Oppenheimer is a film about the brilliant, enigmatic physicist who led the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. The relationship of Oppenheimer to his devastating creation is the centerpiece around which director Christopher Nolan weaves a fast-paced narrative that brings together the urgent imperative to produce a war-winning weapon before Hitler could come up with one, the conflict between scientific collegiality and national security, the flirtation of intellectuals and scientists with left-wing thinking and the Communist Party, the decision to use a bomb designed for use against Hitler against hapless Japan, and the combustible coincidence of the birth of the bomb and the dawn of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
Cillian Murphy is flawless in capturing Oppenheimer’s charismatic, complex personality and Robert Downey, Jr, succeeds in portraying the mix of ambition and envy of the scientist’s antagonist, Lewis Strauss, who used the rising Cold War mood of the late 1940’s to discredit Oppenheimer as a “national security risk.” With her dark, expressive, resentful eyes, Emily Blunt turns in a masterful performance as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who stomachs his affairs but remains fiercely devoted to him as his loyalty to the United States is questioned by people gripped by anti-communist hysteria or political opportunism, or both.
This is not the perfect movie. The weaving of Oppenheimer’s career with his “fellow-traveller,” “pinko” politics and love life is spoiled by one over-the-top sex scene that visualizes the scientist’s reminiscing about his relationship to a psychologically troubled Communist Party member Jean Tatlock, while he’s being grilled by the committee that will determine if his security clearance will be renewed. There is little effort to explain why so many intellectuals and scientists were attracted to the Party, with them coming across in the film mainly as tools of Stalin’s obsession to steal America’s atomic secrets and not the idealists that many, in fact, were. Oddly, Matt Damon is miscast as the overall project chief, Col Leslie Groves. By most accounts, Groves was a stern, driven, no-nonsense guy, but Damon comes across as almost genial, perhaps thinking he was still playing the marketing man, Sonny Vaccaro, who thought up the Air Jordan line of Nike sneakers in the movie “Air,” also a 2023 release.
Unlike Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which ends with a bittersweet message of victory in defeat, there is no redemptive ending in “Oppenheimer.” Instead, it leaves the viewer with questions that will perhaps never be satisfactorily answered. Was the quest for the atom bomb by the physicist mainly motivated by a Promethean ambition to turn theoretical physics into an engineering marvel? Was his transformation from being the creator of the bomb to an advocate of arms control mainly a public relations stunt at a time that the feeling that his bomb had won the war against Japan was being replaced by a sense that it had created a Brave New World? Does he really feel he has “blood on his hands,” as the movie has him confessing to President Harry Truman, or is that just melodrama that the president sees through when he hands Oppenheimer a handkerchief.
I thought at first that it was a major flaw in the film that there were no scenes of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the terrible human suffering visited on both the dead and the survivors. Then it dawned on me that this was deliberate on Nolan’s part. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned only as bombing targets and the Japanese as ciphers in estimates of how many were likely to be killed. Oppenheimer, the film points out, was central to these discussions, where his concern was mainly the choice of targets which would allow the maximum destruction. In eliminating any scenes of the nuclear devastation and victims, Nolan is likely suggesting that Oppenheimer really did not see the Japanese as flesh and blood human beings, but as the nameless thousands whose fate would serve as the measuring rod for the success of his bomb–or that his realization of their humanity came too late, far too late.
The committee investigating Oppenheimer’s security record finally comes out with the verdict that while his security clearance cannot be renewed, he is judged a “loyal American.” It is a compliment that, with hindsight, drips with irony. It is probably the perfect ending.