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The Ambivalent Destroyer

Christopher Nolan’s new biopic shows J. Robert Oppenheimer as he really was—an American Prometheus divided at his core

David Mikics
July 26, 2023

Universal Pictures

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” These dreadful words are by now familiar to many. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb, said he thought of this line from the Bhagavad Gita during Trinity, the first atomic test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Vishnu assumes his many-armed form to convince Prince Arjuna to enter battle, and the image of a thousand suns occurs as well, a spectacle to rival the atomic fireball.

Oppenheimer, the son of wealthy German Jews from the Upper West Side, went to Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture school as a boy, where he was taught to weigh each moral decision with grown-up sobriety. Much later, Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit in order to read the Hindu scriptures, drinking in their message about the fatedness of life. Arjuna must do his duty, terrible though it is. But the Gita also suggests that death is an illusion, given the reality of reincarnation. Oppenheimer enjoyed no such consolation.

Nolan’s Oppenheimer is nearly as captivating as the biography it is based on, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Bird and Sherwin produced a page turner, and made Oppenheimer’s story thrilling in all its details. Nolan also captivates us, every step of the way. Oppenheimer is a relatively staid biopic, but it is masterfully arranged, and Nolan’s quiet approach pays off. The audience sticks with this thorny, fascinating man, aware that he altered the world forever.

This is an actor’s movie. Cillian Murphy is enthralling as Oppenheimer. He conveys Oppenheimer’s soft-spoken diffidence, his acerbic gestures, his passion and good humor. Every time Oppenheimer thinks something through, Murphy makes it exciting. Just as superb as Murphy is Robert Downey Jr., who gives the performance of his life as Lewis Strauss, who was both Oppenheimer’s patron and, eventually, his enemy. Downey’s Strauss is an ace politician, always genial and smoothly welcoming, with an appealing hesitance and, in the end, a pained weakness that turns vindictive. Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s communist lover, Jean Tatlock; Emily Blunt as his wife, Kitty; Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, who picked Oppenheimer to run Los Alamos—all these actors are at their very best here. There is one unfortunate exception to this string of brilliant performances. David Krumholtz plays the physicist Isidor Rabi, a son of the Lower East Side, as a working-class Jewish prattler who would fit in behind a deli counter, which Rabi decidedly was not. At one point Rabi tries to perk up the disheartened Oppenheimer by offering him a sandwich and saying, “Eat!” One almost expects Rabi to take off his shoes and scratch the bottoms of his feet at a dinner party.

Oppenheimer is far more interested in its actors than the earth-shaking grandeur of a terrible new weapon. Unlike Nolan’s epic Dunkirk, Oppenheimer avoids spectacle. Oppenheimer loved the landscape of New Mexico, where he owned a ranch—though frail and underweight, he was an expert horseman, as well as a daredevil with a sailboat. But there are no breathtaking vistas in this movie. The much-ballyhooed depiction of the Trinity explosion, which comes more than two hours through this three hour film, is gigantic enough, alright, but by no means sublime. The scene unfolds at a slow pace, soft-pedaling the shock and awe of the atomic blast. Despite the potential of 70 mm IMAX, Nolan avoids attention-grabbing cinematography, with just a few exceptions. He sometimes cuts away from shots of Oppenheimer to images of stars or quasars, an effect repeated a few too many times in this film. Nolan’s most persuasive use of montage occurs when Oppenheimer, while giving a gung ho speech about the Hiroshima bombing to the cheering men and women of Los Alamos, looks down at his foot and sees it stuck in a blackened corpse.

Nolan’s best scene shows the delicious sparring between Oppenheimer and Groves during their first meeting, when Groves chooses him to direct the Manhattan Project. The verbal fencing between Oppenheimer and Tatlock, and Oppenheimer and Kitty, gives zest to Nolan’s film, balancing out the exposition of scientific questions. Piquantly, a bare-breasted Tatlock makes Oppenheimer quote the Bhagavad Gita while mounting him during a sex scene (the shot has already incited the ire of some Hindu nationalists).

Oppenheimer shows us the passion of Oppenheimer’s relationship with Tatlock, a Communist Party member who was training to be a psychiatrist, though the movie fails to convey Oppenheimer’s commitment to her. The real-life Oppenheimer proposed to Jean three times, and she rejected him. Their affair continued sporadically after he married Kitty. The mentally unstable Tatlock killed herself shortly after spending the night with Oppenheimer for the last time.

Oppenheimer, known affectionately as Oppie, was too mercurial to ever win the Nobel Prize. He was probably the most imaginative of physicists, and one of the most productive, publishing dozens of papers on a range of subjects during the ’20s and ’30s. He moved quickly from one interest to another, and so had a more comprehensive knowledge of problems in physics than anyone. One of his innovative articles, ignored at the time, planted the seed for the study of black holes decades later. Here Nolan indulges in anachronism: He shows Oppie’s Berkeley students cheering his revolutionary work on black holes, a term invented many years later.

Oppenheimer built a theoretical physics program at Berkeley out of nothing. He was a consummate organizer who guided his students with great kindness in spite of his caustic wit. Oppie was known to interrupt speakers, and when he had been a graduate student at Göttingen studying with Max Born, he would jump to the blackboard without prompting to erase an equation and write a new, correct one. His math, like Einstein’s, was not his strong suit. But he was quicker than anyone at seeing the faults in a project, as well as its promise.

Oppenheimer’s heroism resided in his ambivalence. But ambivalence was also his downfall. He was intensely proud of his role in making the bomb, and he exulted when the news came that it had been dropped on Hiroshima. But he also felt he had “blood on his hands,” as he told President Harry Truman during their one meeting, a phrase that later led Truman to describe Oppenheimer to Dean Acheson as a “cry-baby” (in the movie Truman makes this remark as Oppenheimer leaves his office).

Oppenheimer, not usually self-thwarting, sometimes stumbled badly when he spoke to those in power. Truman knew that his own hands were far bloodier than Oppenheimer’s and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary for a Japan that refused to end the war. The hundred thousand dead from the firebombing of Tokyo had only increased Japanese resolve. Japan ordered that its soldiers never surrender, imposing maximum casualties on American forces on Okinawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima even at suicidal cost. Bird and Sherwin fudge this question in their monumental biography. But the movie gets it right: Dropping the bomb was the only way to end the war without an invasion of Japan that would have destroyed Japanese civilization, as well as requiring an endless slaughter of American GIs.

The atomic scientists, Niels Bohr among them, often said that the bomb would be a weapon of peace, so devastating that no country would go to war for fear that nuclear destruction would ensue. This was a self-serving delusion. Deep down the physicists knew that atomic weapons were not a means to advance world peace.

The main factor that led to Oppenheimer’s downfall, the revoking of his security clearance in a closed hearing in 1954, was his role in the Chevalier affair. Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French literature and a Communist Party member, was Oppenheimer’s best friend at Berkeley. (In Nolan’s film, strangely, Chevalier becomes a mere acquaintance, not a close friend.) In 1943, Chevalier told Oppenheimer, who was in the process of mixing some martinis, that a man named George Eltenton, whom Oppenheimer had met briefly, was in touch with the Soviet Consulate, and had offered to transmit information on military scientific projects to Russia.

It was months before Oppenheimer informed the military establishment that he had been asked to give secrets to the Russians, and he portrayed the request as a warning that spies were afoot, rather than an invitation to become a spy, which was how Chevalier clearly intended it. With astonishing arrogance, Oppenheimer in effect told the military intelligence officer Boris Pash that he knew who was a security risk and who was not. Even though Chevalier (whom he refused to name) had contacted two or three other faculty members to relay Eltenton’s treasonous request, Oppenheimer was sure that Chevalier was not trying to extract information to be passed to the Russians. Oppenheimer was certain that Chevalier, a Communist Party member, would never share secret information with Russia, though this is exactly what Chevalier seemed to be proposing. Oppenheimer finally gave up Chevalier’s name only after Groves ordered him to, in December 1943. Groves attributed Oppenheimer’s reluctance to name Chevalier to the “typical schoolboy attitude that there is something wicked about telling on a friend.” Groves was not unduly concerned because he knew that Oppenheimer would never dream of committing treason. True, Oppie felt that the American work on the bomb ought to be shared with Russia through official channels, and he was not alone in this. But passing along secret information to another country was unimaginable to him.

The Chevalier affair would make Oppenheimer intensely vulnerable a few years later to a Cold War political climate in which any hint of espionage had to be reported instantly. His effort to protect his friend Chevalier made him a security risk. Oppenheimer’s position, shared by Groves, was that former communists were welcome to work on the Manhattan Project. But in 1954, the atmosphere was different. Russia, which acquired the bomb in 1949, was our declared enemy.

Oppenheimer infuriated Strauss, who by that time had become the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, when he tried to stand in the way of the next world-changing weapon, the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller’s brainchild. Oppenheimer swayed the AEC to oppose the H-bomb because he wanted to cement his reputation as the prophet of world peace. He was the proud father of the atom bomb, but he refused to bloody his hands further by championing an immensely more devastating invention. In the end, Oppenheimer failed to block the H-bomb, but he had made an enemy of Strauss.

Oppenheimer’s ambivalence, which so enraged Strauss, was in fact his greatest gift, as Nolan’s movie makes clear. He had little in common with Leo Szilard, the physicist who opposed dropping the bomb on Japan. But he also recoiled from the cold blooded use of game theory to determine which side would have the advantage after a nuclear holocaust. Nuclear war remained unthinkable for him, a fate to be dodged at all costs. This complex, soul-torn genius was punished by an American establishment in thrall to McCarthyite fanaticism, a blot on American history. Oppenheimer was a masterful, charismatic organizer and a lightning-minded researcher, but he was something more, too. As Nolan’s movie argues, his heroic stature came from his misgivings and his dread of the atomic future. Divided at his core, this new Prometheus knew the costs of the alien fire he bestowed on humanity.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.