The best movie you’ll see this year—or, if I’m being honest, this decade—is about two men having a protracted argument about God.
If you merely watch the trailer, you may walk away with the erroneous impression that Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, is about the creation of the atomic bomb, or about the moral implications of forging a weapon that laid waste to a quarter-million souls, or even about the inner life of its chief inventor, the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. These presumptions are correct, of course, but also trivial: The film’s nuclear fission comes from the energy released when Oppenheimer splits from and clashes with his nemesis, Lewis Strauss, a man who saw pretty much everything about the world, but especially religion, in radically different terms.
Casually, and without reverting to heavy-handed exposition, Nolan tells you everything you need to know about these two men. Strauss, in Robert Downey Jr.’s masterly portrayal, is a self-made man. His parents were second-generation Jewish Americans who settled in Virginia, made a small fortune selling footwear, then lost it all in the recession of 1913. Strauss had dreamt of going to college and studying physics; he was forced to work as a traveling shoe salesman instead. But he was tough, brilliant, and resourceful, and when World War I broke out and a prosperous engineer named Herbert Hoover set up relief efforts to aid those Europeans stricken by its carnage, Strauss took the train to D.C., walked into Hoover’s office, and talked his way into a job as the great man’s assistant.
Strauss climbed the ladder quickly. A string of successful appointments and opportunities made Strauss an extraordinarily wealthy and well-respected man. Eventually, his passion for science led him to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he first met the man who was destined to become his nemesis.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) seemed genetically engineered to be everything that Strauss could never be. He grew up on Manhattan’s tony Riverside Drive, the son of a successful textile importer. Picasso’s Mother and Child hung in the family’s living room, as did works by Rembrandt, Renoir, and van Gogh. He glided from Alcuin Prep to Harvard to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and from there to the University of Göttingen to study under the legendary Max Born, the father of quantum mechanics.
But Strauss and Oppenheimer diverged in much more than the circumstances of their birth and upbringing. Strauss was a proudly religious Jew; he was president of his synagogue, and as a board member of a number of Jewish organizations, he spent a considerable amount of his time and vital force working to try to save Europe’s Jews from Hitler’s maw. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, took no pleasure in his heritage. He insisted that his first initial stood not for Julius—to his refined ears, the name oozed with the odious mud of the shtetl—but simply for nothing, a weightless ornament.
As brilliant at denying the faith of his fathers as he was at theoretical physics, Oppenheimer made his devotion to de-Judaification his ticket into the American elite. “As appears from his name,” wrote Percy Bridgman, his advisor at Harvard, “Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications of his race.” The tall and diffident lad, Bridgman noted, possessed a “perfectly prodigious power of assimilation.”
In the hands of a lesser master, these differences would have been boiled down until nothing remained but their starkly different essences—the rich and aloof cosmopolitan aristocrat staring down the boy who came from nothing and never forsook his roots. But Nolan, even when he was dabbling in comic book heroes in his Dark Knight trilogy, has never been one to portray flat and facile figures. Instead, in this film, Strauss versus Oppenheimer serves as a meditation on the most pressing question of the age: Can virtue survive in a world that has turned its back on its Creator?
It’s a question that Oppenheimer took seriously. Even if you did not know that the scientist received his earliest primary school instruction at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School—the Central Park West bastion of secular humanist education and the alma mater of New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, and a long list of liberal notables—you only need to look into Cillian Murphy’s watery eyes to know that beyond them lies a soul haunted by ethical conundrums that it wishes to address but cannot possibly resolve on its own. The Irish actor gives a bravura performance—think Bogie in Casablanca or Brando in The Godfather—made all the more impressive by the fact that the drama is all in his head and heart.
Is it ethical, even in a time of war, to harness the basic building blocks of the universe to craft a device equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT? And once the device is completed, should it remain in the exclusive possession of one nation, or be shared with the world to minimize the risk of a devastating arms race? Should we not rush to the aid of those fighting for freedom in Spain, even if they are communists backed by Joseph Stalin? And as sensitive men, should we not suspend the bonds of marriage for an hour or two and hurry to give some sexual succor to former lovers in need?
Oppenheimer wrestles with these ethical questions to the brink of exhaustion. He’s a serious and good man, but as any theoretical physicist would tell you, there’s only so much you can deduce from theory. Morality, the real and sustainable kind, requires a creed, a faith tradition that distills divine instruction and the collective practice of generations into a brilliant light guiding the way.
Too modern and proud to cling to relics like the ancient desert faith of his forefathers, Oppenheimer does his best to forge his own ideas about good and evil, to write his own code of conduct to replace Judaism and all it has to teach. And he fails, miserably, again and again and again. He fails by sidling up to the communists and lying about it in a sad and silly way. He fails by having an affair that leaves wife and mistress alike shattered. And he fails by spending much of his later career championing dreams of collaborative international control of nuclear arms. (If you’re curious about the wisdom of that last idea, just observe the leverage the International Atomic Energy Agency currently has on rogue bomb-hungry nations like Iran.)
Across the lawn in Princeton, another genius, Albert Einstein, softly reminds Oppenheimer that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. God exists for Oppenheimer, but only as whispers and fog—a line from the Bhagavad Gita, say, or a moment spent quivering before the majestic beauty of the New Mexico desert. Our American Prometheus has no penchant for prayer and no aptitude for humility; he is convinced that he could figure out right and wrong just as he’d figured out deuteron-induced nuclear reaction, using nothing more than a blackboard and his incandescent mind. But hubris is a fickle mistress. By the end of the movie, Oppenheimer is left both successful and bereft. As he stares at the throngs of cheering colleagues congratulating him on the bomb’s deployment, Nolan takes away all sound. We sit in the theater in silence, staring at the face of a man as he realizes, though he’d never admit it, that a higher force had finally brought him to his knees.
And Strauss? He’s no more the movie’s uncomplicated villain than Oppenheimer is its easy-going hero. Sure, we see the consummate manipulator orchestrate a few moves that would’ve made Machiavelli blush. But we also understand that Strauss is, by and large, correct. He has seen the horrors of the Holocaust and possesses a healthy understanding of morality that draws its strength, not from a mélange of modernist influences, but from the good, old-fashioned Hebrew Bible. These foundations lead him to advocate for a strong, just, and watchful America, equipped with the biggest stick it could fashion to keep the peace at home and abroad.
When Strauss succeeds in taking away Oppenheimer’s security clearance but loses his cabinet position confirmation after having challenged the revered scientist, we see him greet the news with quiet dignity. Then, he puts on a smile, opens the door, and walks out to a corridor teeming with reporters eager to document his very public humiliation. The smile, we suspect, is genuine: A true believer, he knows that he’s walking away with real convictions rooted in ancient realities, something much more rewarding than a government job.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.