Oppenheimer:

“There was terror, as well as exhilaration”

Director: Christopher Nolan

Actors:

Cillian Murphy [J. Robert Oppenheimer]

Emily Blunt [Kitty Oppenheimer, wife of Robert]

Florence Pugh [Young woman Oppenheimer had a serious relationship with prior to marrying Kitty, and afterward]

Matt Damon [US General Leslie Groves]

Robert Downey Jr. [Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the AEC – Atomic Energy Commission]

Gary Oldman [President Harry Truman]

A hefty roll-call of physicists appeared on screen in Oppenheimer, including [not a comprehensive list]:

Hans Bethe: played by Gustaf Skarsgard

Patrick Blackett: James D’Arcy

Niels Bohr: played by Kenneth Branagh

Ernest Einstein: played by Tom Conti

Werner Heisenberg: play by Mattias Schweighofer

Ernest Lawrence: played by Josh Hartnett

Isidor Rabi: played by David Krumholtz

Edward Teller: played by Benny Safdie

Many more actors beyond this.

Many notable performances from this cast – the vast majority of the actors are male, of course, due to the subject matter – this physicist team in those times.

Prologue quote to the film:

“Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.”

When I first heard of this film release, I was immediately excited to see it. I understood that the

intellectual, scientific, and political themes of this film would give a filmmaker strong ammunition to create a

masterpiece – a masterpiece that reflected that complicated history, and reflected on the man – after all, the film title is

Oppenheimer. But in spite of watching this film 3 times, I don’t know that I understand any more clearly the man,

Oppenheimer, nor the intricacies of his psyche. Granted, no film, no director, no script, and no actor can re-create what

Oppenheimer actually was, and it might even be true Oppenheimer himself lost sight of who he was after he lost his US

security clearance in 1954 following his security hearings before the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] held in April and

May of that year. And when Oppenheimer had lost control of that monster – the atom bomb and all the nuclear

destructive power that emerged from it – the monster that he had ultimately midwived and masterminded into existence

within three short years with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, perhaps he did lose his sense of direction.  He perhaps

understood his mistake in human history. In the final scene of the film, Oppenheimer indicates clearly by what he replies

to Einstein that he had serious misgivings about leaving as his legacy the title he has been dubbed with since 1945: father of

the atomic bomb.

Caveat: I have not read yet American Prometheus by co-authors Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, the Oppenheimer

biography upon which the film is based, although I am about to do so. Any person wanting to understand the decision-making

around the development of the atom bomb and nuclear fission should read that opus, however, as the book did

win the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2006, and is lauded as a fine study of a fascinating physicist who to this day

remains an enigma. Arguably, so much of human modern history rests [and rested] directly on Oppenheimer’s shoulders. One

problem with this film is that this salient fact is not hammered home to the viewer, in an intimate way, in the 3-hour

bio-pic.

* * * * * * * * **

The Manhattan Project had its origins in 1939, when U.S. scientists urged President Franklin D.

Roosevelt to establish a program to study the potential military use of fission. By 1942, the project

was code-named Manhattan, for the site of Columbia University, where much of the early research

was done. The first nuclear reactor was constructed by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago in 1942.

In 1943, a laboratory to construct the bomb was established at Los Alamos, New Mexico,

with a staff of scientists headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Manhattan Project scientists detonated

the first atomic bomb in a test [code-named “Trinity”] near Alamogordo in southern New Mexico. By

the time the Manhattan Project ended after the successful completion of the first live test of an atomic

bomb, The Manhattan Project had cost some $2 billion and involved 125,000 people.

https://www.britannica.com/story/timeline-of-the-manhattan-project

The world’s first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test, occurred on July 16, 1945, when a plutonium

implosion device was tested at a site located 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the plains of

the Alamogordo Bombing Range, known as the Jornada del Muerto.

https://www.google.com/search?

This first explosion provides a seminal moment in the film – jubilance – no sign yet of regret, remorse, or fear for the

future. Later, after the Japanese bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated these two cities in the first military use of atomic weapons, Oppenheimer seems to be hallucinating when giving his speech to a roomful of exhilarated Americans who are celebrating the end of the war. The expectant crowd await him to speak meaningfully and joyfully to their successful work on the Manhattan Project. In their perception, they had ended WWII with these dropped bombs, which they had all in some way participated in creating. But his audience in that room at Los Alamos do not understand at all the gravity of a developing nuclear arms race, nor the devastation and horrors of wiping out the population of two entire cities in one cruel instant. Here, Nolan [and Murphy] manages to reveal Oppenheimer’s horror at the entire gruesome situation he now finds himself emmeshed in. Yet we see scant progression towards Oppenheimer’s later agonies of conscience during the building of the bomb. Given the man’s intelligence, this lack of gradual understanding on the part of the leader of the Manhattan Project, seems truly ludicrous; I see this as Nolan’s mistake as a director.

**********

We have our knowledge of the man, in print, and even without reading the biography American Prometheus, and relying

entirely on Wikipedia or the dribs and drabs we heard about this enigmatic figure since we were born, we know that J.

Robert Oppenheimer was the brilliant theoretical physicist who was chosen by US General Leslie Groves, director of the

entire Manhattan Project, to serve as director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory, which essentially had as its

objective the design and creation of the first atom bomb capable of killing – with one bomb – many thousands of people.

Oppenheimer led the highly accomplished team of physicists who were compelled to take part in this project; they all

knew that Hitler and his team of German/Nazi physicists were also working feverishly to create the first atom bomb. The

technology and knowledge were there; it was only a matter of time. As Oppenheimer was Jewish, he therefore had every

reason to want to win that atomic bomb race, considering what was occurring in Germany during the war – the

Holocaust. He also had already created the first quantum mechanics program in America, bringing his knowledge

gleaned in study in 3 European countries [the UK, Germany, & Holland] with the leading physicists of his times: Niels

Bohr, Max Born, Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, James Franck, Paul Dirac, and others – bringing this knowledge to America for the first time. Because of his knowledge and brilliance, Oppenheimer was the natural choice to lead this critical team of physicists at Los Alamos.

However, his Achilles heel within that project was always his left political leanings, and close associations with the

Communist party long before his involvement with the Manhattan Project. These political associations were to render him particularly vulnerable later. Although Oppenheimer never joined the Communist party, this association was, for someone in his position, perhaps ill-chosen. His romantic involvement with a young woman, Jean Tatlock, a card-carrying Communist whom he had loved and had asked to marry him more than once, was also well-documented by the F.B.I. and/or CIA. Both had spied on him [and Tatlock] due to his importance to national security. Oppenheimer began dating Tatlock in the fall of 1936, and they parted, but not permanently, in 1940 when he married Katherine (Kitty) Puening Harrison. Kitty was pregnant. Oppenheimer did not permanently end his relationship to Tatlock until the summer of 1943. By early January of 1944, the 29-year old Tatlock was found dead.

Tatlock, who was still a Communist when Oppenheimer became the director of the Manhattan Project, remained

involved with him for a time after his marriage to Kitty, also a card-carrying Communist until 1940. Of course, the

Manhattan Project was supposed to have been carried out with the utmost of secrecy. Oppenheimer, by continuing his

relationship with Tatlock, came under suspicion of espionage because his lover was a Communist, and this, along with other issues, was to cause Oppenheimer’s later downfall, and possibly even Tatlock’s murder. But Nolan does not explore nor go down that rabbit hole. Tatlock’s death in January of 1944 was never investigated as a possible homicide – by what was reported at the time, and not within Nolan’s film. Her death was registered as a suicide. However, murder was entirely possible and the biography, American Prometheus, apparently does explore this possibility. Tatlock’s brother Hugh remained

convinced that his sister was murdered by government CIA operatives. By removing Oppenheimer’s security clearance

in 1954, based in part on his earlier association with Tatlock, the US government [FBI/CIA] demonstrated their belief

that Oppenheimer had told Tatlock too much. Yet, as a well-educated woman with high intelligence, a

psychiatrist in fact, Tatlock had everything to look forward to in life. 

Aside from Tatlock’s death, the above facts are clear. Oppenheimer was never a card-carrying Communist, although he

did at times funnel money, well before the Manhattan Project, to “Communist” causes such as the Spanish revolutionary war in the 30’s. But this is a Constitutional right – to support causes as one feels compelled – unless, that is, those causes constitute a perceived enemy of America – and you are J. Robert Oppenheimer. Due to an uneasy and growingly hostile relationship with Russia’s Stalin in the years following WWII, and the then developing Cold War, anyone found to have had, after WWII, or by the early 1950’s, Communist friends or affiliations were then pilloried and pursued by the government. Many lost their jobs and with that, their reputations – including actors, filmmakers, and writers, directors. They were often put on a black list and not hired. Obviously, any film attempting the massive job of depicting the life, emotions, and genius of a man like Oppenheimer, who had such a pivotal role to play in human history – and in American history – and is perhaps the least understood and most implicated scientist in the ongoing controversy regarding the creation of atomic power and nuclear weaponization – this filmmaker took on a daunting, if not impossible, task. After watching the film, one is left asking oneself – so what really motivated Oppenheimer? Justice? Revenge for the Holocaust? [ongoing at the time] Ego? Love? His genius? National pride? Why does his last line in this film seem so out of the blue? Self-incrimination. The only previous hint of remorse in him for the creation of the atomic bomb is his statement to President Harry Truman, when Oppenheimer says he [Oppenheimer] has “blood on his hands” – and also during his post atom bomb drop [Hiroshima/Nagasaki] speech to a group celebrating their vanquishing two cities with the atomic bombs they had created – the aforementioned speech in the film. While these are important to signal Oppenheimer’s increasing feelings of guilt, I do not find them to be enough evidence of his feelings. 

But if Nolan believes that Oppenheimer succumbed to anguish over his role in producing the means for mankind to

destroy themselves, if that is supposed to be the overall message of the film, I think this critical aspect is not followed through in a gradual progression of moral realization by Oppenheimer throughout the film. Oppenheimer’s last line therefore seems to bring us up short as we are not allowed to follow and understand the workings of Oppenheimer’s genius, nor his emotional journey – not intimately. Rather, the thrust of the film becomes more focused on the side-threads – actions – the parallel hearings which aggressively propel the film towards that final line: the in-colour scenes shot of Oppenheimer’s security hearing held in1954 by the US Atomic Energy Commission [of which Lewis Strauss was the Chairman at that time], contrasted with the later black and white [shot] scenes of the Strauss confirmation hearing before a Congressional committee in Washington to determine, some five years later in 1959, whether Lewis Strauss was a suitable candidate for the position he was seeking with the US government as U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During this 1959 hearing, Strauss finds himself exposed as having targeted and caused Oppenheimer’s fall from grace five years earlier, his guilt proven due to key testimony by physicists supporting Oppenheimer. A number of these physicists testified before the committee with illuminating evidence proving Strauss’s behind-the-scenes involvement in deposing Oppenheimer in 1954.

The evidence in Strauss’s 1959 confirmation hearing, produced in part by by David L. Hill [played by Rami Malek], an American associate experimental physicist who had worked on the Manhattan project, was particularly damning.  This back-and-forth sequence between the two hearings starts well before the film is half-over, the excessive cutting back-

And-forth in time between the events happening during the Los Alamos Project [1942 to1945], Oppenheimer’s security

hearing in 1954, and Strauss’s confirmation hearing in 1959, all to the drumbeat of a perpetually aggressive soundtrack,

one begins to wonder who is making the film, the cutting editor, or the director? While creating momentum, perhaps,

this viewer found that breakneck speed distracting from the actual drama, and made it harder to concentrate

on the words that were actually said and the telling details of the scenes. I am assuming there is a transcript available

now, after 50 years, and it is public domain to use for developing a script, but why the need for the excessive noise level?

Which is extreme many times, perhaps particularly when Oppenheimer is being interrogated about Tatlock during the security hearing [1954], when it echoes the opening soundtrack of There Will Be Blood [by Hans Zimmer]. The difference is, in TWBB that music is played for a spanning across a desert, not dialogue in a critical scene, already a high drama. Nolan did not need the loud music; here it becomes merely a distraction from human thought.

Meeting with Harry Truman – what Truman really said:

Blood on his hands, dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have!”

Good thing some filmmakers are arrogant or fearless [or both], or we would not get interesting films such as

Oppenheimer. To fail, is to fail epically with such a sombre subject. I do not think that Nolan failed, obviously. The fact

that I was compelled to return 3 times to the IMAX theatre would indicate I wanted to see and think more deeply about

this film’s strengths and weaknesses – experience the film yet again. Yet, that pounding, unrelenting soundtrack seriously annoyed this viewer at times. Unnecessary in such a film. 

Now, 81 years after Oppenheimer’s start with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, how well does Nolan do with his

film in his attempt at the impossible – in bringing us closer to understanding Oppenheimer? Notice that he entitles the

film Oppenheimer. In doing so, he fixates attention on his own attempt. And I think this is worth mentioning as there is

so much hype around this film. One of the worst enemies of a filmmaker or writer or actor, or any great artist, is hubris.

Let us separate the reality of the events surrounding this controversial physicist, this brilliant man, in real time, from the

film which attempts a version or a recreation of those events and relationships that Oppenheimer so influenced to great consequence. This is why the film had to be made, no matter how well or how badly, for that ethical debate still hounds us as a species to this day: should we have created atomic energy, and thus, nuclear warfare? The logical answer for our long-term survival is no; the logical answer when facing down a madman such as Hitler or Stalin: yes, presumably we had to do so, as otherwise fascists would have taken control of the world. By making this film, Nolan has recalibrated that moral argument. But sadly, it would seem the argument has emerged in his film to be not about that critical ethical issue and a path forward. Not about where do we ethically proceed from here, or how do we control this devastating energy force – instead, Nolan

focuses more about speculating as to who was responsible for bringing down Oppenheimer, causing him to fall from

grace. Nolan chose instead to dramatize that struggle for power between two men [Oppenheimer does not so much

struggle as try to explain himself] – with Strauss being shown as an evil strategist who creates the means to topple Oppenheimer’s influence and power. Yet meanwhile, in the aftermath of the movie, if you read the commentary online, there are numerous assertions that Nolan is a genius, or some sort of god for daring to make such a mind-blowing, “explosive” movie. No one mentions the lack of intelligent debate on the means created for humanity to destroy itself. Nolan being any so-called god is frivolous nonsense – and does nothing to further intelligent discussion on nuclear energy nor atomic weaponization in our troubled current times.

**********

As a spokesperson and symbol of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer sometimes seemed to encourage the idea

that it was his personal creation and responsibility. In fact, the bomb was the product of a gigantic scientific, engineering, industrial and military operation, one in which scientists sometimes felt like cogs in a machine. There really was no individual “father” of the atomic bomb.

https://theconversation.com/why-american-culture-fixates-on-the-tragic-image-of-j-robert-oppenheimer-the-most-famous-man-behind-the-atomicbomb-209365

*********

We can appreciate what a filmmaker does, yes, and be grateful for their talents, but to treat them as gods is patently

ridiculous. And eerily, reintroduces the adulation that Oppenheimer himself apparently fell victim to. He was known to

have been, earlier in his life at least, and during his time at Los Alamos, arrogant and mercurial – often traits of geniuses,

btw. But Oppenheimer was undercut later, and all the more humiliated, both within the film and in real life, by his eventual degradation in the AEC security investigative hearing depicted in the film. Oppenheimer’s eventual humiliation becomes the driving force of this film, as well as Strauss’s later humiliation and defeat in his own later career quest. This – rather than that urgent question that still looms for humans today: what do humans ethically do with atomic energy, now that scientists have invented the potential for nuclear wars? What do we ethically and safely do to disarm and do away with such terrifying capabilities? It is highly ironic that in a war sold as “good” against “evil”, the “good” side ends up using a weapon of mass murder. Some 220,000 innocent Japanese civilians died when those two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – either immediately, or not long afterward. Nolan expends scant film time to any grappling with anguish for that outcome – not for Oppenheimer, nor for any of his extensive team of atomic scientists. Yet was this not far more important than the petty vendetta of an obsessive person? 

Nolan focused his plot drive on the following elements:

1] the race toward and eventual success of the atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th

of 1945, respectively – success being the utter destruction of those cities and the murder of most of the [largely]

Japanese populations living there. It was impossible to determine exact numbers as many were vaporized, or burned to

cinder. Many died later, if not immediately, of their wounds, burns, and/or exposure to extreme radiation.

2] The loss of the control over the bomb’s technology and over, later, advancements or uses of atomic energy [i.e.the hydrogen bomb’s testing – a bomb with far greater destructive power than the atom bombs created and unleashed by Oppenheimer and his physicist team.]

3] the destruction of Oppenheimer’s career, through [by the film’s viewpoint] the efforts of Lewis Strauss in revenge for

Oppenheimer briefly mocking his ideas in a prior public hearing before Congress, or because Strauss believes Oppenheimer to be a Soviet spy – or both. This event takes on an enormous amount of film energy and time that could have been used to

focus moreso on the nuclear moral dilemmas [and outcomes for the scientists themselves – their consciences]. For example, when Matt Damon’s character, General Leslie Groves asks Oppenheimer on the eve of the Trinity testing of their new atom bomb if there was any chance of the impending test explosion destroying the world, Oppenheimer tells him that there is actually a realistic chance of it. That was an utterly terrifying answer to the question, as General Groves makes clear.

4] The love triangle between Oppenheimer, Jean Tatlock, and Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty. [Tatlock losing out and either

committing suicide or being murdered by CIA operatives – we do not know why she ends up dead] The way Nolan

carries this Tatlock obsession into the consciousness of the audience is by having a dream/hallucinatory sequence

during Oppenheimer’s questioning at his hearing to determine whether he should be allowed to keep his security

clearance. Nolan chooses to have Jean Tatlock “post-humously” making love with Oppenheimer, them both naked in the [scene] dream sequence while Oppenheimer is seated in the hearing room being interrogated, while Tatlock’s gaze over

Oppenheimer’s shoulder is locked with that of an enraged Kitty, who is sitting behind Oppenheimer. Just whose dream

fantasy is this – Oppenheimer’s? Kitty’s? The ghost of Tatlock? Or, perhaps moreso, Nolan’s? While the scene is

definitely provocative, it invokes the sexual bond between the former lovers and the pain it caused Kitty, we might presume. And although sex does often involve love, this portrayal is just one of the ways that Nolan conveys dreams or hallucinations or obsessions within Oppenheimer’s mind [or someone’s] without ever having the character himself say or convey in any direct way his feelings or thoughts. This does not help us to understand the man. Would it not be true that someone in Oppenheimer’s position, well after Jean Tatlock’s death -14 years since he had married Kitty and 10 years since he had last seen Tatlock – would instead be focused in that moment on the outcome of his life’s work? His reputation? It just seems like this scene was intended to check a box – R – and titillate rather than have Oppenheimer seen as questioning his own morals in the wake of the hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific. The first hydrogen bomb testing occurred in 1952 with America’s Operation Ivy and in 1954, the same year as Oppenheimer’s hearing, with Operation Castle – see the chart below.

5] The friendships and, in some cases, espionage, that was creating a backdrop of paranoia for all who were involved

with the project, quite likely, but particularly for Oppenheimer. I do not know if this depiction is also in AP, the book,

but I would presume that it is [Oppenheimer’s friend, Haakon Chevalier, as possible Soviet mole] being one example.

6] Mental illness and alcoholism are also themes in this film, although these are mere footnotes in the film’s formidable

pace. Oppenheimer’s potential alcoholism is not the focal point, but rather the alcoholism of his wife Kitty.

7] Showing the bizarre paranoia and personal weaknesses rampant in the era for those anywhere near echelons of

political power.

8] In short, the world, at the provocation of America’s inventions, had moved beyond into a new terrifying era where

moral decisions were suddenly sharply divided from those of an aggressive political consciousness in a cold war

situation. I think Nolan does highlight this, but in his drive for drama, in my view, he focuses the film on Strauss’s impact

on Oppenheimer’s career instead of the Manhattan Project’s outcomes.

These are the themes above that come to mind for me watching this film, but they are not all invoked by Nolan in the most impactful, nor thoughtful, way, not in my view.

Speaking briefly about soundscape of the film – a critical element of Nolan’s film Oppenheimer.

Any film that has at least the potential for such a resounding cultural impact requires a compelling soundtrack:

When approached to score Oppenheimer, Göransson was initially intimidated by the scope and magnitude of the project.[8] In the film’s early stages of production, Nolan shared the script with his visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson as he needed to convey phenomena such as quantum mechanics and nuclear reactions onscreen.[9][10] The visual effects team began creating experimental footage of particles, waves, and chain reactions. Nolan then showed this footage to Göransson, who used it to draw inspiration for his score. Scoring Oppenheimer proved to be a unique challenge for Göransson as he had never composed a soundtrack that only represented one character’s inner workings and point of view. Nolan did not give specific direction on how he wanted the score to sound; the only suggestion he gave Göransson was to represent J. Robert Oppenheimer’s character and the film’s main themewith the violin. Nolan explained, “There’s a tension to the sound in a way that I think fits the highly-strung intellect and emotion of Robert Oppenheimer very well.” Using the violin as a starting point, Göransson and his wife Serena, a violinist, began experimenting with vibratos and microtonal glissandos;[14][15] they aimed to convey the anxiety of Oppenheimer through the violin’s ability to instantly switch from a romantic and sentimental sound to something “neurotic” and “horrifying.

[from Wikipedia] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppenheimer_(soundtrack)#cite_note-NPR-12

What strikes about this entry above is Nolan’s thought that this soundtrack was somehow representative of Oppenheimer’s consciousness. I saw this film 3 times and I did not experience it in that way. Because as compelling as Cillian Murphy’s performance was in this film, he does not succeed in drawing me into Oppenheimer’s mind – his states of mind – at least not much of the time. Think back to 1962, and the filming of Lawrence of Arabia – another long film with desert footage, and war as a backdrop. Actor Peter O’Toole, in the scene where Lawrence loses his mind and shouts, NO Prisoners! NO Prisoners, rallying his Arab contingent to sweep down upon the straggling remnants of a Turkish army unit as they had just murdered the entire village of one of his soldiers – and slaughter them all without mercy. The blood-thirsty, crazed look on Lawrence’s [O’Toole’s] face takes us into that out-of-body state of mind and we understand why Lawrence is compelled to murder and we even possibly forgive him for it. But Murphy’s Oppenheimer remains an enigma, rarely showing the momentous changes in him while coming to realize that his actions are leading to mass murder in his own name, actually, as well as to a global nuclear race that could in fact destroy the world, quite aside from the capabilities of the bombs then, or in any potential future chosen development or use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Where could Nolan have done better? When Tatlock’s body is discovered and we know from the real story that there are

questions swirling around her death – was she indeed murdered by the government security forces from Los Alamos or the CIA or FBI? Did Oppenheimer know that she would be murdered? Did she really commit suicide? Why not show this controversy and at least have shown Oppenheimer’s face accepting the grim news of her death? Instead of his response being cloaked in a hidden tearful breakdown without showing that initial full impact. That directorial decision left the audience outside of Oppenheimer’s consciousness – we cannot see his face, his direct, initial response. Just like putting Tatlock in his lap screwing him [is this some kind of ironic, twisted metaphor?] while he is being interrogated in the security hearing takes away from the viewer experiencing how he may be reacting to this outrage – to an incredibly intelligent human who gave so much to his country being questioned like a common criminal. Like why when he discovers Kitty drinking, and has to remove their distressed and neglected baby son to someone else’s care, he does not even engage with the woman who would be providing that care – as opposed to her husband – his friend [the Soviet mole] Haakon Chevalier – with whom he does speak? Like explaining how he is able to discount or ignore the danger of the atmosphere burning away with the first atomic explosion they were testing [Trinity test] – why not have him remark on how he is able to do this, take that extreme risk, without mentally breaking down? Why not show him as a father, interacting with his child? Or having conversations with Kitty that show his own changes of perception, his doubts, his fears, his conscience at work – we are not brought through those changes in this critical character in a way that gives us a feeling of connection with Oppenheimer. There were so many missed opportunities for greater intimacy with the character and the epic struggles he faced as leader of the Manhatten Project – and the challenges of Oppenheimer’s personal life as he grapples with the intensity of his responsibilities.

I believe a stronger, more reflective, more developed script would have greatly enhanced this film. I see the script as

fundamentally created with the intention to entertain moreso than to inform and morally engage the audience. Rather, Nolan

created a film to mesmerize in relation to the soundscape, something he is renowned for, as opposed to doing justice to the significance of the man, the significance of what was happening in those years, exploring deeply Oppenheimer’s and the Manhattan Project’s profound impact upon the human world. Instead, by focusing on developing a perhaps unimportant, shallow drama stressing Strauss’s paranoia and pettiness – his desire for power – is this worthy of a film about such a compelling historical figure? I believe that the US government at that time under Eisenhower, a former military man, would have brought Oppenheimer down ultimately anyway, and would have refused his security clearance, regardless. Strauss simply made it easy for them or perhaps he was asked to provide the means.The government would never have allowed Oppenheimer to compromise their hydrogen bomb dreams, in my belief, and Oppenheimer was the one person who might have had the ability to try to stop them – particularly if he had, for instance, run for the presidency and had won.

Dates for Oppenheimer’s Security clearance hearings: April 12th – May 6th, 1954

Date of the first hydrogen bomb test – Operation Bravo March 1st, 1954 [read URL article below]

first hydrogen bomb

In other words, all of the hydrogen bomb tests [see chart below in references], were completed by April 22nd of 1954.

14 days later, Oppenheimer was effectively denied security clearance by the AEC Commission due to the AEC investigation and hearing, and their vote to revoke his security pass. Oppenheimer was adamantly opposed to the development and use of the hydrogen bomb. The close connection between these dates tells a story of its own. 

The loss of his security clearance brought to an end Oppenheimer’s role in government – and in setting nuclear policy. Although Oppenheimer was not fired from his job at the Institute for Advanced Study, even so, after the loss of his security clearance status, after the security hearing with the AEC, he became an exile academically, cut off from his former professional colleagues, and from his former stature within the scientific community surrounding quantum physics and the new field of nuclear research he had transformed through his successful work on the Manhattan Project. 

Would he have made a good president, Oppenheimer, had that been possible? I don’t think so. We will never know, due to the fluctuation and paranoia of political wills at the time, massive male egos and hatreds, Kitty’s alcoholism and maybe Oppenheimer’s own possible alcoholism, his eccentricities, and the pervasive misinformation and fears of the times. Certainly, Oppenheimer was seen to be driven by his own ego/intelligence, as well as by his own insecurities/eccentricities – and held in check by the tumultuous times that he lived through. He did not seem to understand his own personal risk factors, created due to his position as an atomic scientist. But he fell deeply in love with a young Communist. Another irony in this story is what if Jean Tatlock had not refused his marriage proposal twice? Oppenheimer would almost certainly never have been entrusted with the Manhattan Project, and perhaps Hitler would have won the atomic armsrace – Hitler’s team of scientists. Another physicist other than Oppenheimer might not have succeeded with the Manhattan Project

Ironically, as this film does in fact compellingly depict, the professional triumph of Oppenheimer’s life swiftly became his ultimate tragedy. He was perhaps the most troubled of men in his final years understanding that he had in effect delivered the means for humanity’s total obliteration. And this is the real tragedy in Oppenheimer’s story, not the man’s “humiliation” due to such nefarious character as Lewis Strauss, but rather Oppenheimer’s inability to control the technology of nuclear fission after he had orchestrated its successful birth. Oppenheimer eventually saw that he had merely become the agent of a force of destruction so terrifying that even he could barely fathom its scope. The atomic scientist who had full confidence in his own intelligence and genius was thus shaken not by Strauss, but by his own lack of moral vision. Oppenheimer had helped to save the world from Hitler’s mad game, saving the US democracy and perhaps the world for a postwar, postmodern future – and lost himself in the process in understanding that he had also helped to shape a human future full of doubt, where no one could be confident of much at all.

People will perhaps disagree what makes this film stronger or weaker, but I am convinced of one thing: Oppenheimer

will not be the last film developed on this sobering subject. 

  1. Robert Oppenheimer died in February of 1967, relatively young, just short of his 64th birthday, of laryngeal cancer –

which is often caused by smoking, drinking, or by watching, far too closely, atomic explosions.

“Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds”

– Quoted by Oppenheimer from the Hindu Scripture of Bhagavad-Gita