A complex subject is given a suitably serious and grand-scale treatment in a film that nonetheless throws up many perhaps unanswerable questions and problems, finds Tom Griffiths

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to some estimates, killed in excess of 200,000 people – without even counting those suffering from radiation poisoning-related sickness and death in the years to come.

The fire-bombings in March 1945 of Tokyo which killed around 100,000 civilians and left over one million homeless, and the devastation of Dresden which killed around 25,000, had already shown the world that the Allies were willing and capable of using weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, the atomic bomb was a game-changer. 

The firestorm that engulfed Dresden took a concentrated effort from 772 RAF heavy bombers making four raids over three days (13-15 February 1945). It took one plane and one bomb apiece to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only that, the cruelty of the new super-weapon and the sickness caused by radioactive fallout would create a new type of horror in the human imagination. 

The creation of the atomic bomb would go on to become one of the most significant events in human history, driving and defining the Cold War and creating a threat that still hangs over us all today. The hydrogen bomb, which began its development in New Mexico under America’s then chief atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, while the atomic device was being built and tested – would be 1000 times more powerful. A new terrifying epoch had arrived.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds

Christopher Nolan’s biopic is a huge achievement. At the heart of this achievement is Nolan and his star Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer. 

It is perhaps one of the greatest characters in modern drama. A character as ambitious as Macbeth and as conflicted as Hamlet; a man whose decisions have consequences that dwarf the petty concerns of princes and would-be kings. With the destruction of the world a possibility and the gruesome agonising death of thousands a certainty, it is impossible to imagine how the stakes could be any higher. 

Oppenheimer is a remarkable film about a remarkable man. And like Oppenheimer himself, it is also complicated, contradictory, and flawed. At its best, the film allows us inside the mind of a man, who though incredibly driven, arrogant, and often selfish, also had severe doubts about the project which he led to make atomic weapons a reality. 

When asked if he had any qualms about the number killed and maimed in the bombing of Hiroshima he replied, ‘terrible ones’. He was also obviously a quite brilliant scientist and administrator and very charming when it suited him to be so. Cillian Murphy takes this role, undeniably already packed with dramatic potential, and elevates it to remarkable heights. Murphy must surely take home a best-actor Oscar for his performance and a host of other awards besides. They will all be well deserved. 

The film is also, as we’ve come to expect from Nolan, a stunning visual spectacle. Relentless, nerve-shredding, and sublime. Sonically, Nolan applies his usual sledgehammer approach, and while there are some transcendent moments of stillness (no spoilers here), the persistent score has a tendency to flatten narrative shape and blurs distinctions between perspective and timelines. The sound and score certainly deliver on intensity and excellent execution even if (as ever in Nolan’s work) they never quite let you breathe. However, that very breathlessness offers us another way into the fizzing anxiety and churning mind of Oppenheimer himself. 

First-person perspective

It is interesting to note that the screenplay was written in the first person. This is highly unusual (if not unheard of), and rather than ‘Oppenheimer crosses the room’ – the script states, ‘I crossed the room’. This will have driven every creative decision in the making of the film and it will certainly have provided the platform for Murphy to build his incredible performance. 

It does, however, also create a host of other problems in terms of the characterisation of the supporting cast – none of whom are particularly well-rounded or as fully formed as they could be. While the supporting cast is excellent – and it seems from interviews with them, (Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, and others), that ‘supporting’ was absolutely the duty they were expected to perform – the audience is rarely given insight into what motivates and drives these secondary but nonetheless significant players in Oppenheimer’s life. 

As a result, his relationships with wife Kitty (Blunt), lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and brother Frank Oppenheimer (Dylan Arnold), are frequently unsatisfying and you are left admiring the presence and grace of these performers – as opposed to really investing in their stories or believing they’re real people. If this is an attempt to evoke Oppenheimer’s narcissistic personality, it doesn’t quite work; audiences don’t need to be alienated from these people even if the man himself was.

While Oppenheimer himself was (as he is referred to in the film) a ‘womaniser’ and lived in a very male-dominated world, it is also undeniably problematic to have one of the scarce female speaking-parts in the film, within a few seconds of their few lines – cut to a nude, sex scene. Putting us in the shoes of the protagonist is one thing, but modern audiences deserve better. While the carnality and intensity of the relationship between Tatlock and Oppenheimer was obviously one of its defining factors, Nolan has made a tone-deaf misstep here. The scene is saved though, by the implication that Oppenheimer, while clearly conflicted about the bomb, was also aroused by the power it gave him. It is here he quotes ‘the destroyer of worlds’ line to his lover. It’s another contradictory moment in a contradictory film. 

This hyper-identification with the experience of Oppenheimer creates more problems still. After the success of the ‘Trinity’ test in the New Mexico desert, the score seems to join in with the jubilation of scientists at their great success. Can this note of triumphalism be explained away by the insistence of Nolan to tell us this story from Oppenheimer’s perspective? 

Later of course Oppenheimer’s personal doubts set in, but it’s a moment of ambiguity that speaks of the film’s ambiguity on the need for the bomb, rather than our protagonist’s own story arc. 

The problem of politics

Some commentators have condemned the film for its omissions. The test sites in New Mexico where the ‘Trinity’ detonation took place, and years of subsequent atomic weapons research and testing, has had a huge impact on native American people in the area. 

In a recent article in Time Magazine, Buu V. Nygren, the President of the Navajo Nation, stated, ‘cancers, miscarriages, and mysterious illnesses [are] a direct consequence of America’s race for nuclear hegemony. It’s an accomplishment built on top of the bodies of Navajo men, women, and children—the lived experience of nuclear weapons development in the United States. But, as usual, Hollywood chose to gloss over them.’

It is also arguably a cop-out not to show the images of the Hiroshima blast victims – while Cillian Murphy’s horrified reactions are shown (and beautifully handled) – it is important when dealing with a story like this to honour the victims through complete candour about the savagery of the bomb. After all, if ever there was a plot device that isn’t simply a MacGuffin, it’s the real atomic bomb.

As the film passes into its final chapter, which focuses on the political machinations that led to Oppenheimer’s fall from grace, one can’t also help wondering if we’re being asked to empathise with the wrong man. The dead Japanese become statistics – our ‘hero’ has to face his worst crisis yet and the dogmatic subjectivity of the film once more shows its limits. 

Oppenheimer was also a ‘fellow traveller’ and at times more or less sympathetic to the cause of socialism and communism. A fair amount of screen time is given to this aspect of his early life, and while it’s one of the most open and critical portrayals of McCarthyism and the persecution of ‘reds’ in America, there still remains the whiff of naivety and foolhardy romanticism around the most politically active characters in the film. Nonetheless, the American State doesn’t come out well, and Nolan at least seems piqued by its heavy-handed and undemocratic persecution of those who want a better world.

This film raises a great deal of important questions, some of which are easier to answer than others. Was it right to develop a bomb in the context of World War Two while the Nazi regime was busy developing its own? Once Germany had surrendered, was it right to hasten the end of the war with Japan by dropping the bomb? While it’s clear now that the answer to the latter question can only have been no, it is difficult to give a definitive answer to the first question. Also, were Oppenheimer’s ‘terrible’ qualms about the work he carried out enough to clear him of responsibility for the unnecessary murder of Japanese civilians and the poisoning of Navajo land? Where does the final responsibility lie? Can scientists – as so many of the New Mexico cohort, including Oppenheimer, attempted to do – really set themselves apart from the politicians and military that dropped the bomb?

Can Nolan be excused for lionising a man with so much blood on his hands? For even though the film recognises the man’s flaws– it undeniably does nothing to mitigate the mythic ‘father of the bomb’ status and allure that surrounded the real Oppenheimer – has Nolan minimised the suffering of the distant (non-white) victims of the bomb? Could or should he have done anything differently? 

All of these are good questions, and many of them are unanswerable.

What this film has done, however, is to have reminded us of the fraught history of the creation of atomic weapons and shown us – however indirectly – that they are truly awesome and truly terrible. While the film may not go far enough in condemning the use of nuclear weapons, it is by no means a pro-nuclear weapons film. Everyone who leaves the cinema will (rightly) question the still extant threat of nuclear holocaust and challenge politicians who still cling onto nuclear arms. As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, this threat is more real than it has been since the 1980s. It’s a threat which we cannot take lightly.

Last of all, despite all these moral and political questions, and all the questions about the creative decisions Nolan and his team have made, there is something truly transcendent about this film. All its contradictions are at least appropriate to the overwhelming complexity and scale of the subject matter.

In summary, Cillian Murphy’s performance is unmissable and so is this complicated and incredible film.

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