Oppenheimer poster

Can the Oppenheimer Movie Save the World? (Special Review and Oppy-Ed)

by James Walton

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist 

J. Robert Oppenheimer smoking

Oppenheimer enjoying a cigarette.  (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Can a Christopher Nolan film Save the World?

  • 02

    Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer?

  • 03

    What is a Theoretical Physicist?

  • 04

    Was Oppy a Communist?

  • 05

    CODENAME: Manhattan Project

  • 06

    The Trinity Test

  • 07

    Should We Have Dropped the Bomb?

  • 08

    The Oppenheimer Affair

  • 09

    Final Thoughts

  • 10

    Frequently Asked Questions

Can a Christopher Nolan film save the world?

That’s the question you must consider when leaving the theater after watching Oppenheimer. A three-hour biopic, the movie puts two main themes front and center.

The first, and most obvious, is the threat of nuclear weapons. The second sits just beyond the mushroom cloud, but is always lurking–and it’s the dark, divisive issue of government overreach.

In the film, Nolan situates us in a slow-motion car wreck with Russia–and the fallout, metaphorical or literal, promises to be the beginning of WWIII.

It’s a tense predicament–one that we remain in long after the credits roll. Our leaders, after all, seem hellbent on poking the Russian bear until he breathes hot nuclear fire.

After watching a film like this, one might well call into question the true motivations of government. Just look at what happened to J. Robert Oppenheimer–despite his service to the country–when the government decided it was time to discredit the theoretical physicist.

Meanwhile, today, the US government is sending billions of dollars to fight a proxy war with Russia. In light of past events, are we to trust that the US government is making the right move? Or is it possible, as in Oppenheimer, that we will be left wondering if we triggered a sequence of world-ending events that we can’t take back?

There are, after all, many matches near this proverbial powderkeg: tactical nukes in Belarus, Poseidon underwater coast killer nukes, the vast US nuclear arsenal, and of course Russia’s nuclear stockpile–the largest in the world.

Could a film like this help us face the fact that we are on a path to nuclear exchange or worse?

Let's find out.

Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer

“If I can bring physics and New Mexico together, that would be perfect.” – Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

The movie opens with a young J. Robert Oppenheimer during his time in university. Watching a wide-eyed Cillian Murphy lay tormented in bed, this author couldn’t help but wonder what formative experiences took place to create a man who would suffer from visions and dreams about the potential power of the atom.

Unfortunately, we never see the theoretical physicist–affectionately called “Oppy,” his real-life nickname, in the film–younger than he was in his Cambridge days. All we are told in the movie is that he sure loved his time bounding through the desert scrub of New Mexico at his father’s ranch.

J. Robert Oppenheimer with Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves

A chipper Oppy with Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves. (Image courtesy of Prospect Magazine)

His father, also named Julius Robert Oppenheimer, was a rich man who dealt in textiles. Both parents were German Jewish immigrants, adding an interesting layer to the Holocaust-era story.

Most of us, after all, can only imagine what it would be like to have a genocide actively being committed against our people. What must it have been like to live through the 1930s as antisemitism grew and grew, only to end in mass slaughter an ocean away?

More specifically, how would it have felt to be the American born son of German Jewish parents, possessed by physics, and tasked with creating the weapon that would–in Oppenheimer’s deeply held view–surely stop that genocide?

Whatever the answer, this much is certain: it was only Germany’s surrender that saved them from Fat Man.

What is a Theoretical Physicist?

J. Robert Oppenheimer with Albert Einstein

Oppy with Princeton colleague Albert Einstein. (Image courtesy of The Chicago Tribune)

For the layman, it might make sense to understand scientific phenomena–like blackholes, for example–through probes and photographs.

Theoretical physicists, however, use mathematics and theories to “see” a black hole and understand how it works.

Probes and other physical measures, meanwhile, are part of experimental physics. In Oppenheimer, this field is represented by Ernest Lawrence, played by Josh Harnett, who impresses upon Oppenheimer that his theories will only take him so far. This is proven when one of his students is able to replicate a bombshell German experiment (no pun intended) in Lawrence’s lab.

In the film, as in the real world, breakthroughs come at the intersection of theoretical and experimental physics.

Was He a Communist?

Atomic Energy Commission document from Dwight D. Einsenhower

A telegram between Lewis Strauss and Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Short answer: who the hell really knows?

Though Jean Tatlock brought J. Robert Oppenheimer immense joy and excitement, her communist affiliation was like a blood trail that followed him through life, well after the two parted ways.

Cillian Murphy's brooding Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy's brooding Oppenheimer. (Image courtesy of movieweb.com)

Bear in mind that, by all accounts, Oppenheimer was as much a mystic as a mad scientist. An independent thinker, he felt free to explore whatever field of inquiry he thought deserving of exploration.

What’s more, he was a person who often found himself in the gray area: a bomb-making scientist who never served in the military–a peacenik who used weapons of mass destruction to end war.

In the final analysis, wielding the full power of freedom can confuse anyone who likes to label people and box them up for ease of categorization.

CODENAME: Manhattan Project

“It was a heroic time. It was not the doing of any one man; it involved the collaboration of scores of scientists from many different lands. But from the first to last, the deeply creative, subtle, and critical spirit of Niels Bohr guided, restrained, deepened and finally transmuted the enterprise.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer

Project Manhattan pin

Pin awarded to Project Manhattan workers after one year of service. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Early in the film, we discover that, prior to the outbreak of WWII, some of the brightest minds in theoretical physics were in Germany. And during his time at the University of Gottingen, Oppenheimer studied and interacted with some of them.

Then, in 1938, a breakthrough: two German chemists bombarded Uranium with neutrons, which created the element Barium. Upon sharing, their colleagues would coin the term “nuclear fission.” It was this success that put Germany out in front of the nuclear arms race.

By 1942, the Manhattan Project–the US government’s top-secret program for the development of the atomic bomb–had taken off. And under the guidance of Oppenheimer, a whole new town was built in Los Alamos to support the day-to-day needs of the scientists who would work on this project, as well as that of their families. As Oppy made crystal clear to Lt. General Groves, the families would need to be on site and well cared for in order to garner the full focus of the project’s scientist.

What followed was a surrender of power from great generals and powerful leaders in both the US and Europe, to a handful of scientists in New Mexico. After all, no amount of MK2 grenades or Thompson M1s could produce a nuclear weapon. While America had plenty of bombers for the combat side of the war effort, only J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team could bring to life a new level of destruction from refined plutonium.

Having seen many depictions of our bravest men bleeding and killing while covered in European mud, this “war” of the minds was a particularly interesting lens through which to view the Second World War.

Though this scientific form of warfare was in many ways a departure from traditional combat, it was no less economically and infrastructurally significant. Indeed, at the end of the two-year project, an entire industry had been created, 2 billion dollars had been spent, and 130,000 people had found employment.

The Trinity Test

“It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer

One month and nine days before the US dropped the first nuclear bomb on Japan, America conducted the Trinity Test. On that fateful day–just before daybreak on July 16th, 1945–mankind brought about its own kind of sunrise, and detonated a plutonium bomb.

While watching this particularly cinematic portion of the movie, this author couldn’t help but feel certain that the scientists and military on site would have appreciated an airdrop from MIRA Safety containing the CM-6M tactical gas mask, used worldwide to protect police and military from CBRN threats.

And as superpower tensions escalated in the film's final act, one couldn't help but imagine the kind of fear the average American experienced during the Cold War. No doubt the average Joe would have felt a great deal safer with provisions for the advent of nuclear war, like our nuclear survival kit. With a one of our bestselling filters, a canteen, Thyrosafe tablets, a leg-mounting pouch, and a full-face respirator, this bundle of products simplifies the logistics of packing a nuclear go bag.

Florence Pugh's Jean Tatlock with Oppenheimer

Florence Pugh's Jean Tatlock with Oppy. (Image courtesy of People)

The origins of the Cold War, of course, can be traced back to the aforementioned Trinity Test, which Nolan captured perfectly. Though the movie opens with a lot of loud sounds–as is typical of a Nolan flick–the Trinity Test sequence is filled with silence and suspense.

From the US to Europe and beyond, this scene has left moviegoing audiences awestruck. After all, we don’t typically sit down with our popcorn and Milk Duds expecting a nuclear detonation.

As an interesting note, the name “Trinity” is a reference to one of the Holy Sonnets by John Donne, of which there are nineteen. The first line of this particular sonnet reads:

Batter my heart. Three-person’d God

The Trinity explosion, 25 ms post-detonation

The Trinity explosion, 25 ms post-detonation. (Image courtesy of rediff.com)

Even more interestingly, this name is possibly connected to the theoretical physicist's longtime affair with the enigmatic Tatlock.

You see, Oppenheimer was a huge fan of Donne and shared that love for poetry with Tatlock. Of all the women that the famously womanizing Oppy shared a bed with, she was his true love and the one he could never escape. As such, some people speculate that the use of the Donne verse was to pay homage to Tatlock.

Should We Have Dropped the Bomb?

“When we deny the evil within ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves, and we deprive ourselves not only of our own destiny, but of any possibility of dealing with the evil of others.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer


A desolate Hiroshima after being bombed. (Image courtesy of PBS)

The arguments and conversations about the bombing of Japan, both before and after, truly surprised this humble writer. After all, it seemed likely that the film would take a hardline stance that the bombing of Japan was the worst decision made in the history of humanity, both before and after revelations of the devastation.

Instead, however, Nolan took a much more nuanced approach to the question of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whether these bombs were right or wrong, after all, is not an easy one to answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” Nevertheless, a less skilled filmmaker would have probably taken that route, with a simple message of “nuclear bomb bad!”

It is to Nolan’s great credit, then, that the movie shows all sides of the issue. The film gives you the military take from Lt. General Groves; it gives you the scientists' take; it gives you Oppenheimer’s take both before and after. In this vein, there are some heart-pounding scenes that help the viewer understand the weight that “the father of the atom bomb” shoulders after the fact.

The Oppenheimer Affair

While it is sprinkled throughout most of the film, the Oppenheimer Affair engulfs the end of the picture. On a long emotional journey, we the viewers go from admiring the theoretical physicist for finding his way through what is clearly the psychosis of genius, to pitying him as he faces relentless scrutiny both internal and external.

In the 1950s, the theoretical physicist would be accused of disloyalty for a number of different reasons, not the least of which being his relationship with Jean Tatlock. As Nolan makes clear, the proceedings were a hit job from the start, prompting one to wonder how much has changed in government from all those years ago.

Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer

Murphy's Oppenheimer in the foreground, with Robert Downey Jr.'s Lewis Strauss seated in the back. (Image courtesy of movieweb.com)

Consider, for example, Chuck Shumer’s 2016 comments to Donald Trump: “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community—they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

In light of recent events, then, a man like J. Robert Oppenheimer is something of an antidote to the cultural kangaroo court unto which we are all judges and jurors. Within this zeitgeist, we’ve been trained to sniff out the dirty deeds of others rather than face down our own.

So where does this leave us in terms of our judgments of Oppenheimer?

On one hand, he was an unfaithful husband who gave mankind the capability to destroy our entire race. The other side of the coin, however, shows one of the most brilliant physicists in history who assembled a dream team and built an entire industry in two years–in the process beating the Nazis to the technological punch.

What’s more, Oppenheimer’s brainchild put a definitive end to WWII–though we have not, as the theoretical physicist predicted, witnessed a definitive end to all war in the wake of its detonation.

In the end, the man was a human first, flawed like the rest of us–something the film captured brilliantly. It’s a powerful lesson that we could all stand to relearn.

From this perspective, it's worth asking yourself: how would you have performed if placed in the pressure cooker, or the diamond anvil, of the Manhattan Project?

Final Thoughts

Following Oppenheimer’s record-breaking opening weekend, will the film spur in the culture a much-needed reminder of how dangerous nuclear weapons are to our species?

Let’s hope so.

Though the point has been made before, we do not seem as riled up as a race of people should be about our potential extinction. After all, we are watching as the United States and Russia flirt with the brink of all-out war, which may result in the use of nuclear weapons.

Why do we trust the power structure to lead us back into war? Why is the national mall not filled with citizens holding signs crying out for peace? Have we learned nothing from other deadly conflicts in days of yore, like World War II?

In Nolan’s “supersize masterpiece,” as it’s being called, Oppenheimer is haunted from beginning to end by the nightmares of his destiny. Through creating the atom bomb and becoming a modern-day Prometheus put him on the cover of Time magazine, it also kept him on a special diet of cigarettes and martinis–as seen in Cillian Murphy’s gaunt cheeks.

There is good reason for this, too. As we see in numerous scenes, Murphy’s troubled Oppenheimer was forced to live with the screams and charred, deformed bodies of the over 200,000 people who died from the bombs and residual radiation. If you are endorsing the efforts of NATO, you might want to make room in your head for the screams of those in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Oppy?
When does Oppenheimer come out?
What is Oppenheimer about?
Did Oppenheimer really know Albert Einstein?
Who was Jean Tatlock?
Was Oppenheimer Jewish?