By Jurek Molnar
How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
The first time he heard the name “Oppenheimer”, Christopher Nolan recently told in an interview, was when the song Russians by British singer and composer Sting was released in 1985. It was also the first time I heard this name, because like Nolan I also listened to this song at the height of the cold war and was, like Nolan and our whole generation, deeply afraid of a possible nuclear exchange between the super powers. Two years earlier in 1983 a movie hit the theaters, The Day After, in which a nuclear bomb annihilates Kansas City and deals with the fate of a family who has survived the blast and is now thrown into a world of disaster. “The living will be envious of the dead,” was one of the film’s advertisement slogans which stayed with me.
Exactly 40 years later Christopher Nolan has become a phenomenon of his own. With Oppenheimer he has secured himself a spot in the Olympus of filmmakers, only accompanied by all-time greats like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Charlie Chaplin, David Lean, Martin Scorsese or Ridley Scott. Being able to fuse cinematic quality, intellectual depth and commercial success is a kind of gold medal Olympic discipline only very few artists have ever been able to accomplish and Nolan is definitely one of them.
Oppenheimer is an IMAX shot blockbuster, which depicts historically accurate events that led to the development, testing and finally dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities, which ended the 2nd World War and secured US world hegemony for the following seven decades.
Nolan follows in his script the immensely detailed historiography in the book, American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin , which is the result of two and a half decades of research and a meticulous account of the Manhattan Project, its main protagonists and the political intrigues that affected Oppenheimer after 1945. American Prometheus is much more than a biography of Oppenheimer himself. It tries to give a complete picture of the circumstances, achievements and obstacles that played into the career of Oppenheimer as an American scientist, who was in many ways an outsider to the scientific community he led in Los Alamos. Cilian Murphy catches the strange aura of this man with a subtle emotional performance. He portrays a personality who is determined and fragile, brilliant and careless, coherent as a character, but remaining alien to his peers and the audience throughout the film. Like Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean’s masterpiece from 1962, Oppenheimer does not reveal much of himself, and Nolan takes great care to preserve the mysteries of his legacy. For anyone interested in biographies, I recommend Ray Monk’s “Oppenheimer. A Life inside the center” (2012), which covers many parts of his life which Bird and Sherwin did not particularly focus on.
This review will not have many things to criticize. Everything this film does, it does it with serious focus on the historical record, with well-paced storytelling and the beautifully-crafted cinematic techniques fans of Christopher Nolan’s work will be familiar with. One particular feature of a Christopher Nolan film is the jump between different moments of time relevant to the narrative. The switch between past, present and future and the dissolution of linear trajectories are well calculated devices to frame a cinematic exploration about the mysteries of quantum physics. Oppenheimer tells the story of his protagonist by constantly going back and forth in time, drawing connections between past, present and future and confronting the main character with his own memories. I was watching the movie with my 15-year-old daughter and it was definitely a challenge for her to get along with the often confusing (but never illogical) jumps between different time periods, which is to say that she got bored sometimes, but had no problem in the end to get through it. (I am very proud of her.)
The main plot of Oppenheimer is the journey of its protagonist from being a clumsy and easily distracted physicist in the beginning, who then turns into the mastermind of the most important technological enterprise of the 20th century. The film takes mostly his perspective, occasionally interrupted by black and white scenes, which tell parts of the story from the viewpoint of Oppenheimer’s biggest enemy, Lewis Strauss, brilliantly played by Robert Downey Jr.
Oppenheimer’s left leaning political views, which are used against him after the war, were mostly instrumentalized to destroy his career by creating suspicion in the security services that Oppenheimer may have been a Soviet spy. The biggest achievement of Oppenheimer’s professional career, the successful completion of the Trinity Test, reflects itself in the formal structure of the film, which has three parts to connect past, present and future. In the first part there is the struggle for the theory, the second leads to the successful atomic explosion in the New Mexican desert, the third deals with political consequences Oppenheimer had to face in regard to his warnings of a nuclear arms race. In strategically confusing back and forth cuts Oppenheimer is able to visualize the shift from classical physics into the realm of Quantum mechanics, which gave the first glance of the real power the tiniest structures of our cosmos contain.
What it must have been like to envision nuclear power entirely from a theoretical perspective? Nolan contrasts the strange novelty of nuclear physics in the early 1920s with the art of its time. Oppenheimer watches Picasso and Braque, while contemplating the new ideas of energy and particles, fission and fusion and the strange behavior of gravity in dying stars. He cannot sleep and is disturbed by the strange nature of these things, which are at this point entirely hidden behind complicated equations and hypothetical models of probability and derivative approximations. The early stages of the science in the 1920s and 1930s, when Oppenheimer went to Cambridge, Leiden, Zürich and Göttingen to learn about Quantum mechanics, are full of visual imaginations, in which the future reveals itself in mysterious pictures of particles and energy charges. Nolan finds astonishingly simple visual correspondents to portray these concepts. In the first minutes of the film the young Oppenheimer watches raindrops falling on the ground, forming growing circles, which in the end become horrific visions of nuclear missile impacts creating shock waves on the planetary surface. Past, present and future are always connected. The struggle of physics to create a single coherent perspective on reality and its failure to do so, mirrors the difficulties of the human mind to navigate between subjective consciousness and objective truth. As Einstein says at some point in the film, the probabilities of Quantum physics are disturbing, when certainty is required. The uncertainty principle is a regime of terror and fear.
Although the historical facts are well known to everyone who is paying attention, the climax of the movie, the successful Trinity test reflects this terror and fear brilliantly and is a thrilling masterpiece of build-up and suspense. Either the test fails and ruins American war strategy in the Pacific or it succeeds and destroys the whole world by igniting the atmosphere. The strange joy that is displayed afterwards is deeply troubling and haunts the characters as well as the audience. Nolan does not show any picture of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer in one scene turns his head away when he is confronted with the truth of the weapon’s impact, which by the way did not even emit a fracture of its potential destructive power. But it is not necessary to shock anyone with images of radioactive burns and former human bodies, who were turned into ashes. The power of nuclear energy was already demonstrated.
One of the central ideas of 20th century physics, that matter is a particle-wave duality is turned by Nolan into an elegant vision of energetic images, which capture the fundamental change of perception that took place in this era. As Nils Bohr in a dialogue with Oppenheimer put it: “It is a not just a new weapon. It is a new world.” Past, present and future are not exactly linear in Quantum mechanics and Nolan, who has really understood the implications, makes brilliant use of this idea. The complicated physical concept that observations create the reality one tries to recognize as objective truth is interpreted in Nolan’s film as a very practical problem. Oppenheimer and his team create the bomb, but its original purpose to win the arm’s race against Nazi-Germany becomes obsolete. The decision to drop two nuclear devices after the Trinity Test on Japanese cities had the purpose to demonstrate the power of nuclear weapons, which had been otherwise only of theoretical value. Show, don’t tell. The very practical problem that the destructive exchange of nuclear weapons between super powers can only be prevented by using them once, has a clear connection to the observer effect in Quantum mechanics. Only observation creates reality. The world had to see what nuclear weapons actually do, before anything can be done to prevent the final doomsday scenario. Oppenheimer’s moral dilemma is not so much the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened, but that he had to accept that both incidents were necessary to prevent worse catastrophes. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were evils, but they were necessary evils. The American politicians who were in charge at the time, were also well aware of the implications.
President Truman, who called Oppenheimer a “cry baby” after Oppenheimer admitted to have “blood on his hands”, rightly explains to him, that the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “don’t give a shit who built the bomb. They will blame who dropped it.” But at the same time when Truman cynically speaks the truth, he fails in this moment to see through the alleged triumph of American hegemony. He claims confidently that the Soviets will never acquire nuclear weapons, and in this regard he was clearly mistaken. This failure of insight seems to be a major reason why Oppenheimer was targeted after the war. The Soviets had at least three spies working at the Manhattan Project, who one way or the other contributed to the Soviet Nuclear program, but Truman’s arrogance was hardly justified. The security establishment had to explain why the Soviets had closed the gap in 1949 and could only point to sabotage and espionage. For lack of better reasons, they directed their anger towards Oppenheimer.
The science that made nuclear weapons possible was already in place around 1930. Building such a weapon then was primarily an engineering problem. German and Soviet scientists were not less competent, only less equipped with accurate resources. When the Soviets started to put real effort into the development they figured out themselves how to create a powerful nuclear arsenal. The “Manhattan Project” succeeded in the race, because it could make use of the industrial might of the USA, which enabled the country to fight different battles on different fronts in a multi-layered all out war. The shipyards that built the naval carriers fighting and winning the battle of Midway were faster and more efficient than their Japanese counterparts and the production of long range aircraft outmaneuvered the German capabilities. The facilities at Los Alamos were run like a start-up and the project reflected the priorities of an open society, which collected the best minds by incentivizing the competition of ideas, and not political allegiance.
Was J. Robert Oppenheimer a communist? The material collected in American Prometheus doesn’t answer that question, but focuses instead on the idea that it was necessary for some parts of the security establishment to pose this allegation as a nice decoy for their own incompetence. Oppenheimer was part of a left-leaning milieu in Berkeley, which existed before and after him and with which he always held good relationships. His loyalty to the United States nevertheless remains unquestioned to this day and the truth of his political activism, warning of a nuclear arms race, was more or less confirmed by game theory. He was chosen to be the managing director of Los Alamos because he was the best man for the job and not because he ticked some boxes on a bureaucrat’s sheet. Nolan’s film uses the political character assassination that hit Oppenheimer in order to emphasize the mythological qualities of the man and his achievements. Prometheus, the demi-god of Greek mythology, brought fire to mankind and was brutally punished by Zeus. But Zeus couldn’t undo what Prometheus had done. For better or worse mankind owned fire. In the last scene of the film Oppenheimer admits to Einstein, that he – like Prometheus – has given mankind the power of self-destruction and that he is deeply afraid that mankind will not reject that offer. Like Einstein we have no real answer to this problem.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a great film at the right time. As a blockbuster it uses its mass appeal to demand attention and informed opinion from its audience, and as a reflection on very complicated scientific, political and historical matters, it finds ways to engage its viewers without overburdening them. Without a doubt it helps to know a few things about nuclear physics, but it is not a necessary requirement. It may also be helpful to know some details about 20th century American history, but if you do not, it may even be more interesting to watch some of these events on screen. Oppenheimer is one these rare occasions, where a filmmaker goes far beyond the rules of entertainment and succeeds in taking the audience with him. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the fallen hero of the atomic era and the modern revenant of Prometheus, would have appreciated this movie without a doubt.