Oppenheimer: the view from ground zero

As a physicist working across the street from the Manhattan Project’s atomic breakthrough site, I grapple with Oppenheimer’s legacy and the questions raised by Christopher Nolan’s film every day.

Oppenheimer (2023)Universal Pictures

In Chicago, across the street from where I work as a physicist, humankind harnessed the atom. There, on 2 December 1942, scientists of the Manhattan Project achieved the first controlled self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, inaugurating the new atomic age. I often find myself standing there in contemplation, at ground zero of our new world. The Manhattan Project and its chief scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, cast a wide shadow, especially in physics. Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist and infamously tortured personality, made myriad contributions across disciplines from quantum mechanics to astronomy. No matter what sort of physics you do, he is inescapable. And so, my generation of physicists feels itself heir to his complicated legacy.

It was inevitable then that Christopher Nolan, noted for his collaborations with physicist Kip Thorne and his long standing fascination with physics, would come to make a film about Oppenheimer. In promotion and press junkets for the film, Nolan has repeatedly answered that Oppenheimer is the culmination of his filmography. When the credits rolled at the Chicago press screening, there was only silence – there is a gravity to Oppenheimer that’s not found in Nolan’s other films. Perhaps it is where we find ourselves now that gives us pause at the story of “the most important man who ever lived”, in the filmmaker’s own words. Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (founded by Oppenheimer and Einstein) has maintained the Doomsday Clock, which tracks how close humanity is to total catastrophe, denoted by midnight. Today, as nuclear tensions are on the rise between Russia and Ukraine and climate change descends upon the planet, the clock stands at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. 

Akira Kurosawa’s atomic-age drama I Live in Fear (1955)

We’ve long known that disaster is not far away. Ever since the development of the bomb, the fear of annihilation has loomed within our subconscious, and filmmakers have attempted to come to terms with the atomic age through film. Atomic cinema has produced some of the greatest movies of the 20th century: Dr. Strangelove (1964), Winter Light (1963), La Jetée (1962), just to name a few. The work of my predecessors has been endlessly depicted, satirised and lambasted over the last 70-or-so years, and in that time Western cinema has projected our nuclear anxieties forwards, on to future landscapes of abandoned cities and barren wastelands – one can draw a straight line between Mad Max and the Manhattan Project – but it has rarely accounted the origins of the bomb or reckoned with that troubled history.

Japan, on the other hand, as early as the 1950s, found the cinema a natural medium for exploring the consequences and legacy of the bomb. The creation of the Godzilla franchise is often attributed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As rich and diverse as this national cinema is, many of these films remain underwatched in the West; arriving only a year after his Seven Samurai (1954), Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear, a film about a Japanese man attempting to flee Japan out of fear of nuclear devastation, remains one of the least seen and discussed of his filmography, even within film circles. Similarly for his Rhapsody in August (1991), about the family of a woman killed in Hiroshima.

Why is Western cinema so eager to imagine our self-immolation but so afraid to contend with the past? Susan Sontag, in her seminal 1965 essay on the science fiction genre, writes, “[T]he imagery of disaster in science fiction films is above all the emblem of an inadequate response. … [These films] are only a sampling … of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.” 

Christopher Nolan’s early short Doodlebug (1997)

Through the historical project of depicting Oppenheimer, Nolan moves forward beyond the “inadequate response” of other atomic films. His latest entry in the atomic genre turns not to the future but to the past, to reckon with the source of our current neurosis: New Mexico, 1945.

Bits of Oppenheimer are written all over Nolan’s filmography; Stuart Joy, a film scholar, has written extensively on Nolan’s filmography, dubbing it a “cinema of trauma”. Through his work, Nolan explores trauma as a plot device and method of characterisation: Bruce Wayne from The Dark Knight trilogy becomes Batman in response to his parents’ murder, Leonard in Memento (2000) develops amnesia after his wife’s death, and on and on. A kernel of Oppenheimer is found as early as his student film, Doodlebug (1997), in which a man hunting a bug in his apartment (actually himself in miniature) is killed by a larger version of himself. In a sense, Doodlebug foreshadows the thematic core of Oppenheimer, a film concerned about humanity and our capability to annihilate ourselves. Through his study of Oppenheimer’s life, Nolan confronts our deep, contemporary trauma headfirst; perhaps it is no surprise then that he considers Oppenheimer his cinematic culmination.

Oppenheimer (2023)Universal Pictures

The first we see of our eponymous character, played by Cillian Murphy, he sits in a security hearing where he is stripped of his clearance, and in the next instant the film cuts to a young Oppenheimer, a gifted student catching the attention of the greatest physicists of the time. Nolan distils the excitement and atmosphere of early 20th-century physics, when the nascent quantum mechanics, still confined to continental European lecture halls, confounded physicists and raised questions about the structure of the world. Often, my colleagues and I look back at those tempestuous days through rose-tinted glasses, never mind that the horror of quantum mechanics would be revealed only a few decades later.

And so, as the film jumps between the security hearing and scenes of Oppenheimer’s time as a student, professor and director at Los Alamos, we’re at once lost in time and grounded in the knowledge that his story ends tragically. Frenetic and fast-paced as it is, Oppenheimer’s narrative waltz undercuts its momentum with fatalism; Oppenheimer’s young, bright-eyed dreams become inseparable from his fall from grace. Instead of simply reifying Oppenheimer as the “destroyer of worlds”, as he’s supposed to have called himself, Nolan traces the trajectory of Oppenheimer’s life through his studies, loves and relations with  authority, to show how even the brightest among us could (and very much can) fall into the same mould.  

Nolan elevates what is otherwise a straightforward tragedy through the film’s sonic and visual language. When Nolan announced the Trinity test in the movie had been filmed entirely with practical effects, social media users joked it would be so ear-shattering as to be heard in adjacent screenings. As it turns out, this scene is the film’s quietest and most harrowing. As the tableaux of nuclear fire rolls, the only sound is Oppenheimer’s ragged breathing. Then, the sonic boom hits, Nolan slams the gas, and the third act begins, where Oppenheimer begins imagining horrific, nightmarish visions of flesh melting, bodies charred, families torn apart.

In tandem with the score’s elegiac Oppenheimer leitmotif, these grisly and spasmodic images torture him again and again. When the film comes to an abrupt end on a scene of a world consumed by nuclear fire, it offers no redemption, no turning back the clock. Nolan is unsubtle with the comparisons to the mythical Prometheus, but his Oppenheimer, having traded himself and the world for gain, runs closer to Faust. 

Oppenheimer (2023)

When Nolan announced Oppenheimer in 2021, myself and others began wondering whether he would redeem Oppenheimer or give him a cinematic scourging. Having written about the Manhattan Project, I waited for Oppenheimer’s opening weekend with bated breath. Nolan threads the needle, depicting Oppenheimer in all his brilliance and handwringing effeteness. In our current moment, this is perhaps what speaks most deeply to us: to vindicate Oppenheimer is unthinkable, but to make him totally unsympathetic would be to imagine that we are incapable of his mistakes.

Oppenheimer’s work is our legacy as humans and my legacy as a physicist. That the film comes at a time when AI and quantum technologies, eyed by militaries and governments worldwide, have re-ignited familiar old discourses about ethics is not coincidence. Once again, scientists stand at the fore, poised to make breakthroughs that will change the contours of the world. Is the science commensurate with its use? Will we trade the world for gain? We’ve long known the cautionary tale of Oppenheimer, but now translated into the vernacular of the cinema, his story becomes harder to ignore.

People are listening. Social media is ablaze with talk of the film, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has experienced a resurgence of interest, and even American senators are expressing excitement about watching Oppenheimer. Few other atomic films have generated this level of dialogue. Instead of reproducing our nuclear anxieties, Nolan’s magnum opus opens a window on to their origins. Now, the choice to heal is in our hands.

Oppenheimer is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, now.

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