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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

Oppenheimer: The Tragedy and Consequence of a Great Mind

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Highly developed spirits often encounter resistance from mediocre minds. - Einstein

Christopher Nolan is a master manipulator of time. There’s no such thing as linear in his cinematic mind. While Dunkirk (2017) and Memento (2002) might be the most creative and inventive, Oppenheimer (2023) is perhaps the grandest, most resourceful use of his non-linear structure of storytelling. A tightly paced string of vignettes and three-hour weaving of an historical accomplishment and its horrific consequences in the mind of the extremely complicated man that was J. Robert Oppenheimer (in color labeled as “fission”). Along with Oppenheimer’s story is an objective black-and-white flash-forward centered on Lewis Strauss (labeled as “fusion”), a commissioner on the Atomic Energy Commision (AEC), whose self-importance mirrored Oppenheimer’s, pettily resenting the father of the atom bomb and bitterly vowing to take him down.

Robert Downey Jr. is career-best as Strauss and Alden Ehrenreich, the unnamed political aide to Strauss, is even better as a surrogate for the audience. At first he’s all ears, supportive of Strauss during a Senate inquiry for Strauss’ nomination as US Secretary of Commerce. Then it’s revealed that Strauss held such a strong grudge towards Oppenheimer that he orchestrated the case that would lead to Oppenheimer’s security-clearance getting revoked for his past Communist ties. Suddenly, the disdain on Ehrenreich’s face says it all. And the smug line reading of “Maybe they were talking about something more important” is delicious.

And he was right. They were. Strauss’ paranoia about Oppenheimer “turning the scientists against him,” began with a conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein near a pond on the Princeton campus, one that he did not hear but only saw from a distance. Then, in an instance to which Oppenheimer probably gave no second thought, Strauss was humiliated by Oppenheimer in a U.S. Senate hearing about something to do with radioisotopes (?) On top of this wound to the credibility and pride of the hypersensitive Strauss, his desire for the development of the hydrogen bomb was in stark contrast to Oppenheimer’s vehement opposition to it. The subject of Oppenheimer and Einstein’s discussion, as Nolan reveals at the end of the film, was not about ruining one man. It was about something much, much bigger. More important. Something that only these two great minds in the history of humanity could talk about: the potential destruction of the world that Oppenheimer had wrought. He is the American version of Prometheus, as is the title of the book from which the film is based on, written by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird.

Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and Oppenheimer (Murphy) by the pond on the Princeton campus

Oppenheimer asks Einstein if he recalls an earlier conversation they had about building the atomic bomb and setting off a chain reaction that would destroy the world. “Yes, what of it?” Einstein asks. “I believe we did,” replies Oppenheimer. Einstein walks off in despair, ignoring Strauss’ greeting. And Nolan closes out with a close-up on a distraught Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy is electric in the role; a career achievement, no longer the protostar from Peaky Blinders and smaller Nolan roles, he’s a full born star) and footage of nuclear missiles lifting off through the clouds.

We shouldn’t expect from anyone something beyond his capacity - Emma Goldman

A revelation of Nolan’s film is the persistence of man’s picayune impulses during the prospect of human annihilation. A weapon that can end our species has just been invented, yet the trivial grievances that embitter individuals and the disparate ideologies that divide nations persist in the new nuclear age.

Fortunately, there’s enough thinking that the weapon should not be practically used, but it will be utilized for political gain. For “national security,” for power, for dominion of the world. The tragedy is not only Oppenheimer’s life, it’s everyone’s. The first thought of those in charge will usually go to power (and money) before their fellow person. It seems as though it’s always been white men in rooms battling for their egos and ideas, playing government like a board game while ruining lives, now compounded by their toying with a weapon that could end millions of other lives.

However, great minds can be just as guilty. Sometimes they get roped into the game thinking they can change the rules for the better and the consequences of the backfire can be tremendous. There’s always talk about the misunderstood genius, though the genius can just as well misunderstand us. Great minds are not immune to naïveté.

“You see things beyond this world that no one else sees,” says Oppenheimer’s friend Haakon Chevalier. “There’s a price to pay for that.” Indeed, before a great mind can change the world, they must first be a heretic and sometimes a martyr (Christ, Joan of Arc, Socrates, William Tyndale, etc.). The problem with Oppenheimer, however, is that his iconoclastic spirit came truly alive after the change and the damage of that change was done the minute he handed it over to the military and Commander in Chief of the United States (he never officially joined the Communist Party and he flirted with unions at Berkeley, but he was unwavering in his belief for nuclear diplomacy and dissent against the H-bomb development). He didn’t just transform the world, he gave it a potentially quicker, deadlier, maybe inevitable, ending. So hastily had the policy of nuclear deterrence become entrenched in the government orthodoxy, Oppenheimer’s realization that his creation would not be used like he thought was too late. With many thanks to the great mind of Oppenheimer, the world then froze into a cold war of paranoia and anxiety.

Oppenheimer was swept up by “duty” and a justified race to beat the Nazis to the bomb. Then the Nazis were defeated and he believed the lie he told himself: that the building of the atomic bomb would lead to a “peace this world has never seen before.” I think of this quote from Emerson’s essay “Considerations by the Way”:

Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good, and shakes down a tree full of gnarled, wormy, unripe crabs, before you can find a dozen dessert apples… Nature works very hard, and only hits the white (of the bull’s eye) once in a million throws. In mankind, she is contented if she yields one master in a century. The more difficulty there is in creating good men, the more they are used when they come… all revelations, whether of mechanical or intellectual or moral science, are made not to communities, but to single persons. All the marked events of our day, all the cities, all the colonizations, may be traced back to their origin in a private brain. All the feats which make our civility were the thoughts of a few good heads.

A few good heads. Emerson is right, though I believe he was mostly talking about moral things and obviously didn’t account for the feat that would be the invention of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer was a private brain, a decent head that reckoned with - though never stating that he regretted building the bomb - his immoral creation after its devastating use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some compared Oppenheimer’s mistreatment by the U.S government to the Dreyfus affair in France in the 1890s. I prefer to liken it to Galileo’s indictment at the obstinacy of the Roman Catholic Church to heliocentrism in the early seventeenth century (only because he was a scientist too). However, of all three of these misguided and unfair prosecutions, Oppenheimer’s stands alone. The man, like Galileo, changed everything. But not in the way he, unlike Galileo, or any of us, would prefer. It was no mere scientific achievement. He embedded a new fear in our psyches and changed the way we see and think about the world in a much different way than Galileo’s now-simple astronomy. He adjusted how wars are fought, gave world leaders the ability to saber rattle and invade countries with little consequence, forged a whole new reason for psychological anxiety and torment, forced us to contemplate the ethics of using the bombs on Japan at the end of WWII, shaped the whole second half of the twentieth century that reverberates today, and even modified the ways in which we make and perceive art.

Oppenheimer was a complicated soul who lived an unprecedented, complicated life. He was approached and hired (Matt Damon is General Groves) to change everything by heading the Manhattan Project and the Trinity test in July 1945 and was then ostracized for opposing that change. The government only trusts scientists, only uses them, when it benefits those in power. Scientists, intellectuals, artists, thinkers, great and good minds are to be used and tossed away. Or not used at all. Disrespected and seen with skepticism. Or seen as dangerous. Yet they change the world, in substantial, small, or subtle ways. However, there’s an alternate, perhaps anomalous, truth that surfaces in Oppenheimer: these very same people - these perceptive, enlightened minds - are just as capable of delving into the irrational, the unconscionable. Oppenheimer epitomizes this alarming truth.

One scene that foreshadows Oppenheimer’s doom takes place at a meeting with the Communist Party. It’s here he meets Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) - later in the film, Nolan gives credence to those who believe the U.S government killed her with one quick flashback of her death showing a cleverly planted black-gloved hand drowning her - who would cause Oppenheimer much grief in their love and in her eventual suicide. After meeting her, he makes a new friend in Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall). They discuss the government’s distrust in communists, though acknowledging that fascism is the new priority threat at the moment. It’s a revealing conversation, another instance in which Oppenheimer is imbued with a deluded hope that the government will finally stop being so paranoid about communists and take a correct path.

And soon it does. The U.S. defeats the Nazis. But how was Oppenheimer to know that after the war there would be a second Red Scare in the late 40s and early 50s. Soon enough, in what was called Operation Paperclip, the U.S. would secretly bring over Nazi scientists, engineers, doctors, and more (many of which were not held accountable for their atrocities) to rival the Soviet Union in technological advancement. Then there were the U.S. interventions in South America, supporting fascist dictators over left-wing leaders who could have “Soviet alliances.” Not to mention the targeting from McCarthyism and suppression by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Oppenheimer was an unwitting accomplice in creating this Cold War madness and then a victim of it.

At one point Einstein advises Oppenheimer to tell the government to go to hell if this is how they’re going to treat him. “Dammit, I happen to love this country,” Oppenheimer replies. His wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt making her little screen time quite memorable), rightfully disapproves of Oppenheimer’s subjugation and humiliation at the hands of Lewis Strauss and the US government. “You think because you let them tar and feather you that the world will forgive you?” she asks. “They won’t.”

Yeah, we won’t. But Oppenheimer’s security clearance being posthumously reinstated in December 2022 was way overdue. Because what the US government did to him, as well as many other egregious things in its history, is indefensible. Used and abused are the great minds. The problem is those minds are also contained within a flawed human. They are capable of great things, good or evil. And for their genius, whether they improve the world or dismantle it, there will always be a price to pay.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts. - Bertrand Russell

I don’t want to belabor too much beyond my point about great minds, but much has been said about Nolan’s lack of showing the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While this shouldn’t even be a discussion and Justin Chang has already argued that “omission is not erasure” in a brilliant piece at the LA Times, Nolan’s resistance to depicting the atrocities of the bombs in Japan actually does squeeze into my theme here. There is a scene with Oppenheimer turning away from a slideshow of the bomb's damage to victims, but he never set foot there (he visited Japan on a lecture tour in 1960 but did not stop in Hiroshima or Nagasaki). The film is about the great, morally ambiguous mind of Oppenheimer, a mind that can grapple with the earth-shattering change he’s produced, yet cannot truly conceive of the lives he’s ruined (and will ruin) nor even the ruin of his own life by the country he loves. It’s no wonder that in one disturbing, powerful scene, it’s American citizens that he imagines getting heinously destroyed and disfigured by a nuclear bomb. That’s all he knows. And it’s quite significant how little he does know about people, despite his gifted intellect and exceptional erudition.

Also, even cinema, our great audiovisual art form, has its limits in portraying such catastrophic events. Those who were not there will never comprehend the horror of those days; though other great films, mostly Japanese, have come powerfully close to giving us a first-hand glimpse into the effect of the bombs, deftly replicating their destruction as well as the grief and trauma they inflicted - Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989), Kaneto Shindō’s Children of Hiroshima (1952), Mori Masaki’s anime film Barefoot Gen (1983) and then of course, there’s Alain Resnais’ abstract and stunning Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), one of the greatest films ever made.

It’s not Nolan’s job to educate, he is merely giving us a sublime technical achievement, a labyrinthine tour of the brain used by the man that gave us the power to destroy ourselves. It is our job to make of that what we will, to have the motivation to learn history and its contexts ourselves, and to know that both the creation and experience of art is not strictly a means to moral righteousness. I end this point with T.S. Eliot, who has inadvertently encapsulated the internet epoch with two lines:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The film is about J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was given a rare intelligence and an enigmatic personality. And he gave us something greater than fire, something that didn’t pan out to meet his utilitarian expectations for it. Something that is useful in the way he should have anticipated. Something we all rather wish didn't exist. Oppenheimer was a great mind shortsighted in the fundamental understanding of human nature. A great mind we can still be impressed by, but not grateful for. A great mind that still paid the price like the others, though the tragic fact of this one is that now humanity is paying for it everyday, hoping a button isn’t pushed by maniacal, despotic world leaders. It’s an unfortunate debt left behind by a great mind not to be repaid by us, but terminated with us.

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