In OPPENHEIMER (2023), brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer is recruited by Lt. General Leslie Groves to build the Manhattan Project, which produced the atom bomb and forever changed history. Directed by Christopher Nolan and featuring an enormous cast of recognizable and quality actors delivering excellent performances, it’s a powerful film that largely follows history, reveals Oppenheimer’s life with brisk pacing in multiple timelines, and has real importance.
One thing is for sure: History, and a single man’s life, are complex and messy affairs that often defy simple narratives and occupy grayer shades of morality. That the film portrays both without oversimplifying or overt moralizing–especially about the Left’s flirtation with communism in the 1930s-1940s, the Right’s Red hysteria and blacklisting in the 50s, and the morality and meaning of the Bomb itself–is a testament of good storytelling. As for Oppenheimer himself, he is portrayed as overwhelmingly vain, but it is this vanity and drive that enabled him to harness his and other scientists’ genius to create a modern Wonder of the World. He pursues the Bomb because he wants to build it, only to be consumed by doubt and regret.
The performances are excellent, including Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr., and many others. The historical context is terrific–the war against Nazi Germany, which actually started the war ahead of the Allies in terms of basic research towards the Bomb, the revolution in physics started by Einstein and challenged by the likes of Niels Bohr, and the question whether the USSR, an ally during the war, was just another enemy in waiting.
The dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and whether it did indeed result in the capitulation of Japan, saving thousands of American lives in the process, continues to be debated. Either way, it was considered both the final act of WW2 and the first act of the Cold War that would redefine the global order and place all of humanity at the perpetual brink of extinction. The majority of people alive today grew up in the shadow of the Cold War nuclear arms race and the possibility of complete destruction, making it one of those rare topics most people know little about but also everything about.
Overall, OPPENHEIMER is a brilliant movie, a biopic that doesn’t lionize or over-moralize its subject, a historical film that sticks with history’s messiness, and a morality tale about a man driven by vanity to tamper with nature, only to create a horrific monster he couldn’t control. The Bomb truly is one of those inventions that permanently changed the world; OPPENHEIMER achieves its own importance by respecting this while being honest about the man who oversaw its creation.