Oppenheimer: A roller-coaster moral odyssey with no definitive answers

Christopher Nolan’s direction and screenplay, and Cillian Murphy’s acting, turn the most important moment in modern history into a political thriller. This article contains spoilers

By Vinay Kamat

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

 

Cillian Murphy as Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from 'Oppenheimer' (left), and physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer on the test ground for the atomic bomb near Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP
Cillian Murphy as Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from 'Oppenheimer' (left), and physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer on the test ground for the atomic bomb near Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP

Published: Fri 28 Jul 2023, 5:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 28 Jul 2023, 6:02 PM

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is cosmic. In trying to present the ecstasy and agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), the father of the atomic bomb, the director has set off a chain reaction among audiences. Unlike Inception, it’s not about endings — because there is none. Nolan’s screenplay, adapted from American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is a roller-coaster moral odyssey that has no definitive answers. For, Oppenheimer is no Prometheus, the man who steals fire to empower humans and gets punished by god. He’s a modern-day existentialist who’s trying to push guilt off the cliff — and fails. In the nuclear world he creates, Oppenheimer is a human atom bombarded variously by hubris, fame, betrayal, and remorse. His guilt is our guilt, a failure to understand our minuscule role in the overall scheme of things. It’s a chain reaction that afflicts us all.

Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer deconstructs the complex character: the student, the lover, the father, the physicist, the victim. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP
Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer deconstructs the complex character: the student, the lover, the father, the physicist, the victim. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP

Oppenheimer is put in charge of the Los Alamos Laboratory to design the ultimate weapon. The nuclear race is set in motion by a letter addressed to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, signed by Albert Einstein and other top scientists. The letter warns America that a Nazi nuclear bomb is a possibility. Oppenheimer sincerely believes such a weapon could end all wars, becoming the ultimate deterrent. But as events unfold, he realises the bomb has set off an atomic race. It has also been dropped on a nation that is no longer a threat. To prevent further escalation, he opposes the hydrogen bomb project, bringing him in direct conflict with Atomic Energy Commission’s boss Lewis Strauss. He’s accused of being a Soviet spy in a conspiracy fuelled by Strauss. Once the inquiry ends, his security clearance is withdrawn. (Oppenheimer is only absolved three years ago, when the US Government admits that the process of inquiry was “flawed”).


As his team conducts the world’s first nuclear test on July 16, 1945, in Los Alamos, days before the bombs drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the brilliant physicist famously quotes the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He believes his duty is to end all wars by creating the first nuclear weapons state. But he also believes that he cannot detach himself from his actions (the bombings). Here’s what he tells Harry Truman (Gary Oldman): “Mr President, I believe there is blood on my hands”. Truman replies: “You think anyone in Hiroshima or Nagasaki gives a s**t who built the bomb? You didn't drop the bomb, I did. Hiroshima isn't about you”.

In the nuclear world he creates, Oppenheimer is a human atom bombarded variously by hubris, fame, betrayal, and remorse. His guilt is our guilt, a failure to understand our minuscule role in the overall scheme of things. It’s a chain reaction that afflicts us all. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP
In the nuclear world he creates, Oppenheimer is a human atom bombarded variously by hubris, fame, betrayal, and remorse. His guilt is our guilt, a failure to understand our minuscule role in the overall scheme of things. It’s a chain reaction that afflicts us all. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP

Nolan’s Oppenheimer captures three key emotions: the exuberance of the college boy, the arrogance of the physicist, and the loneliness of the individual. While these are chronological chapters, the screenplay whisks through all periods of time to portray a man of many contradictions. A man who’s unable to gauge power politics. A man who attains supreme powers only to have those powers snatched away from him. A man who slowly starts understanding the futility of achievement. As Einstein reminds him: “When they’ve punished you enough, they’ll serve you salmon and potato salad, make speeches, give you a medal, and pat you on the back telling, all is forgiven. Just remember, it won’t be for you… it would be for them.”


In one long sentence, Nolan’s Einstein sums up the predicament of Oppenheimer. The screenplay juxtaposes greatness against obscurity, absurdity against logic, and purpose against cross-purpose. As enlightened audiences, we are entertained by the naïve exuberance of young Oppenheimer and confused by the passive cynicism of the old physicist. By watching two perspectives — Nolan presents Strauss’s point of view in black and white and Oppenheimer’s in colour — we get a rounded view of the events that unfold between 1943 and 1946.

Nolan’s Oppenheimer captures three key emotions: the exuberance of the college boy, the arrogance of the physicist, and the loneliness of the individual. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP
Nolan’s Oppenheimer captures three key emotions: the exuberance of the college boy, the arrogance of the physicist, and the loneliness of the individual. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP

Even as the screenplay see-saws between the hubris and remorse of Oppenheimer, it captures the transformation of Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., from an admirer (he hired Oppenheimer to head astrophysics at Princeton) to a schemer (he conspired against Oppenheimer, being a staunch advocate of the hydrogen bomb). The evolution of these two main characters — one towards meanness, the other towards angst — is the flesh and blood of the storyline. Nolan’s screenplay gives them the headway to present the conflict in different moods and shades. But Nolan doesn’t stop there; Oppenheimer is perhaps one of the best edited movies, stitching intricate aspects of the protagonist’s life seamlessly.

Nolan’s screenplay gives them the headway to present the conflict in different moods and shades. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP
Nolan’s screenplay gives them the headway to present the conflict in different moods and shades. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP

By providing viewers with two perspectives, the movie allows the discourse to continue well after audiences leave cinema halls. But it’s the high-powered cast — Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Florence Pugh, Gary Oldman — that creates the big wow, by immersing themselves in Oppenheimer’s predicament to magnify his mien. Imax cameras give us a ringside view of the faces and face-offs that define history, creating a political thriller. Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer deconstructs the complex character: the student, the lover, the father, the physicist, the victim. Biopics have been portrayed before in slick ways: Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (on Howard Hughes) and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (on John Nash). But Nolan smartly takes the discourse to the audiences, asking them to judge the biggest inflection point in modern history. He wakes them to discuss craft and character. He creates a timeless interactive on frailty and futility.

And yet, Nolan has the movie’s pivotal moment laced with his perspective. It happens beside a pond where Oppenheimer and Einstein converse, in the early stages of the movie. The conversation is not revealed to the audience until the very end. Oppenheimer confesses to Einstein that he has unleashed a chain reaction. Nolan follows it up with images of the world consumed by a weapons race. The ripples in the pond symbolically morph into a global nuclear storm, thereby sending a scary message.

Tom Conti as Albert Einstein and Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP
Tom Conti as Albert Einstein and Cillian Murphy as J Robert Oppenheimer. Photo: Universal Pictures/AP

But the real story of Oppenheimer is about an individual who is caught in a larger plot. As the scientist realises, actions are not cyclical, they are linear. They cannot be reversed. They are driven by larger forces. It’s the inability to sense the future and influence it that is deeply disconcerting. As you see two helpless scientists — the two greatest minds of the modern era — overwhelmed with guilt, pondering their past actions, you wonder whether we are missing something. Are they soul-searching? Are we?

As Nolan’s Imax cameras roll away from the pond, you know there is no clear answer. There’s no ending. This is only the beginning.

vinay@khaleejtimes.com

READ MORE:



More news from Long Reads