timing of the movie is particularly relevant as nuclear dangers mount at an alarming rate. They deserve thoughtful attention, especially with Russia’s threats of nuclear weapons use in Ukraine persisting. In this context, I wish to emphasize three pivotal questions about our relationship with nuclear weapons portrayed in Nolan’s movie.

First, the movie raises the question of threat perception in 1939 when the United States feared Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons development.

Einstein’s letter to President Franklin Roosevelt influenced the pursuit of the Manhattan Project, leading to the atomic bomb’s creation.

Today, the pursuit of nuclear weapons by states persists, fuelled by threat perceptions. For example, Russia’s actions in Ukraine heightened the nuclear threat, leading some states to view these weapons as crucial for national security. Non-nuclear countries like Iran are risking the possibility of acquiring their own nuclear weapons, while other countries, such as Sweden and Finland underwent significant shifts in their security paradigms. In response to the deteriorating security environment, the two Scandinavian countries abandoned their comprehensive approach to nuclear disarmament and instead embraced NATO’s extended nuclear deterrence as a crucial part of their new national security strategy.

Second, the quest for power played a pivotal role in the development of nuclear weapons during the Second World War and these weapons remain today a symbol of national strength and prestige for great powers and their allies. In 1945, the United States pursued nuclear weapons to end the war with Nazi Germany and to compel the Japanese to surrender. Despite the endeavors of civil society and certain political leaders to reduce or abolish them, the mindset of great powers remains unaltered. Nuclear weapons remain potent tools of power projection and deterrence. Yet, the risks associated with these weapons of mass destruction have not disappeared. 

Third, with a masterful finale, Nolan unveils the catastrophic and inevitable truth that nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented.

Once the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons is discovered, the consequences cannot be reversed. The film poignantly explores this challenge, presenting a cautionary tale of human existence.

Despite the considerable success of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, recent events, such as Russia’s war against Ukraine and the emergence of a New Cold War, have underscored that nuclear weapons present significant challenges and perils in the context of animosity between great powers. This New Cold War is characterized by a division between the US-led, Western-dominated “liberal” international order and revisionist forces represented by Beijing and Moscow. 

Consequently, this new security environment has had a negative effect on the global nuclear order by deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia, hampering bilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control agreements (e.g. the New START treaty has been suspended with no renewal in sight), increasing military expenditures and the development of new nuclear weapons systems. It has also raised concerns about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, undermined existing arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and norms, and thus challenged the entire NPT regime. This situation marks a setback to the progress achieved in nuclear arms control and disarmament since the significant outcomes of the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear talks, consequently escalating the world’s risk of nuclear use.

In conclusion, “Oppenheimer” contends that the atomic bomb has fundamentally altered the dynamic between humanity and the universe, as well as within ourselves. It has forced cinematic audiences to confront their human existence and the immense destructive power at our disposal. In a world marked by competition and conflict, erasing “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” may not be possible. However, by embracing cooperation and diligently seeking ways to control and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our security, we can preserve the nuclear taboo. For example,

the renewal of nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements (e.g., ABM, INF, and New START treaties) between the two superpowers, the US and Russia, is key in restoring stability and cultivating an atmosphere of nuclear avoidance.

Therefore, the paramount responsibility lies with future generations to challenge the status quo mentality of competition among great powers and embrace innovative proposals for nuclear peace cooperation. 

Let us work to limit the destructive “chain reaction” that Oppenheimer’s creation left behind and strive to bring peace to his soul. 

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