Seventy-eight years ago today, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. Between the two attacks, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, leading to a quick Japanese surrender in World War II, and forever changing the course of history.
Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” is the subject of the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer, is based on the book.
What is an American Prometheus? At the start of Oppenheimer, we learn that the Greek god Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For that act of thievery, Zeus, not the forgiving type, chained Prometheus to a rock on Mount Caucasus for eternity, and put him to relentless torture by having a vicious eagle feed on his liver. That’s gotta hurt.
I think J. Robert Oppenheimer ended up hurting too.
I was hesitant to see the movie because I was tired for not having slept well the previous night and I knew the running time was three hours. But the movie didn’t feel that long. And I forgot I was tired. The film was complex thematically and structurally, and confusing at times due to time shifts and a “who’s that character again?” uncertainty that comes with a large cast and a multiplot narrative. But not once is the film anything less than captivating.
Cillian Murphy, of Peaky Blinders fame (recommended), excels in the role of Oppenheimer. It’s an understatement to say Oppenheimer was a brilliant, odd, and frustrating fellow. As a young man he had visions, he spent formative years studying in Germany under Werner Heisenberg, and was teaching at Berkeley in the nascent field of quantum physics when General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) tapped him—despite his left leanings and associations with members of the Communist Party—to lead the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb.
The film shifts among several time periods: the building of the secretive Los Alamos site and development of the bomb, a 1954 post-war politically motivated hearing that stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance (see: Communism), and a 1959 Senate hearing confirmation for Lewis Strauss, a former chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission now nominated for the Secretary of Commerce post and the person most responsible for undermining Oppenheimer’s reputation for his less-than-hawkish leanings.
We get a close look at Oppenheimer’s life—his affair with a political activist, his dysfunctional marriage to Kitty (Emily Blunt, nice performance), his impulsiveness, his relationship with Albert Einstein, and the moral quandaries he supposedly suffered in the service of creating such a devastating weapon. He attempted to draw a distinction between his building of the device and anyone’s decision to actually use it.
But we all know it was used, not once, but twice, although many argued it wasn’t necessary because Germany already had surrendered and Japan was on the ropes. In a brief scene near the end of the movie, Oppenheimer visits the White House and meets with Harry Truman. At this point, the war is over. Oppenheimer is suffering over what happened, and he tries to tell Truman that the U.S. had to work with the Soviet Union to avoid an escalating arms race. Truman basically called him a crybaby and said no one cared who built the bomb, they only cared who dropped it—and that was Truman.
Like every Christopher Nolan movie, this one is visually stunning, briskly paced, and narratively chaotic. Some of the dialog is hard to hear and I missed a few lines, which ultimately didn’t matter. I’ve read that Nolan doesn’t like to do extra dialog-only takes if the live version during filming isn’t completely clear. Not sure what that’s about, but he’s the director and can make his choices.
There aren’t many movies I would say I’m ready to see again right after a first viewing, but this one I would. A second viewing would enrich the overall experience. But that might have to wait: Barbie is next on my list.