Oppenheimer is not just about the chain reaction that occurs when a neutron collides with the nucleus of an atomic bomb. It goes beyond the moments of immense power and focuses more on the man behind the creation of the atomic bomb.
Nolan’s film doesn’t attempt to delve into high-level scientific theories to impact Openheimer; instead, it explores the nuances and dilemmas between fusion and fission, the differences between uranium and plutonium, and the relative benefits of one over the other. Rather, it consistently centers around the man whose vision will be the progenitor of the atomic bomb.
This man is Robert J. Openheimer, played brilliantly by Silian Marphy. He is inquisitive and ambitious, yet also volatile and conflicted. He seizes control as much as he relinquishes it. The term “genius” is often tossed around lightly, but when it is used, it loses its meaning for those who try to pull him down.
Nolan’s film intertwines three parallel stories. In one, Openheimer rises from being a rising physicist and one of the frontrunners of quantum mechanics in America to becoming the leading figure chosen to head the top-secret Manhattan Project, aimed at creating the world’s first atomic bomb.
In another, a decade after the difficult times of World War II, he finds himself being questioned by a small, aggressive panel about whether he was compromising America’s security due to his communist sympathies. In the third, he is being prosecuted in the Senate hearing through the interrogation of the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.), who, as a minister, is hoping for confirmation, not caring about Openheimer’s loyalty to America.
The film not only explores the time of World War II but also the post-war era when America was shadowing enemies. How many times and in how many ways does one have to prove oneself when dragged into the shadows? Who is allowed to question “national security” before crossing boundaries
What price does a country demand from you? Since the war still goes on, “despite the bombs that destroy all bombs,” and beneath the nuclear shadow, Openheimer remains a harbinger when he says that he feels no remorse for creating the atomic bomb and potentially ending World War II. But it is established that he will not stop humans from making weapons out of anything.
If the questions raised in Nolan’s film are great, there is also a deep personal introspection for Openheimer himself. Due to his non-religious Jewish background, he had to convince his fellow countrymen amidst the rise of Hitler that Nazi totalitarianism posed a greater threat.
He didn’t find it easy to display his empathy for his Jewish companions or communists. He loves, he loses, he worships, he seeks glory, and he thrives in a domain that is initially solitary but eventually becomes crowded because the news spreads that the German nuclear game is advancing.
Nolan has created Los Alamos Lab, fashioned as one of those Old West towns where trucks rumble through dusty streets instead of riders on horses, and debates among scientists are not with guns but with sharp ethics. Oppenheimer, near the bomb and closer, prepares himself to dispel those concerns – even as the US Secretary of State’s acceptance that there is no considerable advantage in identifying Japan as a specific target area is also a moral hiccup he must swallow.
He has to weigh the resistance to the hydrogen bomb and the constant appeal to end the arms race, a soothing balm for the crimes he endured. The decision rests with the world, though it is evident that the question gnaws at him from within – as Marphy vividly portrays, “Now I am death, the destroyer of worlds” – and you can feel God’s presence and absence in a moment.
This film is almost entirely a Marphy show, with many great artists playing pivotal roles. Nolan takes his time with the execution, and in his short role, Florence Pugh stands out as the most impactful.
When he witnesses the world transforming into the inferno in the deserts of New Mexico, where an atomic bomb is tested for the first time, as flames and smoke rise and shockwaves collide, you realize how the universe’s powers emanate from its tiniest creatures – just as we know that the world has turned upside down, and Openheimer/Marphy mutters those words – “Now I am death, the destroyer of worlds” – you can feel God’s presence and absence in a moment.