September 6, 2023


“Oppenheimer” Reminds the World We Still Face Nuclear Threat

By: Justin Tucker

Nuclear war is one of the great nightmares haunting our world. If such a terrifying event were to happen, God forbid, our planet would be a decimated wasteland and a cemetery for its extinct creatures. This bleak scenario does not make it hard to be cynical about the nature of the human species.

The threat of nuclear war intensified during the Cold War. Fear gripped the world for a sizable portion of the last century. The people of all nations were trembling with anxiety, afraid they could be obliterated at any given moment. Bomb shelters were built, and school children participated in drills, being told that their desks could protect them from a blast. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, our worst nightmare almost became a reality.

The world took a collective sigh of relief when the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War ended, but the threat of nuclear war has not completely subsided. Though many atomic weapons have been dismantled, several nations of the world still have thousands in their arsenals. Other nations seek them for themselves. With the onset of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the threat of nuclear war is intensifying again. This makes director Christopher Nolan’s brilliant biopic Oppenheimer, about the physicist and so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” so timely.

Starring the impeccable Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, Inception), the film depicts the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer from two points of view. In typical Nolan fashion, these threads are not told in chronological order. As a student at the University of Cambridge, he impresses his idol, Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), before continuing his studies in Germany. He returns to the United States to continue to develop his theories on quantum physics. He and his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) associate themselves with members of the Communist Party and other subversives on campus and in their personal lives.

Developments in physics during the war have explosive implications. Oppenheimer disavows his communist associations and leads the Manhattan Project, driven to beat the Nazis in developing an atomic weapon. He initially views the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary to end the war, but he is haunted by grief and visions of death. His past associations also come back to haunt him when his security clearance comes into question during McCarthyist hearings at the United States Atomic Energy Commission. The same country he served now seeks to destroy his reputation and minimize his influence.

Murphy gives the best performance of his career to date as the troubled scientific genius. He transforms himself, playing Oppenheimer with a solemn intensity. His performance is so exquisite that it towers over his co-stars like a mushroom cloud above the New Mexico desert. That is not to say the supporting ensemble is not any good. On the contrary. Robert Downey, Jr. gives a fine performance as AEC chairman Robert Strauss as does Emily Blunt, as the troubled ex-communist wife of the physicist.

Oppenheimer is undoubtedly one of the best films of this century. As with much of Nolan’s work, it is intelligent, provocative filmmaking that aims to be more than escapist entertainment. The film is not only about a complex man, but it is also a story about the destructiveness of war and political witch-hunts. It posits that the events portrayed as the most important in the history of the human species, and from the vantage of the man who made it all possible.

Oppenheimer, like other Nolan films, explores the theme of strong leadership teamwork in completing an objective. Batman had Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox, and Commissioner Gordon. Leonardo DiCaprio had his Inception crew. John David Washington assembled a squad of time-travelers in the under-appreciated Tenet, which incidentally references J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The film could also be a meta-reference to the filmmaking process, where the Manhattan Project is akin to a cinematographer, editor, production designer, composer, et cetera contributing their talents under the supervision of a director. The creative team Nolan has assembled for Oppenheimer in the aforementioned technical roles (Hoyte van Hoytema, Jennifer Lame, Ruth De Jong, and Ludwig Göransson respectively) contributes to the film’s epic grandeur. With this film, Nolan creatively enters fresh territory. This is a blessing for the world cinema.

Those with hopes of Oppenheimer depicting war or destruction will be let down. Another letdown is the R rating for its sexual content. These explicit scenes are distracting and awkwardly injected into the narrative. Some of Nolan’s younger fans, introduced to the maestro through his DC Comics adaptations, may have to convince their parents to accompany them to the theater. If the film ought to be rated R, it should be because it could scare the hell out of young audiences about the nuclear war nightmare.

The best hope for Oppenheimer, given the circumstances in the world, is to awaken folks to the threat of nuclear devastation still has over humankind. I wish for it to stir people to action. May they demand nuclear disarmament, pressure leaders to seek peaceful solutions to conflict, and ensure posterity never has to fear an apocalyptic catastrophe of man’s own making.