Nuclear Frisson: On ‘Oppenheimer’

The best scene in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer comes towards the end of the movie. The titular physicist is talking to Einstein, recalling a previous conversation in which they’d discussed the possibility that an atomic bomb would ignite the Earth’s atmosphere. ‘When I came to you with those calculations’, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) reflects, ‘we thought we might start a chain reaction that could destroy the entire world’. ‘What of it?’ asks Einstein, as the rain begins to fall. ‘I believe we did’, says Oppenheimer. Cue the movie’s final, surreal sequence: a fusillade of nuclear missiles spearing upwards through a canopy of cloud, shooting through space as Oppenheimer looks on from the fuselage of a military aircraft, and—the movie’s closing image—a tsunami of fire spreading over the Earth. The logic of nuclear proliferation rendered as apocalypse.

Thus ends Nolan’s sprawling biopic with one of the more successful attempts to fuse the mysterious, and still mystifying, science at the centre of the Manhattan Project with the movie’s political and biographical themes—more successful, certainly, than Nolan’s decision to split the narrative into ‘Fusion’ and ‘Fission’ to describe, respectively, the creation of the Laboratory and the implosion of Oppenheimer’s career after the war, or indeed the attempt to build an explanation of quantum mechanics into the film’s romantic subplots (‘Tell me about quantum physics’, says a slightly sozzled Emily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer’s long-suffering wife, only to be hit with an atomic-themed come-on riffing on ‘energy’ and the force of ‘attraction’). At least the chain-reaction exchange is pertinent to the Trinity breakthrough: Oppenheimer’s team reached back into pre-nature, and in so doing created a technology that could not merely break the will of Japan but obliterate human civilisation. The doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’ is both a scientific and a political phenomenon.

That Oppenheimer ultimately fails to do justice, whatever that means, to the events in New Mexico and their scientific and political consequences is less a matter of who it focuses on than of how it does so. Some critics have suggested that it was obscene to concentrate on Oppenheimer’s personal experience, given that whatever political ‘fallout’ or personal anguish the physicist suffered was as nothing to the suffering of the Japanese victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and especially of those unlucky enough not to die in the initial blasts. And fair enough, in one respect. But the drawing of transformative science into the very heart of power, which raised the curtain on the current era of techno-scientific capitalism, is a theme well worth exploring right now, not least because the black-skivvied tech-bros are currently having an ‘Oppenheimer moment’ of their own. There’s a movie in this subject all right; it’s just that Nolan, whose gift for world-making is in inverse proportion to his gift for sense-making, isn’t sure what to do with it.

From what I can tell, the factual details of Oppenheimer are sound enough. Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus, it traces the establishment of the Laboratory at Los Alamos with unusual—even superfluous—detail, and makes no attempt to render ‘Oppie’ as either more egotistical or more innocent than he was in real life. There’s the usual Nolanesque artifice: the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, and the movie switches from black and white to colour in a way that may be necessary to help viewers distinguish the different timelines. But as an anatomy of the Manhattan Project, the crazy Game Theory that succeeded it and the animus and anticommunism that marginalised Oppenheimer after the war, the film is more than serviceable. If one didn’t know anything about the Manhattan Project, or about its presiding genius, Oppenheimer would be a very good primer.

Such fidelity to the known facts, however, is in one sense also the movie’s problem, in that Nolan must wrestle with the ‘meaning’ of the bomb through whatever details—operational and emotional—can be gleaned from the biographical material. This means that the far more interesting question of what Oppenheimer represented as an academic in an abstract field thrust suddenly into the (non-abstract) business of winning a war against Nazi Germany and its allies is largely lost beneath relatively trivial aspects of the narrative. Yes, Oppenheimer was a complex guy: a scientist and a patriot, egotistical and public-spirited, brilliant and naive. And yes, this complexity must form part of this story, in which a military bureaucracy commandeered theoretical physics and pushed it beyond the theoretical realm. But a film about the ‘father of the atom bomb’ cannot come to dwell, as Nolan’s does, on the theoretical physicist’s security clearance without doing violence to the subject at hand—that subject being violence itself, to human beings and to the nature they inhabit. We are talking here about the bomb, after all: not a bomb, but the A-bomb, and a radical break in our understanding of what is both possible and permissible. That is the content of Oppenheimer’s prometheanism, and the thing that connects his story to our time. If such a thing can be dramatised, it certainly hasn’t been here, and my sense is that this movie may even add to the rubble-mound of normalisation from which its subject needs excavation.

Paradoxically, perhaps, this feeling is at its strongest when the film depicts the Trinity Test itself. Famously, many of the people involved in the test fell back on religious language in order to describe the experience; Oppenheimer himself would later claim to have recalled the lines from Hindu scripture ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. In the moment, they both failed to describe the phenomenon and opened up a space for reflection on its indescribability: that we cannot ‘process’ what happened at Trinity, or what happened one month later over Japan, is part of what happened at Trinity. But how is one to dramatise that in a cinematic medium, especially given that the ‘mushroom cloud’ has now become a visual cliché? At the very least, one would want to see some kind of ‘alienating’ filmic device, as when David Lynch takes us inside the blast in Part 8 of Twin Peaks Season 3 or Stanley Kubrick sets a montage of explosions to ‘We’ll Meet Again’ at the end of Dr Strangelove. But Nolan goes for fire and noise, in a scene that is remarkable for being so unremarkable: not nuclear fission, or nuclear fusion, but nuclear frisson. Cinematic safe danger.

Once again, it is not the fact that Nolan eschews the butchery and carnage that concerns me. There are plenty of films and TV programs, from Jimmy Murakami’s When the Wind Blows to the brilliant HBO series Chernobyl, that endeavour to show the effects that nuclear technologies have had, or may yet have, on human beings. What concerns me is that Oppenheimer, far from shaking us out of our slumber, is unable to grasp the radical nature of what happened in the New Mexico desert or connect what happened there to our current techno-scientific moment. Having seen the movie with my kids, the youngest of whom is the same age (thirteen) that I was when I saw the BBC TV film Threads—a terrifying depiction of how a nuclear war might start and what might happen in its aftermath—I wondered what kind of effect it had on them, intellectually and emotionally. An unscientific sample, of course, and perhaps an unfair experiment altogether, given the more procedural character of Nolan’s cinematic opus. Nevertheless, I was alarmed to find that it had had very little effect at all.

‘So what was the message?’ my (older) son asked me as we walked out of the cinema, and I mumbled something teacherly about movies not always being amenable to that kind of straightforward interpretation. But he was right, I think, to ask the question, and right to sound a little baffled. Like me, he was moved by the final scene, but it was all too much like an afterthought. Certainly none of us had the sense that Oppenheimer would start the kind of chain reaction needed at this fraught conjuncture.

‘The First Cry of a Newborn World’: The Trinity Test at 75

Richard King, 28 Jul 2020

The bright young things of Silicon Valley, with their dreams of direct democracy on Mars and digital immortality, are often difficult to take seriously. But their hubris is only the gaudy version of a broader cultural and political belief in the power of science and technology to edit, alter and override the very stuff from which our world is made—in other words, to ‘play God’.

About the author

Richard King

Richard King is a writer based in Fremantle. His new book, Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity?(Monash University Publishing), was published in 2023.

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