The Many Enigmas of Oppenheimer

The Many Enigmas of Oppenheimer

In Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan neither indicts nor vindicates the physicist. Instead, he offers a study of a man full of contradictions.


J. Robert Oppenheimer made his greatest contribution to physics in 1939. It was three years before he met Gen. Leslie Groves, three years before they built a town in the New Mexico desert, and three years before they recruited thousands of scientists and their families to live in that desert town where they worked toward a single-minded goal: a weapon of such destructive power that it would end World War II, perhaps even all wars. Hitler had just invaded Poland, and Oppenheimer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was working on a paper that used Einstein’s theory of relativity to identify what we now call black holes.

Christopher Nolan’s latest film introduces us to this Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy. Gaunt and dapper, he stands in a classroom full of fawning graduate students who call him “Oppie,” speculating on the unanswerable questions of the cosmos. What happens if a star dies? Does it burn out and collapse? And, if so, does it fizzle out or does its implosion generate a gravitational force so powerful it swallows even light? A continent away, many of the world’s most prominent physicists are being chased out of their countries by the Nazis and the war they have started. Oppenheimer does not yet know it, but in a few years, he will be part of this war, helping to build its most terrifying weapon. He will soon become an advocate for its control, opposing the proliferation of this new weapon, and, eventually, fall out of favor.

Oppenheimer is a story about a charismatic man of ideas, a figure of intense willfulness who puts scientific theory to the test and becomes caught in the harrowing consequences of his actions and convictions. The film is like several of Nolan’s films that track figures of incredible genius attempting, through sheer forcefulness, to transform ideas into realities that in the end have terrible outcomes. Oppenheimer was not the most profound of physicists. He was no Einstein or Niels Bohr. He did not invent the theories that made the bomb possible. But he used his genius to see the whole picture and also to organize hundreds of scientists around it, coordinating a lab so big it was a whole secret town. In this way, he was a symbol of the arrogance, nationalism, and naivety that sat at the heart of the machinery that built the bomb. He also soon became a symbol of the violence that machinery wrought and that, once operational, slips out of his control.

Nolan neither indicts nor vindicates Oppenheimer. Instead, he stays in an intimate proximity to him, documenting his captivating, then horrible, achievements and his eventual downfall. Like a black hole, Oppenheimer appears as a star who burns so strongly he burns out and becomes a presence marked by a force that swallows up everything around it—himself included. Oppenheimer is based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, and the title they gave their book was apt: American Prometheus. As Niels Bohr observes, invoking the myth, Oppenheimer has helped create not just a new weapon but a frightening “new world”—and one that now has the power to destroy itself.

From the outset, Oppenheimer runs along two tracks at once, each structured by an official hearing and distinguished by the presence or absence of color. The color track is set in 1954: Oppenheimer sits before an Atomic Energy Commission board that is questioning his loyalty and threatening to revoke his security clearance. Before Oppenheimer helped the United States get the bomb, we learn, he ran in a circle of communists and fellow travelers: He sent money to leftist groups during the Spanish Civil War, made friends and lovers with avowed communists, and supported students trying to unionize the lab. At the time, Russia was an ally, not an enemy, but the commission’s suspicions are seemingly backdated and they want answers. They also want answers as to why Oppenheimer has become a vocal advocate of nuclear arms control after the war.

Through this hearing, Oppenheimer recounts his life in a whirlwind of impressionistic and breathless episodes. We see him as a homesick graduate student in Cambridge. We watch him read T.S. Eliot, admire cubist paintings, meet Niels Bohr, and flounder in laboratory work. We follow him as he zips across the European continent, from Göttingen, where he studies theoretical physics, to Leiden and Zurich, before returning to the United States and moving to Berkeley and Caltech. Waves of static twist around the young man, particles shimmer before his eyes. Oppenheimer, we are told, sees the world differently, but doesn’t know how to use his new vision.

Once on the West Coast, the precocious student becomes Oppie, charismatic guru and brilliant physicist. He teaches himself Sanskrit and flirts with colleagues’ wives. There is a ranch in New Mexico to which he and friends run off whenever they can. He follows his curiosities, intellectual and romantic, wherever they lead. He attends Communist Party meetings and befriends leftist professors. Women seem to be a consistent source of angst for Oppenheimer. He has an affair with the communist psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) before he meets the former communist Kitty Puening (Emily Blount), who is already married, which Oppie views as more of a speed bump than a stop sign.

By 1942, Oppenheimer’s inexhaustible energy finds a new target. Despite the many rumors flying around—“dilettante, womanizer, suspected communist”—he catches the attention of Gen. Groves (Matt Damon), who recruits him to work on the then-secret Manhattan Project, tasked with building a novel weapon. The story of the atomic bomb begins.

Parallel to this propulsive biographical retrospective runs another track, set in 1959 and in black and white. It follows the Atomic Energy Commission’s chairman, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who has been nominated to be secretary of commerce. A self-professed self-made man, Strauss has known Oppenheimer for more than a decade, and the congressional committee that is deciding on his appointment has concerns. Strauss first met Oppenheimer when he tried to recruit the world-famous physicist to the Institute for Advanced Study in 1947. But now that Oppenheimer has fallen out of favor—both with Strauss and many of the country’s Cold Warriors—Strauss finds himself under the gun, interrogated by a panel of senators. Downey plays him as a man who likes to be in control; he has fought for a seat at the table, and he will fight to keep it. But as the strain of questions digs into the events leading up to Oppenheimer’s own security clearance hearings—how did they happen, and what was Strauss’s role?—Strauss finds that his fate is caught up with Oppenheimer’s, whether he likes it or not. The menacing elements of the machine—whether the bomb or the national security state—can turn on its creators. Strauss may have had Oppenheimer in his sights in 1954, but now Congress has Strauss in theirs.

The centerpiece of the film is the bomb’s development, testing, and deployment, all from a mesa in the New Mexico desert called Los Alamos. There, Oppenheimer and Groves construct a town to house the scientists who would develop the bomb in isolation; the town rises from the landscape like a film set. Here we see Oppenheimer at his most iconic: a wooden pipe in his mouth and a distinctive wide-brimmed hat on his head, suspenders and gray suit, hands in his pockets while the dust of the desert whips past him. It is here, in Los Alamos, that the film’s pacing also finally becomes more deliberate and deliberative.

Nolan is faithful to the science that was done in Los Alamos, but Oppenheimer doesn’t get too bogged down in scientific detail. The film is more concerned with how the task to build the deadliest weapon ever created became a mission so monumental that it overshadowed any doubts its creators held. When Groves asks if the bomb could destroy the world, all Oppenheimer can tell him is that chances are near zero, quipping, “What do you want from theory alone?” Throughout the process, we see Oppenheimer’s justifications for building the bomb evolve. First, it’s an attempt to move from the realm of the theoretical to the practical, to make an impact on the world. Then, it is a way to end the war. Then, it is a way to end all wars, not just the present one. Eventually, another reason becomes clear: a deadline looms.

By 1945, Groves pushes Oppenheimer and his team of scientists to put their bomb to the test. The Trinity test is the film’s most elaborately planned sequence—both for Oppenheimer and for Nolan. We watch as Oppenheimer and his team map the location, erect a platform, establish observation sites, and finally disperse as their metallic orb is put into place and then released. When the bomb detonates, scientists and soldiers watch in awe. Oppenheimer returns to base camp a hero. He is thrust into the air by a swarming crowd as if he were a sports champion. Three weeks later, though, he is at a podium, looking out on an auditorium full of scientists, engineers, and their families. Word has just reached the residents of Los Alamos that the United States has dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. There is cheering, jubilation, feet pounding. Oppenheimer walks onto the stage, but, rather than relishing the crowd’s adoration, he makes an ambiguous statement: “The world will remember this day.”

Nolan keeps the camera closely focused on Murphy’s face. Behind him, the multicolored brick wall becomes a blurred and shuddering background. There is a flash, as if a bomb has gone off there too; a massive flare blankets the frame in white. Oppenheimer’s face is bleached by the light; his blue eyes look out into the horrifying future that he has helped to create. Bodies dematerialize. Oppenheimer catches sight of a young woman whose skin is tattered, trembling in the wake of the blast. He takes a step forward and hears a crunch: Beneath his foot is a charred body.

This harrowing scene is the movie’s most direct confrontation with the devastation Oppenheimer’s efforts have wrought. We don’t see what happened in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but we do see Oppenheimer watch the footage. Years later, at the AEC hearing, the man interrogating Oppenheimer demands that the physicist explain why his views about the bomb have changed. Surrounded by his accusers, Oppenheimer cannot pinpoint the moment, but we understand his reasoning: Humanity has not reacted to such a weapon by laying down its sword. Rather than a future of peaceful cohabitation, the bomb had unleashed an arms race between competing powers and initiated an era in which nuclear terror was part of daily life. His vision back on that podium in Los Alamos proved true: He had helped to create a tool of mass genocide, a technology that would cast a shadow of terror over the rest of the 20th century.

Oppenheimer has already garnered comparisons to Oliver Stone’s JFK for its historical scope, how it is framed by official proceedings and uses flashbacks and differing perspectives to construct histories that can never quite be reconciled. But, at its most powerful, the film is just as much like Pablo Larrain’s Jackie in its fidelity to telling the story of its title character through the character’s perspective. Though we get beautiful vistas of the desert and, in the third act, the terrifying inferno of an atomic explosion, Nolan uses his IMAX 70 mm film to search for hints and revelations on Murphy’s face. Murphy’s veil never fully gives away what he is thinking. There is no moment when the man is settled, or defined. He is always shifting, a presence that is evasive.

In his book The Meanings of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lindsey Michael Banco describes Oppenheimer as a shifting sign, a “cultural cipher with many, often contradictory meanings.” The film does not shy away from these contradictions. Oppenheimer is self-important and actually important; he is the great salesman of science until the science he sells is no longer in his control. He is an arrogant and effective administrator, a bureaucrat willing to do all he must do to succeed in his mission, and yet at the end he is also a great doubter, trying to contain the nuclear armaments he has helped unleash on the world. Nolan illuminates this enigmatic figure. But, like a black hole, Oppenheimer remains a contradiction, an entity whose gravity absorbs any definitions or light we try to cast on him.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated the Trinity Tests took place in 1946, not 1945. It has been updated to reflect the correct year. 

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