4 Min Read

A serious exploration of a perilous time in human history: Oppenheimer

Films based on topics such as global warfare and theoretical physics might not appeal to everyone (especially for those of us who failed basic physics and chemistry in high school). Fortunately, you don’t need to understand molecular chain reactions or even the theory of relativity to appreciate Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Furthermore, this is not your conventional war movie but more a study of the traumas of a select group at a critical period in recent history.

For most of us, World War II is a conflict of the distant past. Unfortunately, one aspect of it – nuclear weapons – lingers ominously into the present day. This menacing consequence is the starting point of the film ‘Oppenheimer’.

Robert Oppenheimer was central to the creation of the atomic bomb which in turn led to the defeat of Japan and a speedy end to the Second World War. Despite this significant contribution, Oppenheimer is not all that well remembered. This film goes some way to rectifying this and explains why he has been relegated to a relatively minor role in modern history.

Oppenheimer. Directed by Christopher Nolan, 2023. 

Despite being a movie about war, it is devoid of violent battle scenes and the attendant schmalzy heroics. The only real explosive action is the detonation of the bomb itself. And the only heroes are those who see the dangers of what they have unleashed. Instead of guns blazing and gory battles, the focus is the action behind the scenes of the war effort. The main action occurs in the corridors of power and the offices of the military and political elite. We are privy to the overt and covert machinations leading to the creation of the atom bomb and its repercussions. Thus the global war is more often than not merely the background to the events unfolding on screen.

The film holds our interest by juxtaposing the private life and public persona of Oppenheimer: his intimate relationships and inner conflicts are contrasted with his public reputation, academic achievements and struggles with the military bureaucracy. In addition, there is the editing as the story moves back and forth among three time periods: the latter part of World War II, a few years immediately after it and a few years later during the 1950s. By jumping back and forth between these periods, it weaves all these disparate elements into coherent narrative and highlights the disparities between these periods. The contrast is enhanced by the third period lapsing from colour into black and white, emphasising the starkness of that period in U.S history.

Oppenheimer. Directed by Christopher Nolan, 2023. 

Overall, this film is not a point by point description of history but an accurate summary of a life at a hazardous period in human history. A talented scientist has to juggle the demands of his patriotic duty with the moral consequences of those demands. This personal struggle is set against the background of his relationships with a disparate group of people. Cillian Murphy is very effective as the brilliant but slightly nerdy conflicted genius struggling with his conscience and the demands of wartime. He is ably assisted by an equally effective supporting cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon Robert Downey Jr,, Kenneth Branagh and Rami Malek.

Not only was Oppenheimer a talented scientist but he also had a strong sense of moral responsibility. Aware of the implications of a nuclear arms race, he warned against developing more lethal weapons without the limits of international treaties. He even opposed the development of more lethal weapons like the H bomb – something very unpopular in the postwar U.S. This stance in turn made him a target for the U.S. witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Thus within a few years, political expediency turned him from a national hero into a something of a pariah who could no longer be trusted with a formal security clearance from the U.S. government.

‘Oppenheimer’ is a film about a specific war and its consequences. The unsavoury topics it covers – global conflict, cold war politics, anti-communist witch hunts – are dealt with in ways which enlighten its audience. We learn why this particular individual is not better remembered and why he should be.

‘Oppenheimer’ is no gore fest but a serious exploration of a perilous time in human history. While the threat of nuclear weapons lingers, films like this will continue to be topical and relevant.