Universal Pictures screengrab.
A friend texted me in the middle of his 70MM IMAX screening of Oppenheimer. “Halfway through O. I think I’m going to throw up,” he said. “It’s one thing to know we’re on the brink. It’s another to feel it.”I had just gotten out of my screening of the film a few hours before. I knew exactly what scene he was talking about. It was the Trinity test, a filmed faux-nuclear explosion. It’s a moment so powerful that it would make someone like my friend, an experienced war reporter who’s made films and is well versed in movie theatre etiquette, breach protocol by using his phone to reach out to another person.
It’s one thing to know you’re on the brink. It’s another to feel it. Nuclear weapons and the devastation they bring are so big and impossible that it’s easy to abstract them. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the horror. Oppenheimer, the new film from writer and director Christopher Nolan, forces the audience to confront the horror. It makes you feel it.There’s plenty of horror to go around today. So much so that it’s hard to feel any of it deeply. One of those dreads is that of nuclear weapons. Experts believe we’re closer to nuclear war than any other time in history. Old treaties that kept the weapons at bay are gone. Despite the international community’s paltry efforts, the world-ending weapons have spread. China is building more nuclear weapons. America is spending billions to modernize its forces and Russia has said its developing new nuclear weapons, both to the better to wipe its rivals off the map.Into this atmosphere of renewed nuclear anxiety comes Oppenheimer, a movie about one of the scientists who gave the world nuclear weapons. The man is J. Robert Oppenheimer and though the Manhattan Project was a collaboration that involved thousands of men and women, it’s Oppenheimer whose name has become synonymous with nuclear weapons in the public consciousness.Oppenheimer is not a biography. It’s an attempt to render a complicated man and a nightmarish legacy into a myth. The first scene of the film recounts the myth of Prometheus, the Greek god who gave fire to humanity and was punished forever for it. The description plays over a roiling fire. The implication is clear from the first, that the story of Oppenheimer is the story of the atomic bomb and one of its creators as myth, not as history.
As myth, Oppenheimer is excellent.The cover of the book American Prometheus, on which the film is based, bears a haunted-looking Oppenheimer, cigarette lolling in his mouth, eyes focused on the camera. Nolan said he picked actor Cillian Murphy to play the titular role because he knew the actor could embody this haunted expression. It’s a movie about conversations and science, one where Oppenheimer is depicted as a bright and excited scientist who is worn down by the realization of his dreams, by the systems of government and celebrity that co-opted him, and by his own guilt over unleashing a weapon that could end human civilization.The haunted visage of Murphy as Oppenheimer is the last shot of the movie. It’s also played heavily in the film’s marketing. I think this focus on Oppenheimer’s grim visage is key to the film’s success. The expression of a person looking at the camera, or just off the side of it, while wearing a devastated look is popular right now. It’s Matthew McConaughey smoking a cigarette while staring at his phone in True Detective. It’s a dozen different depressed wojaks. All of us who pay attention to the news, who read in general, who post on social media, who are aware of the world and its situation, we all feel a bit like this. We’re all staring at unimaginable horror and trying to process it. At the start of the film, Oppenheimer is a dreamer. He’s a man with a passion for physics, who is kept up at night by a strange and terrible beauty that lies just behind our reality. The film does not make him a hero. “You don’t get to commit the sin then have everyone feel bad for you,” his wife tells him after a particularly selfish moment. At that moment in time, she is not talking about the bomb but, in the audience, it’s impossible to see it as anything but.The movie turns Oppenheimer into a mythic figure. His final revelation is not just that he has doomed the world to live with nuclear weapons, but that he no longer belongs to himself. He brought his dreams to the world and was instrumental in fashioning them into nightmares. We live in a world he helped create, one where we’ve all seen our dreams turn into nightmares, a world where the way we live seems untenable and dangerous.What do we want from Oppenheimer, a man who helped make this world? We want to watch as his liver is eaten for eternity, as a punishment. The movie implies that Oppenheimer knows he deserves this fate. I worry that I do too. That we all do.