Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a contradiction of a film. It’s one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, shot on IMAX film and boasting stunning practical effects; but it’s also a three-hour drama filled with people talking, with little need for special effects beyond the atomic bomb test. It sits alongside Memento and Insomnia as one of his earthiest movies, even though it boasts the scale and prowess of his loftiest visions. It’s a distinct departure, and perhaps his greatest achievement to date.
It’s fitting that Oppenheimer feels so contradictory, because the film is fascinated by such contradictions. Nolan has crafted a firestorm of moral conflicts within and around J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). The script, simultaneously sharp and hefty, hones the tension through every scene. Bombs will end the war, but it’s the words spoken behind closed doors that drive history’s pen.
Nolan approaches such a conflicted story with a dissonant sense of time. Within the opening minutes, Nolan splits the film along two tracks: “Fission,” following J. Robert Oppenheimer’s recruitment into the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb; and “Fusion,” set in a Senate hearing over a decade later, as the U.S. government reconsiders the man and his legacy. One act pulls apart the scientist, one seeks to put the pieces of this story together.
As with Dunkirk before it, Oppenheimer eventually fuses the timelines, creating a collision between the individual and the collective, between creation and destruction, between greed and guilt.
A Moral Man?
Cillian Murphy depicts Oppenheimer as a man who is lost in the waves of history even as he commands the ship. Murphy’s glowing eyes gaze in horror and awe, even as his demeanor keeps his words calculated. That dichotomy keeps our attention honed on his performance, but it also captures the interior thorniness of the character.
There’s no mistaking Oppenheimer for a simply moral individual. (When we meet him, during his student days, he’s attempting to poison a college instructor out of sheer pettiness.) He’s driven forward in his quest both by horror at Nazi atrocities and a desire to win, to be the first scientist to accomplish such a monumental step forward.
Murphy crafts his performance around this chaos of sincerity and duplicity, wielding his restraint as a blade to parry the rest of the cast. Every conversation bears tremendous stakes, whether for his marriage to Kitty (Emily Blunt), his favored position with the government, or the fate of the world. The dialogue is its own reactor, spinning off shards of realization and terror as the project inevitably marches on.
Initially, Oppenheimer displays real hesitation at the notion of using the bomb. He hopes that the government, aware of its power, will refuse to deploy it. And he insists that simply telling Russia about its existence will put a sufficient end to the political enmity. Over time, though, his repetition of “We built it, but they decide how to use it” becomes a personal liturgy.
Even as many of the other scientists involved push back against the government’s plan for the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer dismisses any responsibility. Some refuse to work on the project, others form groups to protest more loudly, but Oppenheimer scoffs at their moral sensibilities. As far as he’s concerned, it’s no longer in their hands.
An Immoral Society
Over a decade before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr examined the capacity for morality that existed within individuals and the lack of such capacity in society at large. In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr argued that persons may choose to act selflessly of their own volition, but such generosity evaporates when that decision is undertaken by larger groups. “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other.” However, “there is not enough imagination in any social group to render it amenable to the influence of pure love, … The selfishness of human communities must be regarded as an inevitability.”
Shortly after the bombing of Japan, the film shifts to focus on the Fusion timeline. Here, a man named Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) faces a Senate confirmation hearing to join the president’s cabinet. The transition seems an odd choice for the film at first, but it becomes clear that it’s crucial to Nolan’s examination of societal morality and responsibility.
The question at the heart of Oppenheimer does not rest in the soul of one man. If that were the case, a full hour could be removed and the movie would end with the Trinity test or the destruction of Hiroshima. But the film rolls on, bringing to the fore the inquiries that Nolan has woven throughout the film.
Cutting between Strauss and Oppenheimer, the film shows how any moral wrestling on the part of Oppenheimer or the other scientists is a moot point: The United States was always going to use the bomb. If not in Hiroshima, in Germany or Russia. If not in World War II, then when the next “need” arose.
Niebuhr was skeptical of the capacity for good that could exist in a nation, writing that “the mind, which places a restraint upon impulses in individual life, exists only in a very inchoate form in the nation.” As much as the scientists urge caution, the military officers and politicians hardly acknowledge their concerns.
According to Niebuhr, war makes this disconnect even more sinister: “Loyalty to the nation … becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed.” The cause of the nation—the greater good—overwhelms one’s idea of love and paves the way for evil to be enacted.
Oppenheimer, for one, is eager to lay aside his misgivings and allow the military to use the bomb however they please. His protests become increasingly feeble until he no longer bothers. His field is science, not ethics or politics; it’s simply someone else’s decision if his creation is used to kill.
Niebuhr considers this eschewing of responsibility to be the source of the state’s power during wartime. As our devotion to the cause of the state grows, it risks suffocating the real capacity for love that draws us to act selflessly and compassionately. “The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint.”
Through this lens, Strauss serves as a stand-in for the entire political machine that subsumes the scientists’ work and dismisses their warnings. Strauss uses Oppenheimer, alternatingly riding on his coattails and scapegoating him. As his dreams unravel, Downey’s soft-spoken Strauss curdles into futile bitterness. He attempted to use these events for his glory, but it only unveiled his cruelty.
Oppenheimer creates the space to reflect on how our entire society has followed this pattern. The nation praised Oppenheimer’s achievements while overlooking his failures. Then, when it better suited the cause, society vilified him. The country grew a conscience—or at least the appearance of one.
But is the U.S. any more ready to act with selflessness today than it was in the 1940s? Have we progressed and become more collectively compassionate? Oppenheimer indicates that Nolan, like Niebuhr before him, considers the moral goodness of the nation to be a dubious claim.
All of this collides to form a searing film. After the first atomic bomb is dropped, Oppenheimer gives a congratulatory speech to the men and women at Los Alamos. Any reluctance is gone from his words. Hesitation, along with somewhere around 100,000 people, has been eradicated.
But his victory is short lived as the editing and sound design twist cheers into screams, glee into pure horror. The scene incinerates everything before—all of the grand hopes and scientific pursuits—and everything after—all of the justifications and penance.
There are no easy ways out for Oppenheimer. Or for Strauss and his ilk. Or for us. In the decades since, American conscience has shifted around the use of the atomic bomb, but there’s always another war to threaten that such an annihilation could occur again. If that day comes, will our lives be marked by a protest of love? Or will we throw our devotion into the cause, morality be damned?
Despite his skepticism, Niebuhr ends Moral Man and Immoral Society on a hopeful note. Crucially, he claims that hope for society—for the world—demands the “eschatological element.” This world will always have its wars, will always generate causes that lead repetitively to violence. To hope for a world where all, individuals and nations alike, act with love and sacrifice means to embrace what he refers to as a madness: “The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve a perfect justice … for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul.”
Our efforts to achieve the perfect realization of justice will be like those of Sisyphus. But when we incorporate the eschatological element—the hope of true peace among humanity, the faith that the meek will inherit the earth—we can look forward to it with certainty.