“Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” 

Against a backdrop of roaring fire, the epigraph that opens Oppenheimer (2023) foreshadows the intense, apocalyptic nature of the film. It is unlike anything we have seen in recent cinema, emanating a heightened sense of violent tension without any of the graphic violence typical of a war film. Even among director Christopher Nolan’s impressive oeuvre, Oppenheimer is his magnum opus. 

Oppenheimer follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb, played by a gaunt and dramatically intense Cillian Murphy. Structured à la The Social Network (2010), the film cuts between three legacy-defining events: the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II, the trial that would revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and politician Robert Strauss’s (Robert Downey Jr.) confirmation hearing for the position of U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. While the constant back-and-forth between scenes was jarring, the rapid pace enlivened this three-hour monster of a film. 

We first meet Oppenheimer in 1926 during his studies at Cambridge, where his flippant attitude toward human life is quickly established. After his professor slights him, Oppenheimer injects cyanide into an apple on the professor’s desk, attempting to kill him for insulting his intellect. While he regrets his decision and retrieves it before anyone takes a bite, Oppenheimer has already revealed himself as a prideful egomaniac acting in his own self-interest.

Murphy plays Oppenheimer with a swagger that seems incongruous with his appearance; with hollowed cheeks and a lanky stature, Murphy more closely resembles a frail Victorian boy than a diabolical scientist responsible for unparalleled human destruction. However, Murphy expertly imbues him with an eerily composed demeanor that opposes his physicality. As Oppenheimer is lauded by his idol, physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), he accepts this admiration without apprehension or celebration, acknowledging that his intellect warrants praise. While Oppenheimer presents as a frail shell of a man, his mind and pride make him a formidable figure. 

After establishing himself as an expert in quantum physics, Oppenheimer is sought out by the U.S. military to lead the Manhattan Project: the plan to create the world’s first atomic bomb. As Oppenheimer and his colleagues work diligently to construct the bomb, there is shockingly little forethought to the impact of a weapon of mass destruction on humankind. 

Nolan demonstrates his mastery of storytelling by harnessing the audience’s knowledge of the bomb and its devastating effects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to create high-stakes dramatic irony. As the Manhattan Project accelerates, there’s an impending sense of dread that accompanies the construction of the atomic bomb. Military officials decide where to drop the bombs with a disgustingly glib approach. When one of the officials declares that the bomb should not be dropped on Kyoto as he honeymooned there, the audience witnesses firsthand how American exceptionalism gave the government the gall to play God. Through the dichotomy of the “mundane” actions of those involved in the Manhattan Project and the destruction the bomb will bring, Nolan induces a sickening helplessness, as we can do nothing but watch the Manhattan Project usher in the nuclear age. 

The scene that established Oppenheimer as Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus was the Trinity test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico. The swelling score and the chitter-chatter of anxious military officials and scientists in the twilight of the New Mexico desert indicated a twisted sense of passion among participants that the Manhattan Project needed to be successful––even if success meant unprecedented destruction. None embodied this corrupt attitude more than Oppenheimer. For him, the Manhattan Project was legacy-defining. Any semblance of failure would injure his reputation, and, consequently, his fragile ego. The inevitable consequences of his tireless work, which would conjure insatiable feelings of regret, were yet to be seen. 

Once the test bomb is detonated, the audience faces a wall of silence. Instead of the instant cacophony of noise that usually follows a blockbuster explosion, Nolan stops time. The fire swirls around the desert, with each individual flame thrashing against the screen. As the audience waits for the aftermath with a pit in our stomachs, Oppenheimer comes to his own dreadful realization, declaring, “I am become death”—a line pulled from the Bhagavad Gita and robbed of its spiritual context. From now on, the world will forever be divided into two periods: pre- and post-atomic bomb. Oppenheimer is living in a historical moment of his own creation, but it is characterized by ruin. The world will forever remember him—but not in the way he wants. 

The audience sees nothing of the destruction to Nagasaki and Hiroshima—a controversial directorial choice that established the movie as one about Oppenheimer, the man, without using Japanese lives as torture porn. The lack of focus on the populations most directly impacted by the bomb, including both the Japanese victims and the Indigenous inhabitants of New Mexico, continues a long history of silencing the victims of this tragedy, but not without cause. Keeping the story anchored in Oppenheimer’s own narrative is a further demonstration of the scientist’s self-centeredness.

Not showing the destruction in Japan kept the film focused on the impossible—but inherently human—journey of establishing a legacy when we have little say in how we are remembered. After the deployment of the bomb, Oppenheimer’s realization that his Frankenstein-esque creation was not for his own use or mere accolades turned him to ruin; his weapon of mass destruction was always for the U.S. government to use however it liked. Oppenheimer was never the one to deploy the bomb, but the responsibility he undertook in its creation stained his hands crimson. Oppenheimer literally played with fire, and he will feel the burns for the rest of his life. 

Nolan urges us to look at the things we have created and think critically about the destruction they may cause; he is begging us to learn from our past. Oppenheimer is a war film unlike any we’ve seen before; that’s because it’s not a war film. It’s a fragment of history immortalized. 

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