‘Oppenheimer’ is a pitch-dark American nightmare. We cannot look away.
Shortly after Little Boy detonated over the morning sky of Hiroshima—choking the city with a plume of dense smoke, scorching the landscape with the white heat of the sun and in a moment banishing tens of thousands of civilians to nothing more than a memory—the 37-year-old Jesuit missionary Pedro Arrupe made his way to the wreckage.
The Basque priest, then appointed as novice master in Hiroshima, had seen the inside of a prison cell years earlier when some Japanese officials wrongly pegged him as a spy. He considered his execution to be a definite possibility, but spared an untimely death, he survived to see Hiroshima transformed into one of history’s largest cemeteries. Father Arrupe wrote that the American bomb exploded “similar to the blast of a hurricane,” and described the scene on the ground.
“Oppenheimer” is both a startling re-examination of American history and a bleak warning about the nuclear age.
“I shall never forget my first sight of what was the result of the atomic bomb: a group of young women, 18 or 20 years old, clinging to one another as they dragged themselves along the road.…We did the only thing that could be done in the presence of such mass slaughter: we fell on our knees and prayed for guidance, as we were destitute of all human help.”
In its singular focus on the New York-born, Harvard-educated “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man both ridiculed for his past and haunted by the future he unleashed, director Christopher Nolan mostly forgoes graphic depictions of the bombings’ aftermath and leaves the audience to envision the human misery wrought by the nuclear strikes. Perhaps taking a cue from the French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who found that “art lies in suggestion,” Nolan asks the audience to imagine the true face of the monster without fully revealing its form.
A heady, visually arresting and ultimately terrifying tour de force, “Oppenheimer” is both a startling re-examination of American history through the piercing eyes of a man who shaped it and a bleak warning about the nuclear age. Shifting between blazing color and stark black-and-white cinematography, the film is bifurcated by Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Manhattan Project, the clandestine government program to build the world’s first atomic weapon, and an infamous 1954 security hearing that saw Oppenheimer railroaded by McCarthyites for his prior left-wing sympathies.
Once venerated as an American sun god who helped usher his country out of World War II, Oppenheimer was later banished from government work for his onetime interest in communist ideology. Cillian Murphy, in an astounding performance as a man convinced of his own greatness and then tortured by his conscience, plays Oppenheimer as a self-assured, remote and intensely clinical physicist firmly committed to his work—and not much else. In the lab, at parties and in the bedroom, he wields his gaunt and nearly gothic visage as a barrier between his public confidence and increasingly unsettling private doubts. He wears a mischievous look, a gleam in his eye, as if perpetually on the verge of some “Eureka!” moment.
Nolan has assembled a remarkable cast led by Murphy and featuring some of the strongest work in years, maybe decades, from Robert Downey Jr. and Matt Damon. (Downey Jr. is already being considered a frontrunner for next year’s Best Supporting Actor award.) A key feature of “Oppenheimer” is its cavalcade of Oscar winners and A-list stars, who move in and out of the frame for three hours.
The film covers enough historical ground to warrant a semester-long college course, and it is worth a second viewing to digest all its contents. Playing like a cosmic fever dream—complete with painterly scenes of whirling stars and vibrant supernovae straight out of a Terrence Malick picture or Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”—the film proceeds with such breakneck speed it seems to be in a race against itself. “Oppenheimer” progresses with sound and fury through the scientists’ arrival at Los Alamos, a New Mexican desert outpost where the U.S. government seized Hispanic and Native American land for a place to construct the bomb, to the detonation of “the gadget” 27 months later in the summer of 1945. In a scene depicting the pre-Potsdam Conference nuclear test, code-named “Trinity” after a poem by John Donne, the explosion rattles the cinema and vibrates the floor as it tests the decibel limits of the theater’s sound system. (This was the 70mm version, not the IMAX one.)
There is a nearly constant low-frequency roar throughout the film, rivaling “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in sheer volume. The combination of Ludwig Göransson’s colossal score, injecting every frame with a palpable dread, and sonic booms that act as jump scares, at times overwhelm the image to tremendous effect. In short, this is absolutely the loudest movie I’ve ever seen. Kudos to sound designer Randy Torres.
The film covers enough historical ground to warrant a semester-long college course.
In the film’s most disturbing sequence, Oppenheimer addresses a rabid crowd of patriotic Americans after the bombings, whipping them into a nationalistic frenzy and anointing himself as the man who quenched their bloodlust. “I bet the Japanese didn’t like it!” he exclaims to wild cheers and applause. But as he speaks, the sound cuts out and the crowd is suddenly suffocated by a white light. He sees a vision of a young woman (played by Nolan’s daughter) with her face peeling off, and then looks down to see his foot smashed through the charred remains of a bomb victim. He leaves the speech pallid and conscience-stricken.
After the end of World War II, the specter of nuclear annihilation—and the persistent fear of an atomic holocaust prompted by a “hot war” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—loomed large in the American consciousness for the next several decades. During his 1964 presidential bid, President Lyndon B. Johnson released a one-minute campaign ad claiming that Republican senator Barry Goldwater might blow up the world by starting a nuclear war against Vietnam. The “Daisy” ad, which aired once during NBC’s broadcast of the biblical epic “David and Bathsheba,” elicited public outrage but may have helped keep Johnson in the White House.
During the Reagan administration, when Americans were encouraged to consider the Soviet Union as a bear in the woods poised to attack, ABC aired “The Day After,” an explicit (and terrifying) imagination of a nuclear war between the two superpowers. The president wrote that the film made him “greatly depressed.” The BBC broadcast a similar film called “Threads,” which Nolan has almost certainly seen, the next year.
In a 1986 study by the psychologist Michael D. Newcomb, more than 700 young adults were polled on their experience of “nuclear anxiety.” The study concluded “that the threat of nuclear war and accidents is significantly related to psychological distress and may disturb normal maturational development.” According to a 1984 Washington Post poll, 66 percent of teenagers named the possibility of nuclear war as the country’s most serious concern, while 25 percent stated that they “worry frequently about death.”
“Oppenheimer” arrives at a moment where concerns over nuclear power are back in the news.
“Oppenheimer” arrives at a moment where concerns over nuclear power are back in the news. Most recently, unconfirmed suggestions of an approaching Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia station, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, have renewed anxiety about a crisis on the continent. In a 2022 pastoral letter, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, N.M., urged a national conversation on nuclear disarmament and addressed New Mexico’s key role in the development of the bomb. “We are the people who designed and built these weapons of mass destruction,” he wrote. “We must be the people to dismantle them and make sure they are never used again.” The archbishop’s call to action echoed the pope’s 2019 address in Hiroshima, where he named even the possession of nuclear arms as immoral.
There are two sides that form the film’s moral conundrum. The Pentagon and some scientists at Los Alamos contend that the atomic bomb must be used (and used repeatedly) to avoid further American casualties and bring a definitive end to the war. Critics opposed to the bomb point out that, by the spring of 1945, Hitler is already dead and the Japanese are poised to surrender. Oppenheimer is split on the topic, admitting at his later security hearing that his moral misgivings about the bomb arose once he realized that the United States would actually use it. In a 1965 interview with CBS News, recorded two years before his death from throat cancer, Oppenheimer characterized the usage of the bomb as “certainly cruel,” but stated that he trusted the conclusion of top military leaders. In the film, a meeting between Oppenheimer and President Harry S. Truman, portrayed by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman as a calculating sociopath with a side of Missouri charm, ends abruptly after Oppenheimer says he feels there is “blood on his hands.” Truman mockingly waves a handkerchief and calls Oppenheimer a “crybaby.” (Accounts of their meeting differ.)
“I don’t want the culmination of three centuries of physics to be a weapon of mass destruction,” says Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi (David Krumholtz) to Oppenheimer. “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon,” responds Oppenheimer, “but I know the Nazis can’t. We have no choice.”
George Zabelka, a Catholic priest and former Air Force chaplain to the servicemen who dropped the bomb, once shared Oppenheimer’s view. Chastised by the military for “excessive zeal” during his service, “General George” later rejected his belief that there were no viable alternatives to the mass killing of civilians and became a pacifist committed to Gospel nonviolence. In a 1980 interview with Sojourners magazine, he described himself as being “brainwashed” by both church and state. “It never entered my mind to publicly protest the consequences of these massive air raids,” Zabelka said. “I was told it was necessary; told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership.”
At the film’s conclusion, Oppenheimer confides in Albert Einstein, who was not part of the Manhattan Project and was known for his opposition to violence, his concern about having destroyed the world by creating the bomb. Oppenheimer believes his work will inevitably lead to the creation of more atom bombs and possibly a full-scale nuclear war. “I think we did destroy it,” he says as Einstein walks away.
Then suddenly, the low roar that undergirds the entire film grows to an almost unbearable volume and Nolan presents us with the fruit of Oppenheimer’s labor: nuclear armageddon. Atomic bombs are dropped all over the globe and a growing wave of fire subsumes the planet. Cut to black. Lights out.
“Oppenheimer” is now playing in theaters.