Oppenheimer distributed by Universal Pictures is in cinemas now. Photo: Universal Pictures
Oppenheimer distributed by Universal Pictures is in cinemas now. Photo: Universal Pictures

Lynda McEwan

Christopher Nolan’s epic blockbuster movie Oppenheimer charts the career of Robert Oppenheimer, a Jewish American, theoretical physicist from university to his involvement in the Manhattan Project and the building of his Los Alamos laboratory during World War Two. It then shows how McCarthyism in the 1950s witch-hunted him and destroyed his life. 

Set against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazis, total war and then the Cold War, Cillian Murphy plays the eponymous character, Robert Oppenheimer, a conflicted and somewhat troubled man with socialist sympathies, including association with the American Communist Party and supporting the Spanish Civil War effort, sending aid to refugees of fascism.

Oppenheimer’s brilliance in the field of quantum physics is quickly recognised despite his frustrations within a laboratory setting, but his involvement in attempting to unionise professors in the radiation lab sees him being excluded initially from talks around developing nuclear weapons.

The film deals with a number of themes, one being the rise of communism and possible revolution across the world, and the capitalist classes’ brutal methods of quashing any such movements. The atomic bomb that Oppenheimer was instrumental in creating may have originally been intended for use in Germany, but the defeat of Hitler meant it was used instead on the Japanese. This was done, not to end the conflict, as the Japanese war effort was collapsing, but as a warning to the Soviet Union and the Stalinist bureaucracy to limit their plans of geopolitical dominance.

Another theme which Nolan tackles quite skilfully is the question of morals. Since the first splitting of the atom, the dropping of thousands of pounds of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and until this very day people have opposed nuclear weapons, including most of the scientists who worked on developing them at Alamos, who signed a petition against them.

The scientists, including Oppenheimer, faced the dilemma of their desire to advance their research and test their theories on the one hand, and the utter destruction that is caused by the results on the other. This is played out beautifully in the film in the interactions between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein and the rivalry between Oppenheimer and fellow physicist Edward Teller.

Moral dilemma

The weaving of this moral dilemma throughout is given a sombre perspective with the use of effects as a vehicle to show Oppenheimer’s inner doubts and fears. When he addresses the community at Los Alamos after the first bomb has been dropped, he makes crude jokes about having won, and how the Japanese won’t have liked it. However, he can’t stop imagining the full horror of its consequences which are shown cleverly by the people in the crowd being stripped of their skin and vomiting due to radiation poisoning.

It is raised again through the hearing Oppenheimer is subsequently subjected to when he voices his objection to atomic bombs becoming part of US policy and against the hydrogen bomb suggested by Teller.

The film’s drama switches often to the issues surrounding his security clearance hearing in 1954. There, his opponents use his links to the US Communist Party – including his wife Kitty who was an ex-party member and whose union organiser ex-husband was killed fighting fascism in Spain, and the affair he had with Jean Tatlock, a full party member – as evidence of his threat to national security.  His security clearance is rescinded meaning he could no longer influence policy during the Cold War and arms race that subsequently developed between the US and Soviet Union. They claimed the Soviets got the atomic bomb technology from a spy at Los Alamos.

The ensemble cast of Matt Damon as the colonel in charge of Los Alamos, Robert Downey Junior as Lewis Strauss the man behind the downfall of Oppenheimer, and Emily Blunt as his wife, Kitty, lends itself to the magnificence of the film alongside the beautiful and haunting score by Ludwig Göransson.

The film closes poignantly with Oppenheimer recalling his discussion with Einstein over whether there was a possibility of a never-ending chain reaction being sparked which could ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world, juxtaposed with the reality of a metaphorical chain reaction of continued war and human destruction.

Oppenheimer is a useful indictment of how capitalism and imperialism uses advances in technology for their own gains and why we should organise to stop them.

  • Oppenheimer, distributed by Universal Pictures, is in cinemas now

To read a review of the other big film of the summer: Barbie – a fun, weird lighthearted film about women and feminism (sort of)