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Atomic Sad Boy

The ambiguities of Robert Oppenheimer

After the United States completed its first successful test of an atomic weapon on July 16, 1945, enabling, less than a month later, the expeditious slaughter of an estimated one hundred forty thousand Japanese people in Hiroshima and seventy thousand in Nagasaki, most of them civilians, recollections of those present at the test site on a remote desert plain in New Mexico suggest that Robert Oppenheimer, the charismatic director of the secret laboratory responsible for designing the bomb, may have been at a loss for words. “It worked,” is all Oppenheimer’s brother Frank remembers the theoretical physicist mustered in the moments after the culmination of a four-years-long, $2.2 billion campaign involving the labor of some one hundred thirty thousand people to construct a weapon capable of killing just as many.

Later, in a 1948 cover story for Time magazine, Oppenheimer had the chance to insert something a bit more literary into the historical record, telling his interviewer that a line from the Bhagavad Gita flashed through his consciousness at the moment of the blast: “Now I am become death, the shatterer of worlds,” which he amended in a 1965 NBC television documentary, relying on his own translation of the Sanskrit text, to “destroyer of worlds,” which has a more apocalyptic ring to it.

In Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, our hero-physicist, played by Cillian Murphy, first utters the line while he’s balls-deep in a troubled communist named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). It’s one of several instances of speculation, if not outright historical infidelity, in Nolan’s transfiguration of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin into an operatic tragedy-cum-thriller for the big screen. This is a summer blockbuster, after all, and if we’re going to have three hours of chalkboard equations and security clearance hearings, we’re going to need to see the father of the atomic bomb fuck.

To tell the story of “the most important person who ever lived,” Nolan, who must have fancied himself uniquely qualified for the job, concocts an elaborate structure, switching between a “subjective” color and an “objective” black and white as he pinballs across three decades of the twentieth century, introducing us along the way to a cast of physicists, communists, communist physicists, presidents, professors, bureaucrats, spies, lovers, generals, colonels, congressmen, and war planners, all of it framed by the 1954 security clearance hearing that resulted in Oppenheimer’s expulsion from the establishment on spurious charges, and the 1959 congressional confirmation hearing of the film’s villain, Lewis Strauss, played by a Robert Downey Jr. (clearly thrilled to have been cut loose from the Marvel Cinematic Universe), who orchestrated the campaign against Oppenheimer five years earlier, in part because Oppenheimer embarrassed him one time before Congress but also because Strauss had a propensity to conclude that anyone who repeatedly disagreed with him, as Oppenheimer did, was a traitor. It’s a lot.

Somehow it works, sustaining tension through what is, increasingly, a rarity: a movie that’s mostly people talking in rooms. But as the laws of physics and Hollywood require, the complexity of plot is met with an equal and opposite force: thematic simplicity. This is a tragedy, we are repeatedly told, that turns on a Great Man’s blindness, to the exclusion of much else. “How could a man who saw so much be so blind?” Strauss asks early on to drive home the point.

Our blue-eyed sad boy emerges into the atomic age, repentant, bent on preventing the annihilation of the human race.

To get at the answer, there’s a lot of ground to cover. And so, at a frenetic clip, we follow Oppenheimer through his school days at Cambridge (where he leaves a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor, a worn-out bit of symbolism Nolan, thankfully, does little with) and later at the University of Göttingen (where a montage of Oppenheimer staring intently at a Picasso painting, reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and dropping the needle on Stravinsky helpfully telegraphs to the unconvinced that we’re dealing with a sensitive genius) before he’s appointed, at the age of twenty-five, to an assistant professor of physics post at Berkeley, a campus awash in gin and radicals. There, he meets and falls in love with Tatlock, who tries to dye his wool red but settles for pink while alternating between accepting and spurning his advances. Soon he meets Katherine “Kitty” Puening, a thrice-married booze hound and former communist played with wild-eyed mettle by Emily Blunt, with whom he has a child and marries but not before Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch split the atom offstage in Berlin, proving the feasibility of the atomic bomb, which becomes a real cause for concern when Hitler invades Poland the following year. Oppenheimer gets pulled into the top-secret Manhattan Project by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, less of a distended thumb than the real man but still well-played), who installs him as the director of what would become the Los Alamos laboratory over the protestations of numerous pinko-fearing officials.

By the late spring of 1945, Oppenheimer and a small town’s worth of physicists are nearing completion of their little “gadget,” which the United States, having missed the chance to nuke the Nazis, plans to use against Japan—but also to, as the real Groves put it as early as 1944, “subdue the Russians.” The Japanese government was grasping about for acceptable terms of surrender, which select portions of the U.S. military apparatus knew but ignored and later downplayed in favor of framing the matter as a choice between launching a protracted land invasion that would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives and dropping two weapons of mass destruction. Nolan doesn’t wade too far into the nitty-gritty here, though we do get to watch the meeting in which Secretary of War Henry Stimson graciously strikes Kyoto off the list of possible targets because he had a great time there on his honeymoon.

To the consternation of those who perceive representation to be the chief measure of a film’s merit, Nolan pointedly declines to depict the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; instead, we watch as Oppenheimer becomes so overwhelmed with guilt while giving a speech to a violently enthusiastic crowd at Los Alamos that he hallucinates stepping on the incinerated corpse of a Japanese civilian. (Nolan apparently penned the screenplay in the first-person, presumably because he feels a degree of affinity with his protagonist.)

And thus our blue-eyed sad boy emerges into the atomic age, repentant, bent on preventing the annihilation of the human race. The real Oppenheimer never publicly apologized for his role in the bombings, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, he did try—and fail—to make headway on the international regulation of atomic weapons while wringing his hands about how physicists had “known sin” and issuing warnings to the public about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. For the sake of time, Nolan emphasizes Oppenheimer’s role, as the chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission, in formally advising the government against pursuing a crash program to develop a “super,” or hydrogen, bomb in 1949. At the time, the H-bomb was thought to be technically unfeasible, but even if it could be developed it might by dint of its awesome destructive power become “a weapon of genocide.” It seemed to make more sense to put American resources toward building conventional nuclear weapons, perhaps “tactical” nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield, as the real Oppenheimer advocated less than a year into the Korean War. This was a strategic pivot from his 1946 stance that nuclear bombs of any size were “a supreme expression of the concept of total war,” though perhaps not as extreme as his consideration of “preventive war” against the Soviet Union in 1952, an idea he had scorned a mere three years earlier. The evolution, which is to say general tack to the right, of Oppenheimer’s thinking didn’t much matter to those in power, who could not forgive him for declining to offer a full-throated endorsement of developing bombs hundreds of times more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan. In their view, this was evidence of communist sympathy, perhaps treason.

Oppenheimer’s contradictions and occasionally elastic thinking are downplayed; Nolan needs to keep his protagonist’s postwar moral compass obdurately fixed for dramatic import as we near the final showdown: the 1954 security clearance hearing, covertly orchestrated by Strauss, then chairman of the AEC, in the wake of a list of charges against Oppenheimer claiming that, in addition to obstructing the development of the hydrogen bomb, the erstwhile fellow traveler was “more probably than not . . . an agent of the Soviet Union,” as William L. Borden, the staff director for the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, put it after poring over Oppenheimer’s FBI file, by then over seven thousand pages long. Oppenheimer’s numerous enemies wished to, as Edward Teller put it, see him “defrock[ed] in his own church,” and this was their chance. The hearing, convened in an anonymous D.C. conference room in April and calling numerous prominent physicists and officials as witnesses, would thus determine if a man prone to dissent ought to have his top-secret “Q” clearance renewed, even though Oppenheimer was, by that time, only acting as an occasional consultant to the GAC he once chaired. At the height of McCarthyism, dissent had become confused with disloyalty, and Oppenheimer would, after spending some twenty-seven hours in the witness chair, become its most prominent victim.

For a film to play in thirty-six thousand theaters opening weekend in this country, it needs more than Florence Pugh’s tits.

Oppenheimer was assured the transcript of the proceeding would never be made public, but Strauss (who got his comeuppance five years later when Congress declined to confirm his appointment to Eisenhower’s cabinet) saw to it that the government printing office published it promptly, all three thousand typewritten pages of it. The media was quick to recognize that the father of the atomic bomb had been martyred in an “Aristotelian drama,” “Shakespearean in richness and variety,” with “Eric Ambler allusions to espionage,” a “plot more intricate than Gone With the Wind” with “half again as many characters as War and Peace,” much of which could also be said of Nolan’s film, which finds screen time for former Nickelodeon stars and also Rami Malek, who cannot act.

Nolan, too, recognizes the Shakespearean qualities of the hearing and quotes liberally from the best parts, already helpfully curated in American Prometheus. Though, again, we are not shown the points where Oppenheimer declines to adopt, unequivocally, the “moral” position Nolan wishes to ascribe to him—in fact, he preferred to “leave the word ‘moral’ out of” the discussion of the hydrogen bomb, though he nevertheless “had qualms about [it].” The hydrogen bomb was a “dreadful weapon,” but it was also “from a technical point of view . . . a sweet and lovely and beautiful job.” As for the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, he “set forth arguments against dropping it,” but “did not endorse them.” Which is not to say that Oppenheimer was a moral relativist, adopting and abandoning positions exclusively for the sake of personal advantage. He wasn’t and he didn’t, though he was certainly more complex, more frustratingly human, than his IMAX representation.

Don’t get me wrong; Oppenheimer is a superb achievement and will be appropriately showered with astronomical box office returns, critical praise, and awards (Oscars most likely for both Murphy and Downey Jr.), but despite Nolan’s nerdishly painstaking attention to detail (we learn, for instance, Oppenheimer sometimes dipped his martini glasses in lime juice and honey), he shows little interest in offering up anything that might complicate the audience’s notion of Oppenheimer as a Great Man of History guided by idealism, blinded by naivete, and doomed by his temerity to stand astride the arms race, yelling stop.

I’ve long thought the tragedy of Oppenheimer’s life would best be suited to the stage, and I’m not the first: in 1964, three years before Oppenheimer died of throat cancer, the German playwright and psychiatrist Heinar Kipphardt, blustering about Hegel’s advice to lay bare the “core and significance” of historical events by freeing them from “adventitious contingencies and irrelevant accessories,” adapted the 1954 hearing into a tediously didactic two-act play. At the start of each scene, various themes and guiding questions are projected onto a scrim: “IS THERE SUCH A THING AS HUNDRED-PER-CENT SECURITY?” “LOYALTY TO A GOVERNMENT. LOYALTY TO MANKIND.” At the end, characters approach the footlights to browbeat the audience with a pedantic soliloquy, including Roger Robb, the hearing’s prosecutor, who wonders, “Do we dissect the smile of a sphinx with butchers’ knives? When the security of the free world depends on it, we must.”

The worst comes from the Oppenheimer character himself, who, after being served the verdict that spelled the end of his formal access to the beltway barbarians, steps forward to bemoan that, “We have been doing the work of the Devil, and now we must return to our real tasks.” The real Oppenheimer—who later clarified that when he claimed physicists had “known sin,” he actually meant the sin of pride—never went this far. So it’s no surprise he hated the concluding monologue and the play’s general allergy to ambiguity so much that he threatened legal action against its author, though he eventually agreed to sit through a production in France, which he liked a bit because it relied more heavily on the official transcripts, though he still felt Kipphardt had “turned the whole damn farce into a tragedy.” 

There can be few direct comparisons between a spartan stage play penned by a psychiatrist incapable of originality and a $100 million thriller written by an accomplished egomaniac, but they do share something in how they approach their protagonist, sanding off his ambiguities and contradictions so as to present a tragic figure haunted by what he’s wrought. Perhaps Nolan can’t be entirely blamed: for a film to play in thirty-six thousand theaters opening weekend in this country, it needs more than Florence Pugh’s tits; it must be obvious, possessed of a storybook sense of morality, expurgated of any evidence that J. Robert Oppenheimer was, though certainly distressed by the implications of nuclear weapons, not above pragmatic concessions he thought might help him retain the beltway power and influence he won after snatching fire from the gods and handing it to man.

His was a strategic error not uncommon to well-intentioned Washington insiders: the naive belief that, through a careful balancing act of dissent, strategic ambivalence, and acquiescence, one can use power to enact more positive change from within than without—a form of blindness, surely. Oppenheimer was a man who appeared to want it both ways: to play the part of the somber public intellectual as well as the consummate insider. That was his undoing, the true crux of the man’s tragedy. There is not much room for such everyday failings here, even in 70mm.