Oppenheimer Avoids Easy Answers to the Dilemma of Nuclear War

Christopher Nolan further solidifies his reputation in his newest movie as one of the world’s most astute and adroit filmmakers of the modern era

Christopher Nolan further solidifies his reputation as one of the world’s most astute and adroit filmmakers with Oppenheimer, his biopic of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” A brilliant physicist before he was put in charge of the Manhattan Project, Nolan’s film provides a strikingly well-produced, nuanced, and layered look at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life. Audiences will leave with a much better appreciation for the man, the dilemmas facing a nation entrenched in a global war, and the politics of a turbulent and uncertain era in American history.

The Manhattan Project A Sprawling Effort

Nolan masterfully weaves together three main themes, all within the story arc bounded by the conception, implementation, and aftermath of what would become known as The Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was a nearly $2 billion (more than $33 billion in today’s dollars) multiyear effort to develop the atomic bomb. The sprawling effort ultimately involved more than 130,000 people. Research and facilities were built in at least 19 locations in the U.S. and Canada, including Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Richland, Washington, Chicago, Berkeley, St. Louis, and Dayton, Ohio; the nerve center for building the bomb was at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer was recruited to run the project based out of Los Alamos Laboratory.

The movie’s first theme is a largely successful attempt to capture the intellect, layer, and humanity of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Anchored by a solid performance by Cillian Murphy (Dunkirk, Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy) as the enigmatic physicist, he is recruited by Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the project because of his extensive network in the scientific community and professionally recognized intellectual integrity.

A theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer led an effort to establish the U.S. as a global leader in quantum mechanics in the early 20th century. He was largely successful. But U.S. dominance, as the movie shows, really didn’t emerge until foreign physicists, mainly German Jews, came to the U.S.

Oppenheimer’s Leftwing Sympathies Create Trouble

Oppenheimer’s intellectual interests, however, spanned a wide range of artistic, humanitarian, and political topics. These broad interests set the stage for his engagement as a fellow traveler with known communists in the academic community and his support for labor organizing in the 1930s and early 1940s.

A second theme builds on the controversies over his political engagement, which culminate (historically and in the film), in a secret congressional investigation into Oppenheimer’s leftwing sympathies.

The U.S. government was happy to use his mind, intellect, and colleagues to build a bomb that everyone hoped would quickly end World War II. However, government tolerance for heterodox political views was forced by pragmatic war goals. Not surprisingly, as the scientists conducted their research, anti-communist political concerns created an undercurrent of suspicion, skepticism, and weariness.

Cut-Throat Politics Also Plays a Role

The third theme is the practical, personality-driven, sometimes cut-throat nature of politics. Unfortunately, diving deeper into this theme risks including spoilers. But one of the examples of how well Nolan uses subthemes and minor character dynamics to set up a climatic event is the interplay between Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), and Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.).

Nolan weaves these themes together through seamless flashback transitions that artfully tap into a full range of senses and visualizations. Despite the overlapping stories and movements from post-war, to pre-war, to contemporaneous (Manhattan Project) events, the audience won’t feel lost or confused.

And, in typical Nolan fashion, the parallel themes work in ways that tie the entire movie together in the end.

Steller Acting Keeps Movie Fresh

The movie benefits from stellar acting placed within clear character arcs. Cillian Murphy’s Opennheimer is a grounded presence despite the physicists destabilizing personal choices. The evolution of Oppenheimer’s views from excited theoretician, to skeptical bomb builder, to anti-nuclear bomb advocate unfolds as a natural consequence of his experiences and thoughtful reflection over time.

Emily Blunt’s characterization of Oppenheimer’s ambitious wife Kitty provides an emotional touchstone that forces the theoretical physicist to confront the practical and personal human consequences of his decisions. Robert Downey, Jr. may turn in his best performance yet as the calculating, politically aware Admiral Lewis Strauss. Strauss would eventually chair the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission after World War II.

Matt Damon’s portrayal of General Leslie Groves, the man charged with getting the Manhattan Project off the ground and shepherding it to its fateful conclusion, provides a steady, barely visible thread that knits the entire story together.

The cast of A-list and exceptional B-list actors is extensive—Florence PughCasey AffleckRami MalekKenneth Branagh, and Benny Safdie, just to name a few more. But they are well-used by Nolan. No dialogue, expression, or action is wasted. Even the “small” parts have meaning in the story’s arc; they are not simple placeholders. The interplay between Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Strauss is just one example.

No Easy Answers in Oppenheimer

Despite J. Robert Oppenheimer’s well-known post-Manhattan Project skepticism of nuclear weapons—he was one of the world’s foremost critics of nuclear proliferation—audiences will not leave Oppenheimer the movie with pat answers or easy conclusions about this horrific human invention. Even the ongoing controversies over dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not find a clear resolution in this film 78 years later.

The problems nuclear weapons pose to humanity are as complex as the man who brought the resources together to create them. The trade-offs involved in their use are more than complex: they are almost impossible for mere mortals to understand or comprehend fully.

Nevertheless, as the movie reminds us in various ways, the Nuclear Age is here. We can’t ignore the trade-offs, as horrific as they are. This realization, perhaps, maybe what Nolan wants us to recognize more than even a biography of the Father of the Atomic Bomb itself.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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