Review- Oppenheimer: The Genius who Left the Most Dangerous Legacy to Mankind

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Oppenheimer movie review
Oppenheimer is both Prometheus and Frankenstein

You hold your breath for almost a minute when the ‘Trinity Test’ is conducted – the metronomic beat to the most consequential countdown in the history of mankind blotted out by the near silence of fearful anticipation… except for the breathing of Oppenheimer. As the sky of Los Alamos explodes in an ever-expanding mushroom cloud of fire, filling up your IMAX screen with a blinding orange-red-yellow iridescence, you hear him recite Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Soon after, you see a close-up of his eyes (one of many in the film) – terrified of the destructive power of his own invention, even as he takes in the beauty of the spectacular sight. 

It is the climactic moment of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, where the eponymous hero is both Prometheus and Frankenstein. He has been driven by ambition to explore the most radical possibilities of nuclear science, but he has also already lost control of what he has created. Throughout the film, we see him haunted by apocalyptic visions of the future, triggered by the use of atomic energy. Bombs implode inside of him long before they fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

“I don’t want the culmination of three centuries of physics to be a weapon of mass destruction”, his hero and mentor, the Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr, tells Oppenheimer. And yet, that is exactly what happens; what he contributes to bringing about.

Rise and fall of “the father of the atom bomb”

The film charts the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer in a non-linear narrative. Though early on, we are given a quick survey of his scientific arc – from his dissatisfaction in Cambridge and flowering in Göttingen to his bringing nuclear physics to America first in Caltech and Berkeley, the major portion of the film flits between three moments in time: The ‘Manhattan Project’ of the early 1940s (to develop and design the atomic bomb), which, led by Oppenheimer, is carried out clandestinely in the desert of Los Alamos in New Mexico; a hearing in 1954, titled ‘Fission’ (to determine the renewal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance); and the confirmation in 1959 of Lewis Strauss (Oppenheimer’s antagonist and former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, played by an unrecognizable Robert Downey Jr.), as part of Eisenhower’s Cabinet. Titled ‘Fusion’, this part is black-and-white, while the rest of the film is in color. 

still from Oppenheimer
The film charts the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer

The hearing of Oppenheimer in 1954 is essentially a kangaroo-court where rules of the McCarthy era are foisted on to an earlier decade to vilify a national hero and turn him into a Communist spy for the Russians by falsely drumming up his earlier association with the Communist Party in the US and some of its dedicated members. It is the time when the renowned physicist is betrayed by those he had worked closest with– not just by Strauss, whose vindictiveness against him makes the trial happen in the first place in a make-shift courtroom of Washington DC, but also effectively by Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (who had recruited him to lead the ‘Manhattan Project’, played with hefty élan by Matt Damon) and Edward Teller (the theoretical physicist who was part of the team of scientists working at Los Alamos and became known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb”, played by Benny Safdie).  

The ethical question & representation of genocide

While the pre-interval section of the film is taken up more with Los Alamos, giving a blow by blow build-up of the making of the bomb, the last third concentrates on the 1954 hearing. And it is then that the ethical questions surrounding the bomb and Oppenheimer’s moral dilemmas come into sharper focus. It is here that he owns up that the bomb was dropped on “an essentially defeated enemy” and that, in his role as advisor to AEC, he had played a part in choosing which Japanese cities could be the targets.  

The devastation of the “targets” is, however, never shown on screen. We are only given oblique inferences through Oppenheimer’s reactions in two scenes: in one, he hallucinates the bomb’s impact on human bodies even as he delivers a celebratory speech marking the success of the experiment; in another, we see the periodic reflection of a distant screen’s light on his face as he watches slides detailing the havoc wrought on the Japanese. He almost collapses in the first instance, and bows and holds his head in shame in the second.  

The hearing of Oppenheimer in 1954 is essentially a kangaroo-court where rules of the McCarthy era are foisted on to an earlier decade to vilify a national hero and turn him into a Communist spy for the Russians by falsely drumming up his earlier association with the Communist Party in the US and some of its dedicated members.

But his ultimate capitulation happens in another scene where he meets President Truman. In trying to explain why, after having successfully fathered the atom bomb, he now wanted to advocate nuclear arms control, he says in a voice wracked with guilt and remorse: “Because I have blood on my hands.” Truman dismisses his agony by saying that the Japanese don’t care about who made the bomb but about who dropped it – which was him. But the audience cannot dismiss it. 

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The film is about Oppenheimer; hence, we see everything through his perspective (Nolan had even written the script in the first person). The point in these scenes is to project the protagonist’s moral dilemma, not provide documentary evidence of the heinousness of the “crime against humanity” that Hiroshima and Nagasaki was. The Japanese may not understand this delicate distinction if they watch the film. And they may find a hall full of foot-stamping patriots, berserk with the atavistic joy of having taught the enemy a lesson with the atom bomb, nauseating. That scene is the closest that Nolan comes to being courageous – in showing the crime from the perpetrator’s point of view; in underlining “man’s inhumanity to man”.

Nolan regulars

Oppenheimer has a stellar cast who all excel in their individual roles, but it is singularly carried on the shoulders of Cillian Murphy, who not only looks the part, but also conveys the conflicts and dilemmas of a troubled soul with nuance and candor – a lot of it through his eyes alone! Being a Nolan regular like some others in the cast (in his case for over two decades), definitely helped. The crew of the film also includes Nolan regulars, in particular the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, in their fourth collaboration after Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet.

Cilian Murphy and Christopher Nolan
Cilian Murphy and Christopher Nolan

Of the many cameos in the movie, Tom Conti (as Albert Einstein) Kenneth Branagh (as Neils Bohr) and Rami Malek (as the congressional lawyer who dresses down Strauss in 1959) stand out. Both Florence Pugh (as Jean Tatlock) and Emily Blunt (as Kitty Oppenheimer) are memorable in the few scenes they manage to get. They portray remarkable and unusual women of their times; and the relationship that their characters share with Oppenheimer is both passionate and complex, though in different ways: undefined and uncertain in one case, conflictual and turbulent in the other. They could have been explored a little more in the film.  

The film scores high with its haunting background score. One habitually expects Hans Zimmer to compose for a Nolan film. But it is Ludwig Göransson who is the composer for this, his second for Nolan after Tenet. He not only renders human emotions in music, but also the microscopic beauty of particles and atoms!

The film is essential viewing – not for the physics, but to understand the mind and soul of a genius who left the most dangerous legacy to mankind: the power to destroy itself.  

Images courtesy: Facebook

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One Response

  1. Brilliant review and analysis.Very balanced write up .too. Appreciated it all for its articulation and reasoning g
    Excellent write up. Very articulate meaningful and good reading too .

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