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Film review: Oppenheimer

27 July 2023

Stephen Brown reviews the new film about the atom bomb’s inventor

Cillian Murphy as the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, in the new thriller Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy as the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, in the new thriller Oppenheimer

PARADOX lies at the heart of Oppenheimer (Cert. 15). Christopher Nolan is fascinated by links or disparities between the material universe that science tries understanding and (to cite Pascal) the heart’s instinctive recognition of truth, goodness, and beauty. Nolan’s films Memento, Inception, and Tenet explore both the seeming randomness of existence and an underlying meaningfulness in creation.

The opening of Oppenheimer mentions Prometheus, damned for stealing fire from the gods. Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) is J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose Manhattan Project leads to developing nuclear weapons. Biblical allusions abound. During his postgraduate spell at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he injects poison into an apple intended for his colleague, one who, in an Eden-like manner, had denied him access to certain knowledge. Later, he reads The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s epic lament over society’s brokenness. Oppenheimer is fuelled by the desire to end all wars by creating a monster that, unleashed, would deter all future conflict. The film rather underplays how fundamental Oppenheimer’s Jewishness is to this vision of swords’ being beaten into ploughshares.

Time is rarely linear in Nolan’s films. Much of this 180-minute film is taken up by scientific discussions and political wrangling. Some may find it incomprehensible, tedious even. We meet General Groves (Matt Damon), commander of the Project, torn between the demands of military objectives and scientific research. Also Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the opportunistic commissioner of the US Atomic Energy Commission plotting to become a presidential cabinet member. Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a member of the US Communist Party, introduces her lover to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets which, in turn, inspire Oppenheimer to assign the name Trinity to the nuclear-testing programme. He whispers “Batter my heart, three-personed God” during the explosion. Like Donne, Oppenheimer asks God to save him from his worst excesses. Quoting the Hindu philosophical dialogue Bhagavadgita, Oppenheimer says: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Overwhelmed by the bombs’ devastating effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he subsequently campaigns vigorously for placing nuclear materials under international control. This brings him into conflict with government. His youthful flirtations with communism are used by false witnesses to discredit him.

The film dwells extensively on notions of honest doubt and facile certainty; on leaders so convinced of their moral rightness that they can contemplate setting the world and its people on fire. Nolan uses theoretical physics to demonstrate the wondrous complexity of creation. Oppenheimer illustrates this by telling students that light has properties of particles and yet also waves. The seeming haphazardness emerging from quantum mechanics research troubles Einstein (Tom Conti under a mop of grey hair). We get his famous dictum (though not from him) that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. He acknowledges that, with the bomb, such old certainties have been destroyed.

Oppenheimer, appalled at his own godlike destructiveness strives to become Prometheus and also Noah. It is, however, an ark into which too few creatures are willing to enter. One paradox, absent from the film, is that 6 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is chosen for releasing the first atom bomb’s blinding light. All is changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.

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