The Singular Victim of the Atomic Bomb: Oppenheimer Sanitizes History

Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer, successfully dramatizes a Pulitzer-Prize winning biography but downplays the destruction unleashed by its protagonist.

Owen Schacht Aug 14, 2023

Christoper Nolan’s three-hour epic, Oppenheimer, is a good movie but a lousy history lesson. It is not a documentary about Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist. Instead, Nolan brings us into the life and mind of Oppenheimer, a character played by Cillian Murphy. While the film boasts a star-studded cast and brilliant scoring, it lacks true recognition of history.

Nolan makes action movies; he shows Batman fighting the Joker on Gotham’s streets and depicts shootouts in our dreams, so a biopic veers from his oeuvre. This film mostly features old white men talking in office spaces. But Nolan makes these scenes feel like action sequences, as Ludwig Göransson’s score, whimsical then ominous, comes crashing down with each syllable uttered. Suddenly, a security-clearance-review meeting feels like a thrilling chase scene. However, when making a history film, the first step is either to lean into realism or dramatization; Nolan’s error was embracing both.

The movie follows a bright, bubbling scientist as he descends into the amoral landscape of geopolitics.

The film is an adaptation of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Thus, Oppenheimer not only represents Nolan’s interpretation of history but also his interpretation of another interpretation. The book’s subtitle alone gives away some bias, presenting Oppenheimer — director of The Manhattan Project’s laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II — as a conflicted figure. One gets a sense that Oppenheimer is a victim. However, what was his reality?

Born in 1904 to a wealthy textile family in New York City, Oppenheimer was no victim. As a young boy, he was swaddled with servants and lived in an apartment with original paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Picasso. He entered and exited this life with great privilege, dying on the island of Saint John after spending his retired years yachting around the Caribbean.

The film picks up during Oppenheimer’s postgraduate years and follows a bright, bubbling scientist as he descends into the amoral landscape of geopolitics. As we are taken through his academic rise, going back and forth in time, we are presented with an attractive, sharp scholar broken by a McCarthyist reckoning. One cannot help but sympathize with Murphy’s striking blue eyes and victimized persona as his character is stripped of his Atomic Energy Commission security clearance and interrogated for leftwing associations. The audience is given inklings of Oppenheimer’s headspace and shown his moral scruples. We follow Oppenheimer’s life with him and, thus, naturally root for and sympathize with him.

Indeed, he was a victim of the Second Red Scare, and that is what most of the film is spent depicting. But his victimization on the silver screen is where most of his tragedy lies. After the Democrats regained the presidency with John Kennedy in 1960, Oppenheimer was presented with the Enrico Fermi Award for his contributions to science. He remained a prominent theoretical physicist and, as mentioned above, retired to paradise.

Much about this film can be criticized, from its shallow female characters, who fail the Bechdel test, to its propagandizing of Oppenheimer’s reservations about using weapons of mass destruction. However, what stands out most is that Nolan sanitized an emphatically violent subject. After all, the film is about the “father of the atomic bomb.”

Atomic Cloud Rises Over Nagasaki, Japan, 1945
Lieutenant Charles Levy/Wikimedia Commons

The film does not mention that the victims of “Little Boy” (Hiroshima) and “Fat Man” (Nagasaki) were almost entirely civilians or that the bombs were dropped in the hearts of densely populated cities. Never are the effects of radiation referenced. Not the radioactive cloud that drifted or the fallout from the original test blast in New Mexico; not the exposure to workers and soldiers from tests in the decades that followed; not the permanent effects on Japan. 

It is unreasonable to expect one man’s life to be explained in three hours. Indeed, much will be omitted. Nevertheless, omitting all indications of how genuinely awful nuclear weapons are in a film about their inception is also unreasonable.

Absent from the movie is any challenge to the “official narrative” about the decision to drop the bombs. Omnipresent is a warning of the future dangers of nuclear arms, but we are never shown pushback against their use at the time. The viewer is guided to the simple conclusion that President Truman made the right call to drop the bombs. More helpfully, the movie does leave us with a deeply unsettling question: now that Oppenheimer has set off this chain reaction — now that nine countries have nuclear weapons, not one — what do we do? 

So, what is the takeaway from Oppenheimer? Watch the film. It is well-written, well-acted, well-directed and beautifully shot. It entertains, as a movie should, and it leaves one thinking and feeling, as art should. 

But, if you want to see the movie as your introduction to this period of history, this man and the atrocities that his science permitted, then do not watch the film. It is not an antiwar film; it is not an antinuclear film; it does not admonish the use of nuclear weapons. 

In typical Nolan fashion, Oppenheimer is a spectacle, a film, more than anything, about the exhilarating process of human achievement. The viewer leaves the theater in awe and excitement, perhaps some existential dread, but no terror and no trepidation that embody the reality of Oppenheimer’s legacy.

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