No figure stands more squarely at the crossroads of 20th century science and politics than J. Robert Oppenheimer, forever known as “father of the atomic bomb”. An epic story requires an epic film, and Christopher Nolan has given Oppenheimer the treatment he demands, in a three-hour bio pic that manages to balance a portrait of this enigmatic personality with the earth-shattering events that defined his life and times.
For Nolan, it’s a remarkably well-organised film, considering that his previous effort, Tenet (2020), was virtually incomprehensible. One suspects this owes a debt to a script written in collaboration with Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, authors of the 2005 Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus. The film doesn’t tell us anything about Oppenheimer’s upbringing as part of a wealthy Jewish family in New York that owned paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso. We skip straight to his post-graduate studies at Cambridge, where he is clumsy in the laboratory, but a prodigious theorist.
He’s also unstable enough to inject an apple with poison, as a way of getting even with a lecturer who humiliates him. It’s an anecdote to demonstrate the old cliché that genius and madness are closely aligned. If we need further proof of our subject’s mental dexterity, there’s also the small matter of learning Dutch in six weeks so he can deliver a lecture on quantum mechanics.
Oppenheimer’s backstory is told in flashbacks, framed by his appearance in front of a select committee in 1954, where he is being investigated as a security risk. At this stage he is the most famous scientist in America, renowned for his leadership at Los Alamos, but his credibiity has been undermined by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who has worked behind the scenes to bring Oppenheimer down. It’s a complex relationship between the two men, as Strauss had been a key supporter of Oppenheimer, but turned against him after the scientist made him look foolish in a hearing.
The story of the Atom bomb is rotated with this tale of political and personal intrigue, in which Strauss plays Iago to Oppenheimer’s Othello. The resonances with present-day politics are unmistakable, as we recognise echoes of the way public health experts and environmental scientists were demonised by opportunistic politicians in the Trump camp – a process that has bled into the public realm via social media and extremist opinion-mongering masquerading as news.
To be truly without blemish in front of a committee in the McCarthy era, it wasn’t sufficient to have demonstrated one’s loyalty to the United States by helping develop the greatest weapon of mass destruction in history. As we see during the flashbacks, Oppenheimer took a lively interest in politics. He was a vocal supporter of the Spanish republic, he argued for the unionisation of the science department at Berkeley, and associated with Communist Party members, including Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a disturbed ‘fatal attraction’ with whom he had a long-running affair.
Strauss and his colleagues, notably Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, were aware of Oppenheimer’s political beliefs when they enlisted him to head up the Manhattan Project. The USA was in competition the Germans in the race to build a nuclear weapon, and Oppenheimer was simply the best man for the job. As a non-observant Jew with left-wing sympathies, his antipathy for the Nazis overruled any scruples about the destructive force he was about to release on the world.
The argument was compelling: if the Germans got the bomb first, they would be sure to use it. For the Americans, who styled themselves as guardians of democracy, it could conceivably act as a deterrent to unjust wars – a weapon of peace.
Oppenheimer chose the location for the secret laboratories and testing grounds in the New Mexico desert, he assembled the scientists he needed for the project, and brought it to fruition. When the Third Reich collapsed but the Japanese fought on, work on the bomb continued. The scientists created the weapon, but its deployment was a matter for the politicians.
When Harry Truman dropped bombs on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, on 6 and 9 August, 1945, Oppenheimer seems to have been stricken with guilt and remorse for what he had done. Although publically celebrated as the father of the A-bomb, he used his influence to argue against the development of an even greater weapon, the H-bomb, which was being promoted by his colleague, Edward Teller (Benny Safdie).
By 1954, when he sat before the security committee, Oppenheimer’s pacifism had made him a suspect figure among America’s Cold Warriors. This distrust was exploited by the devious Strauss. The third strand of this movie looks at Strauss’s efforts to get himself confirmed by a Senate Committee as Head of the Atomic Energy Commission, with his press secretary, played by Alden Ehrenreich, gradually teasing out the true nature of his boss’s double game.
Oppenheimer owes a huge part of its success to Cillian Murphy’s performance. The Irish actor who always seems to play supporting roles, has relished the opportunity to step into the limelight, and must now be in contention for an Oscar. His achievement is to portray Oppenheimer, not just as a haunted man, but as a lifelong misfit whose intelligence set him apart from every peer group. Oppenheimer tells his Communist friends he has read all three volumes of Das Kapital but found Marx’s arguments unconvincing. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t support just causes, such as the Spanish Republic or unionism, when there are obvious strategic reasons to stay away. The place he loves most in the world is the New Mexico desert, but it’s here he produces the first nuclear explosion.
There is an intellectual arrogance to Oppenheimer that infuriates his opponents, and occasionally trips him up. Having taken on the task of building the bomb, he has to front up and celebrate the strike on Hiroshima while he is inwardly reeling at the magnitude of horror he has helped unleash. He finds it difficult to defend himself against determined but dishonest opponents, even as his angry wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), urges him to act.
If Oppenheimer is a philosopher amid the dirty realities of politics, Lewis Strauss is a disciple of Machiavelli. Robert Downey Jr. is so good in this role, one could almost forget all his past misdeeds, on and off the screen. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of Hollywood talent, with figures such as Kenneth Branagh (Niels Bohr), Tom Conti (Albert Einstein) and Gary Oldman (Harry S. Truman), being assigned minor but crucial parts.
It’s rare that a film manages to look at a figure as monumental as Oppenheimer, without caricaturing him as a hero or villain. The scientist is in part the author of his downfall, but also a victim of circumstances and outright conspiracy. After spending three hours in his company, we can’t exactly approve or disapprove. Oppenheimer is a flawed genius who can grapple with the intricacies of quantum mechanics but can’t resolve the moral dilemmas that plague his public and private lives. He is a figure that invites the most dramatic comparisons, not just as Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods, but the man, in the Gospel of St. Mark, who gains the whole world and loses his own soul.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan, Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Remi Malek, Alden Ehrenreich, David Krumholtz, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke
USA/UK, MA 15+, 180 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 July, 2023