Written by Christopher Nolan, Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin
Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon
2023 | R | 3h
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie opened nationwide on the same day for reasons not entirely clear but not important. What followed was a wearying number of articles on whether the two films should be viewed the same day, and which should be seen first. People even wrote about what beverages to consume before, between and after viewings. Really, people?
Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin received the Pulitzer prize for American Prometheus, their massive biography of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nolan wrote the movie script along with Bird and Sherwin. Why did Nolan wish to direct this three-hour film and why now? In an interview with the New York Times, Nolan tells journalist and science writer Dennis Overbye that Oppenheimer was the most important person who ever lived. By realizing the potential of the atom being split and acting upon it, Oppenheimer “gave the world the power to destroy itself. No one had done that before.” And it was time now to tell that story.
This film is long because Nolan wished to start at the beginning. He wanted people to understand the individuals who changed worlds with their actions. World War II was raging and the U.S. entered it late, waiting for the Japanese air force to bomb the American naval base in Hawaii, so the U.S. could be put on a war footing to help its allies. Reports of Germany developing an atomic bomb caused FDR to put American development of such a bomb on high priority. The pentagon was created in the person of one man, engineer and army general Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). He recruited the most prestigious physicist of his generation, Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to gather the right team.
Watching Oppenheimer bring this team of scientists and other specialists together — cajoling experts accustomed to working on their own, convincing them of the need for this project, persuading them to move their families to a brand new town in the American desert — demonstrates the many talents of this polymath. General Groves envisioned a group of scientists alone. Oppenheimer said no, we need a town, they’ll want to bring their families. Once convinced, Groves turned to his subordinate and said, ok, build them a town! The Manhattan Project was born. In a few respects, life was less complicated then.
A second part of this engrossing film focuses on those who distrusted Oppenheimer because so many of his friends and some relatives traveled in the same circles with Communists and even belonged to the Communist party for a while, but the U.S.S.R. actually was our ally in World War II. In addition Oppenheimer campaigned against nuclear proliferation after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and opposed the development of a hydrogen bomb, which put him in opposition to fellow scientist Edward Teller. The stage was set for a calculated unraveling of his brilliant career.
In 1947 Robert Oppenheimer gave a lecture at M.I.T. and observed that the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project “have known sin” and this is “a knowledge which they cannot lose.”
And the third part of this film deals with the emotions that surfaced once an atomic bomb was tested successfully in the New Mexican desert. No precautions were taken except to stay close to the ground and avoid looking at the actual blast. Scientists signed a letter asking the new president, Harry Truman, not to test this bomb on a civilian population. General Groves never forwarded the petition to Truman. First Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were bombed. Only then did the U.S. accept Japan’s request for unconditional surrender with protection of the person of the Emperor.
Was it all about punishing an Asian nation for daring to launch a military attack on the United States? Did FDR let Pearl Harbor happen, despite warnings received, so that the U.S. could enter the war to save England from being invaded? Were the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to send a warning to Joseph Stalin of the U.S.S.R. that there was a new game in town?
In 1947 Robert Oppenheimer gave a lecture at M.I.T. and observed that the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project “have known sin” and this is “a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Director Christopher Nolan says “this is a story that doesn’t have an ending yet.” The Union of Concerned Scientists puts the doomsday clock at 90 seconds to midnight. In an extraordinary moment, several major medical journals recently joined together to issue an historic call for abolition of nuclear weapons.
See this mesmerizing film. Explore the most important development of the 20th century, through the eyes of a gifted director.