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In Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan has taken the meticulously researched seven-hundred-page book American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, and rendered it into his best film yet. Bird and Sherwin’s Robert J. Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” is a Wilsonian and a humanitarian with an intellectual interest in the “mystic East.” But Nolan’s Oppenheimer is something more: He is a dreamer, a man who smokes more than he sleeps because he is neurotically driven to lift the veil and see into the black hole at the center of being. He is a mystic. But he is also a tragic figure. Driven by an epic desire for knowledge, he brings into the world a tool that is ultimately wrested from him by the greedy and the powerful. In other words, Nolan gives us a story that revives the spirit of the pure tragedy of ancient Greece. 

In line with the book, Nolan gives us a cosmopolitan, polyglot, literary, Picasso-viewing Oppenheimer, who quotes Donne, reads The Wasteland at night, rides horses through the New Mexican desert, teaches himself Sanskrit, talks international politics, and reads Marx in the original. Bird and Sherwin also provide a judicious portrait of a psychologically complicated man, one whom Cillian Murphy captures well. With his wide-open, vacant blue eyes but wistful mouth, he captures the man of paradox: at times ambitious, vain, brilliant, moody, affectionate, modest, bold, winning, off-putting, and timid. Oppenheimer was a dynamic leader, but he was also emotionally absent. He could seduce a woman by presenting himself as bold and confident, but was, at the same time, unstable. He needed his friends to remind him to eat, to keep his wiry frame alive, and he needed strong women to tell him what to do. Bird and Sherwin quote Oppenheimer's friend Isidor Rabi: “God knows I'm not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I'm very, very simple.”

In addition to this complicated psychological portrait, Nolan employs a Terrence Malick–inspired cinematography to great effect. Just after the opening frames of the swirling fire of the explosion from the Trinity test in 1945, the first detonation of a nuclear bomb, we have scenes of rainwater falling on puddles—a recurring image throughout the film. There are wide-angle views of the New Mexican desert; sudden cuts to naturalistic close-ups; imagery of stars melting or dying. Visual techniques that evoke Malick's Tree of Life allow us to go “inside” the mind of Oppenheimer, where we “see” the inner life of the atom, and “feel” the pulse of the quantum fields that make up material reality at the most fundamental level. This is one of the great accomplishments of Nolan: All the ingredients are in Bird and Sherwin’s work, but only Nolan allows us to view the inner essence of the world through Oppenheimer's visionary eyes and feel what it would be like to be a genius for 180 minutes. 

Nolan adds to Bird and Sherwin's narrative a heightened note of prophetic caution. In 1954, during Oppenheimer’s four-week security hearing, prompted by concerns that he posed a security risk, the prosecutor aggressively questions him on his apparent inconsistency: How could he not support the development of the hydrogen bomb after he had himself developed the atomic bomb? Where did these new moral scruples come from? Nolan's Oppenheimer responds: “When I realized we would use whatever technology we had.” If Bird and Sherwin give us a portrait of a humanitarian who tried to put the genie back in the bottle through international diplomacy, Nolan gives us a darker picture, a picture of technological determinism. 

In other words, Nolan's Oppenheimer is larger than life. Like Ahab, he is driven to see the foundations of the world, a mortal entangled in superhuman forces. This is pure tragedy. Oppenheimer is motivated by a mystic impulse, which, nevertheless, culpably lets him turn a blind eye to how his creation would be used and its attendant human cost. 

After the vertiginously intense lead-up to the Trinity test countdown, the bomb does indeed go off. The anxious strings in the background music go mute, and we have only the blinding visual images accompanied by the heavy breathing of Murphy. After such an anxious build-up, the silence is deafening. The 10,000-foot column of fire and light is beautiful—like something out of Exodus—and all stare at the numinous epiphany in dazzled admiration. But the scientists and soldiers are unprepared for what follows: the shockwave that arrives (one hundred seconds later). This windstorm brings debris and noise, knocking over everyone who had been, seconds before, enjoying the light. The scene functions as a visual symbol for the whole film.

A second powerful scene depicts the Bacchic celebration of the Los Alamos community after the successful test: screaming, heavy drinking, dancing, kissing. All the hard work paid off. But Nolan undermines the enthusiasm. Oppenheimer must give a speech before a screaming, intoxicated crowd of admirers and utter jingoistic truisms to his flag-waving, ululating fans. He offers a few nationalistic platitudes with great difficulty, suffering an inner agony. The sound mutes, again, and Oppenheimer has a “vision” in which the makeshift gym trembles uneasily, as if it were the target of the bomb; he sees again that pure, piercing light; he catches sight of faces melting off. It's a prophetic vision of what's to come for the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Oppenheimer has finally woken up from his self-induced, workaholic coma. As Einstein tells him, he will now have to face the consequences of his achievement.

Jason M. Baxter is a Visiting Associate Researcher at Notre Dame's de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. He is the author, most recently, of The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis.

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