The much-awaited biopic of Robert Oppenheimer does not disappoint.
Weaving seamlessly between commission proceedings and the memories of Oppenheimer, his adversaries, and friends, the film vividly portrays the intensely conflicted life of Oppenheimer, often referred to as 'the father of the Atomic Bomb,' and the challenging era he lived in.
Based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (2005), the movie explicitly parallels Oppenheimer and Prometheus. This archetypal reflection explores the themes of bringing forth innovation (symbolised by fire), and the consequences and punishment one may face as a result.
The movie takes us through the complex labyrinths of science, politics, technology, and conscience. It depicts a time when one war ended and another was beginning. We witness the transformation of a theoretical physicist—who was so bad in the lab that he detested it—into the administrative and technological leader of a project that would profoundly alter the course of history.
The movie illustrates how the Western powers handled the threat posed by both the Nazis and Soviets—both totalitarian regimes. The Nazis, in a strange twist, ended up catalysing the development of a weapon that became a crucial deterrent in the Cold War between the two power blocs.
The movie deserves credit for providing a mostly balanced perspective, with a slight left-leaning bias, between the McCarthyist paranoia and Stalinist expansionism of that era.
The movie vividly depicts how the Communist network infiltrated the personal and social lives of both workers and elites, including top scientists. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this portrayal. Similar situations were evident in Great Britain, where the USSR exploited the ideological sympathies of scientists like JBS Haldane for military-tech espionage.
In the movie, Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) is shown as having a sympathetic stance towards leftist egalitarian ideals while being acutely aware of the totalitarian nature of Marxism.
It also highlights how, during the 1940s and 1950s in the West, leftists were more open to exploring Jungian psychology and Hindu spirituality.
The clear definition of faultlines by Soviet Marxism led to Hinduism being perceived as 'reactionary' by leftists. Marxist scholars sponsored by the Soviets, China—and now the US—played a significant role in this perception.
The movie focuses on Oppenheimer's quote (or misquote) from the Bhagavad Gita, which appears twice - once after the well-known explosion and again during a bedroom encounter (A request-please let us not take juvenile offence over it). There is a deeper irony in the fact that a project named after a Christian triune god, initiated by a Jew, resulted in a phenomenon that brought to mind the words of a Hindu deity.
The two important female characters initially display strong individual and intellectual personalities. However, one of them, Jean Tatlock (portrayed by Florence Pugh), ultimately meets a tragic fate, while the other, Katherine Oppenheimer (played by Emily Blunt), transforms into a passive housewife from her previous aspiration as a biologist.
Katherine's character reflects a mix of resentment and love for her husband, akin to the stereotyped image of a 'Hindu wife'. These portrayals are true to actual events and shed light on the experiences of thinking women in 1950s America. Paradoxically, Katherine is depicted both as a civilisational achievement and someone to be tamed.
The movie features almost all the important characters of 20th-century physics, including Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Feynman. However, the portrayal of Feynman as almost always playing his Bongos seems a bit irritating and looks lifted from the The Big Bang Theory. Instead, the movie could have included the famous 'I borrowed document no. LA4312–Feynman the safecracker' episode, which would have been more interesting.
The professional rivalry between Edward Teller (played by Benny Safdie) and Oppenheimer is depicted in a dignified manner without negatively portraying Teller, who later became known as the father of the Hydrogen bomb. Many scientists, including Carl Sagan, highly resented Teller.
Interestingly, Teller benefited from the trial Oppenheimer went through, as it cleared many hurdles for his H-bomb project, which Oppenheimer did not favour.
In a conversation, Oppenheimer reveals that the US was able to advance rapidly in the Bomb project despite the Nazis having a head start. because the Nazis considered new physics as 'Jewish science', which is only partially true.
It is possible that in their racist perspective, the Einstein-Bohr-Heisenberg conflict was viewed as a clash between Jewish and Aryan science, but we cannot confirm if this actually happened.
However, we do know that the Soviet Union had reservations about New Physics, considering it a Bourgeois deviation from dialectical materialism. Stalin famously remarked that if they couldn't have an atomic bomb without New Physics, it should be tolerated for the time being, and he added, "we can always shoot them later."
In an intriguing contrast, during a scene where Oppenheimer meets the team and their family members, celebrating and waving flags after the bombing of Hiroshima, he expresses regret that the bomb couldn't have been developed earlier to be used against Nazi Germany.
On the contrary, Einstein, who had firsthand experience of the Nazi regime and anti-Semitism in Germany since childhood, suggests in a dangerously unconventional, Gandhian manner that if the scientists succeed in their bomb project, it should be shared with Nazi Germany. Both Oppenheimer and Einstein were Jews.
However, despite their proclaimed aversion towards Nazi Germany, the question remains: would the US have used nuclear weapons on a European nation?
The movie suggests that Stalin may have influenced the US decision to drop the bomb on Japan. For this viewer, the American arrogance in choosing Japanese cities to bomb and their apparent indifference to human lives and suffering in an Asian land is disturbingly reminiscent of the Anti-Semitic inhumanity of the Nazis. The fate of a non-European city and its thousands of civilians was determined by a honeymoon trip taken by an American.
Furthermore, the movie doesn't portray Native Americans from Los Alamos as even minor characters, despite the fact that it was their land. A positive note, however comes from Oppenheimer, who urges President Eisenhower to give the land back to them.
In the movie, Albert Einstein appears briefly but in crucial moments, and he suggests to Oppenheimer that just as Einstein left his own motherland for the US, Oppenheimer should also consider leaving the US.
However, Oppenheimer firmly responds that he loves his country too much to leave it.
Interestingly, it was his diplomat friend, George Kennan, who was the architect of the US's Cold War containment policy against the USSR, who made this suggestion to Oppenheimer. In response, Oppenheimer tearfully replied, "Damn it, I happen to love this country." Let's assume this to be a cinematic license taken for dramatic effect.
Every actor has played or rather lived his part very well. The dynamics between Lt. Gen. Leslie Richard Groves (played by Matt Damon) and Oppenheimer were realistically brought to life without falling into the trap of excessive melodrama or clichés.
Although some clichéd scenes are present, the moment of Oppenheimer witnessing the effects of the atomic bomb on those who were previously cheering him with US flags is particularly impactful, leaving the movie viewer to anticipate its occurrence.
Almost a meditation on the ethical dilemmas faced by scientists during that turbulent period, Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, with its thought-provoking narrative and attention to detail, stands as an example of cinematic excellence.
The film leaves a profound impact, urging viewers to ponder over deeper questions about choices and associated value systems. Excellently portrayed by a talented cast, the film portrays the consequences of human actions, exploring the interconnectedness of history and ideology.
Is it Nolan's best film? Let the debates begin.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!