The pivotal scene in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is a victory speech gone wrong. Cillian Murphy is masterfully cast as the queasy genius, a spindly boy with troubled dreams who has grown into an unlikely and uncomfortable war hero.
Addressing an exuberant Los Alamos crowd after his bomb has cinched the victory in Japan, Julius Robert Oppenheimer hovers between triumph and torment like a particle in quantum superposition, overlaid in two conflicting states at once. He barks out a rousing tribute to his country, but Nolan shows us imagined scenes of horror clouding the scientist’s vision: skin peeling from the fresh faces in the audience, ashen corpses crunching beneath his feet.
What fate could be worse for humanity than to achieve our grand designs? It wasn’t our failures that God protected us from when he halted construction of the world’s greatest building project to date: It was the cataclysm of our potential success. “See,” he said as a monstrous silhouette rose against the skyline of a place that would come to be called Babel. “This is the beginning they have made as one people, speaking one language. Now nothing that they try to do will be out of their reach” (Genesis 11:1-9). There is something terrifying about getting what we want.
Power makes it possible for a man to follow through on his intentions, and so to reveal them for what they are. It follows that technology, which delivers power, reveals what is in the hearts of men. The more we can do, the more we learn about what we choose to do when we can. Not everyone can bear the discovery.
Shortly before World War I, the brilliant chemist Fritz Haber developed a technique for extracting nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere. Since ammonia made with nitrogen can be used to fertilize crops, Haber became known as the man who pulled “bread from air.” He was also the man who supplied Germany with munitions, using the same nitrogen to equip his Kaiser’s arsenals with explosives. Life and death alike came seeping out of the sky at his command: It was impossible to bring one without the other.
Haber also helped create the poisonous gas that sent boys choking to their deaths on the front lines. His wife Clara Immerwahr, herself a formidable chemist, saw the whole thing as “a perversion of science” and “a sign of barbarism,” as Morris Goran explains in The Story of Fritz Haber. In 1915, Immerwahr shot herself with Haber’s military pistol, unable to bear the thought of her husband’s creation descending like a curse over the sons of Europe. That very morning, Haber embarked for the Eastern front to supervise the first gas offensive there.
Bread and bullets, victory and agony, slaughter and grain: They come into being as twins, midwifed by imperfect men of science. “Oppenheimer” portrays its title character as just such an imperfect man, an “American Prometheus” (also the title of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography, which inspired the film). At the prompting of Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves — played by a bluff and frequently red-faced Matt Damon — Oppenheimer endows mankind with the ability to fuel or destroy the world.
The original Prometheus did the same thing, seizing fire from heaven to bestow upon humanity; he was chained forever to a rock and gutted alive by eagles as punishment. What gnawed away at the real Oppenheimer was remorse. The uranium bomb did not ignite the atmosphere and engulf the world in flame, as some theorists feared it could. But Oppenheimer worried that it might as well have. The last third of Nolan’s film shows a man caught up in his own chain reaction, struggling desperately against the inevitable nuclear arms race between America and Russia as his hopes of international collaboration recede into the mists of naïve idealism.
Nolan expertly threads Oppenheimer’s professional self-doubt together with his personal failures and regrets. His lover, Jean Tatlock, a stylish psychoanalyst played to sultry perfection by Florence Pugh, embodies the past he could never quite outrun. She slinks into his life at a meeting for communist sympathizers, straddling him while he reads verses aloud from Hindu scripture. Oppenheimer is entranced, but ultimately he must leave Tatlock behind for a more stable partnership, just as he must suppress his leftist sympathies to make his crucial contribution to the war effort.
Emily Blunt plays Kitty, the wife Oppenheimer eventually chooses: severe and distant toward her children, bitterly wounded by her husband’s infidelity, but fierce in his defense against accusations of treason after the war. Jean, meanwhile, grows increasingly desperate as she finds herself relegated to the status of the other woman. Her confident sophistication dissolves into desperate anguish, and she drowns herself in the bathtub, leaving Oppenheimer to grow old in the disastrous wreckage of a well-intentioned youth.
As an American, he could hardly have withheld his gifts from his country’s service in her hour of need. As a Jew, he could hardly have abandoned his people to death camps in foreign lands. As a scientist, he could hardly have resisted the allure of a new physics that promised to crack open the seeds of existence itself. But he was just about as ill-equipped to wield such awesome power as it was possible to be.
“Genius is no guarantee of wisdom,” observes Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, the power broker who maneuvered quietly to have Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked on suspicions of communist sympathy. Strauss is at home in the unscrupulous world of politics; Oppenheimer, caught unawares, is tossed aside by a government that no longer needs him. Nolan shoots the post-war scenes in black and white, contrasting the vivid urgency of discovery at the Los Alamos laboratory with the drab and petty intrigue of subsequent partisan maneuvering.
Nolan occasionally loses his footing in this third act by letting lazy political clichés stand in for real moral complexity. Strauss comes across as a conniving villain; President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) appears in one scene as a callous buffoon; Sen. Joe McCarthy is brushed off in a single line as a fanatical amateur.
It’s clear that Nolan’s sympathies lie with the likes of Albert Einstein, who recoiled from political entanglements after writing President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 and advising him to stockpile uranium. Chastened by the thought of what his advice might have brought to pass, Tom Conti’s Einstein stands aloof from the grubby enticements of politicians, pronouncing gravely on the dangers ahead.
But the movie never answers that one question that any critic of the American war effort must face: What else was Oppenheimer, or Truman, or anyone for that matter supposed to do? In 1972, two hunters in Guam stumbled across Shoichi Yokoi, a lance corporal in the Japanese Army. He had been hiding out there since 1945, when Oppenheimer’s bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Refusing to surrender, Yokoi stuck to his post for almost 30 years, until his country’s defeat became impossible to ignore. That is the kind of enemy America was facing: dogged, unyielding, prepared to gasp its way through years of protracted conflict down to the last man.
Faced with prospective deaths in the tens of millions, Truman dropped the bomb. It’s possible to grapple seriously with the awful necessity of that decision, just as it’s possible to understand that a bright-eyed young man might innocently favor communism as an apparent alternative to fascism in Europe. Serious moral decisions are rarely cut and dry; good arguments can be made for a range of imperfect alternatives. But what’s not possible is to simply do nothing — to absolve oneself of the complexity inherent in decisive action, indulging in the luxury of condemning the least bad option without proposing any workable alternatives.
The only serious flaw in Nolan’s otherwise riveting movie is the hint of sanctimony it attaches to the man who retires from the world. It’s the scientist, the artist, the philosopher that gets to wash himself of the moral stain that comes from hard choices.
If he does bestow his powers of insight upon the masses, he is likely to be martyred and misunderstood: “You see beyond the world we live in — there is a price for that,” says a fellow scientist to Oppenheimer. Kitty watches in exasperation as her husband sits with quiet dignity through his interrogation: “Did you think that if you let them tar and feather you, the world would forgive you? Well, they won’t.”
She’s right, of course, and Nolan does an excruciatingly thorough job of counting the price Oppenheimer had to pay — in personal effrontery, in public humiliation, in existential angst — for his greatest discovery. But men of action pay a price for their choices, too, and there’s precious little sympathy on offer for the mere mortals who had to get their hands dirty fighting the war. Were they so awash with good options that we can fault them for the one they chose?
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes that young men can become experts at geometry but not politics, “because the former subject exists through abstraction, whereas the principles of the latter come from experience” (VI.8). This is the difference between what the ancients would have called the “active” life and the “contemplative” life: the pristine clarity of mathematics is nowhere to be seen in the ragged trenches of human experience, where none are found righteous, and no one gets out alive.
Oppenheimer and Einstein get to brood nobly by the pond in the rain, fretting over matters of pure principle. But Truman and Groves have the thankless job of corralling the world’s most temperamental masterminds and eliciting from them a weapon of mass destruction — which will then be dropped, or not, with unthinkable consequences either way.
Though it leans a little heavily on the side of the tender-hearted pacifists, Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” lays beautifully bare the tragedy of human endeavor, which is that our most spectacular triumphs also aggravate our most hideous flaws. We can do our best to act rightly and to mitigate the risks we face.
But there is no such thing as safety and no question of pursuing only those achievements that don’t also cast a shadow of potential catastrophe. The peril and the promise are both built into science and politics themselves because they are built into us. The line between good and evil, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed, runs through every human heart.
If we are living in the world that Oppenheimer helped to build, then it is the world of nuclear power plants as well as nuclear war. The universe in which Russian President Vladimir Putin could feasibly unleash an atomic weapon is the same one in which nuclear-powered rockets could feasibly land on Mars. Our era of hyper-accelerated technological development has been terrifying and disorienting precisely because it unleashes wonders and disasters in equal measure.
It’s said that when Oppenheimer saw the bomb explode for the first time, he recalled a line from the “Bhagavad Gita,” the Sanskrit poem that Nolan has him read to Tatlock in bed. “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Krishna, lord of the cosmos, reveals himself in the poem as master of destruction as well as creation.
The powers we touch upon at the core of the universe are every bit as fearsome as they are magnificent — but we, in our broken humanity, are the ones who must wield them. There is no getting out of that responsibility. Only God can help us bear it. It may well be He who charged us with it in the first place.