Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Presbyterian film critic: ‘Oppenheimer’ draws cautionary lessons from the Bible and other ancient texts

Dr. Edward McNulty explains what makes Christopher Nolan’s film a must-see

by Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Jake Hills via Unsplash

Editor’s note: Last week we presented this article by the Rev. Emily Enders Odom on how Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center worked with the makers of the film “Oppenheimer” to create at the PC(USA)-related facility what Los Alamos, New Mexico, looked like during the early- and mid-1940s. Today, Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian pastor and longtime film critic, reviews Christopher Nolan’s film.

Just as Christians divide history according to the birth of Christ, so we might divide modern history by another birth, July 16, 1945 —BAB and AAB, Before the Atom Bomb and After the Atom Bomb. The test, named “Trinity” by Robert Oppenheimer because he loved the poetry of John Donne, produced a new world, one in which humanity could possibly destroy itself. A dangerous era was born, one that could not be revoked. Christopher Nolan’s massive film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, shows how the scientist that presided over Trinity clearly understood this. His obsession with how the A-bomb would be used after the war even led to his professional undoing. In some ways, this scientific thriller can be viewed as a cautionary film.

Irish actor Cillian Murphy gets his opportunity to display his full thespian talents in the role of Robert Oppenheimer, the troubled, sometimes arrogant scientist selected by the Army to oversee the Manhattan Project. It remains somewhat of a mystery why General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) chose a scientist who lacked a Nobel Prize and who had never been in charge of a large project. Somehow the right chemistry developed so that Groves was willing to lay aside Oppenheimer’s far leftist views and connections with the Communist Party. The country was at war, and it was imperative that the USA build an atom bomb before the Nazis.

Nolan delves into the private life of the physicist. We see that early on the physicist and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) were lovers. Jean, studying to be a psychiatrist, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. So was Oppenheimer’s brother Frank (Dylan Arnold). The woman that Robert eventually marries, Kitty (Emily Blunt), was also a member of the Communist Party for a while, and Oppenheimer was a supporter of the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Thus, even before Oppenheimer was chosen to head the scientific staff of the Los Alamos Project, the ever-suspicious FBI was watching the scientist and building a file on him.

Oppenheimer’s story is not told chronologically. Nolan juxtaposes several time frames, the major one at Los Alamos in color focusing upon the Los Alamos laboratory whose location Oppenheimer personally selected because of his love of New Mexico dating back many years, and a timeline in the Fifties after the war when Atomic Energy Commissioner Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) was working hard to destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation by getting his security clearance revoked — and then, because of Oppenheimer’s success, failing to secure a Cabinet position in President Eisenhower’s administration because of that. Nolan switches back and forth from color to crisp black and white.

We also see Oppie, as his friends called him, back in the pre-war days as a student. He was so upset by the harsh treatment of a Cambridge professor that he decided to wreak vengeance by injecting cyanide poison into an apple and leaving it on the teacher’s desk. The next day visiting scientist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) picks up the apple and Oppenheimer barely manages to grab it and dispose of it before the physicist can bite into it. Oppenheimer finishes his PhD in Germany, where he meets quantum physics expert Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer) and accepts teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. This is where t meets Jean Tatlock, the two romancing and then parting (she would die by suicide a few years later). Attracted to Katherine “Kitty” Puening, he begins a romance even though she is married, and after she obtains a Reno divorce, they marry. When they move to the barren Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project, she increasingly turns to alcohol to get through her unexciting days, her husband consumed for long hours with managing the project.

Even though we know how the project turned out, director Nolan maintains suspense throughout the Manhattan Project segment. Oppenheimer is like a circus ringmaster dealing with world-renowned scientists used to having their own way and often competing with one another. Several of them have Nobel prizes, which Oppenheimer lacks. However, his genius at managing and reconciling competing interests is vital for the complex project’s success. He and Groves clash at times, but the general is well aware of Oppenheimer’s talent. To the military man, only Oppenheimer can steer the unruly crew of scientists to success.

Oppenheimer and many of the scientists were Jews, and thus very concerned that Hitler’s scientists (among whom was Heisenberg, whom Oppenheimer had met during his student days in Germany) might be able to build a nuclear bomb first. After Germany’s defeat, the American scientists continue feverishly to finish the bomb, the targets switching to Japan. The military, having suffered many casualties in the seizures of occupied Pacific islands, knew that Japanese soldiers would die rather than surrender, and that the civilian population also was being trained to fight invaders to the death. Estimates of casualties of an invasion varied, but all were high — several hundred thousand Allied troops and millions of Japanese — so those in favor of dropping a bomb on a city argued that far more lives would be saved by the bomb’s use than would be during an invasion.

We see how Oppenheimer coped with the many problems during the Project, winning the loyalty of the staff and encouraging them to work the long hours required. The actual testing of the bomb is very dramatic, the scientists aware that there was a tiny chance that the bomb might set off a chain reaction with the earth’s atmosphere, causing a planet-wide conflagration. When Oppenheimer responds to the worried Gen. Groves about this, that odds of this are very tiny, Groves responds that he’d prefer them to be zero. For a moment when everything is enveloped in a blinding white light, there is a moment of fear that the conflagration is happening, but as they stay alive and hear and feel the shock wave, their fear turns to awe as the boiling cloud surges tens of thousands of feet into the air. It is then that Oppenheimer says or thinks the famous phrase from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The staff release their pent-up anxiety and tension in a celebration proclaiming their victory. Word of the success is sent immediately to President Truman, who is meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. There is no mention of the fact that Stalin already knew of the success through Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham) who was a physicist working on the Manhattan Project.

With Trinity a success, some of the scientists argued that a warning should be given and a bomb be dropped in an uninhabited place in the hope of persuading the Japanese government to surrender. To General Grove’s displeasure, these scientists try to send a petition to Truman, though without Oppenheimer’s endorsement. The latter had no regrets about using the bomb, but he did become aware of the danger of an arms race after the war and believed that its further development should be constrained. He obtains a meeting with Truman (Gary Oldman), but before he can present his argument, he so angers the president by his “blood on my hands” statement that Truman breaks off the meeting and commands that the “crybaby” never again be allowed in the White House.

Unlike the other film about the Manhattan Project, “Fat Man and Little Boy,” Nolan’s film continues the story of the scientist through his conflict with Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) over the development of the H-Bomb and the government’s plans for building a nuclear arsenal rather than seeking international control. The world setting is now the Cold War, which fuels a fanatical anti-communism in the U.S., epitomized by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his reckless anti-communist crusade. Although Strauss recruits Oppenheimer as director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, his suspicion of the scientist’s communist ties lead him to seek the revocation of the latter’s security clearance. This segment become in effect a courtroom drama in which former colleague Edward Teller testifies against him. Strauss, we see, will later pay a price for this, and the film ends with a semi-rehabilitation of the physicist and his engaging conversation with Alfred Einstein (Tom Conti).

Nolan as writer/director delivers one of the most insightful film biographies ever made. Both he and actor Cillian Murphy should prepare themselves for the Oscar buzz that surely awaits them later this year and next. The viewpoint of the film is mainly that of its chief character, so we should not be surprised that it presents a conflict in its account of the morality of the atomic bomb — that dropping it was necessary to save lives on both sides of the war, and that opposing its further use and development was necessary because of its threat to humankind. Oppenheimer was both proud of the accomplishment of Los Alamos and yet harbored a sense of guilt over what he and his colleagues had unleashed. Like Pandora’s box, he knew that one cannot close the box and go on as if nothing had happened. Thus, as stated earlier, the film, like the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, is a cautionary film as well as biographical one.

Photo by GR Stocks via Unsplash

It is interesting to see a number of women among the Los Alamos staff. We might wish that Nolan had dealt with this a little more, as I wondered how these female scientists were treated by their male colleagues. Did they face some of the same prejudice and ignorance that the Black women “computers” were subjected to in “Hidden Figures”? Also, I wonder if there were any Black men and women working at the desert lab, at any level, as there were at Oak Ridge and Hanford.

For people of faith, Oppenheimer’s mixture of faiths should be of interest. He was not a practicing Jew, very different from his adversary, Edward Strauss, who was a leader in his synagogue. He was familiar enough with Gandhi’s favorite Hindu scriptures The Bhagavad Gita that a line of it sprang to his conscious at the climax of the Trinity test. And he had long been a reader of works by Christian poet John Donne. Apparently, he was inspired by the poet’s “Holy Sonnet 14” so that he named the test of the Bomb “Trinity,” the poem’s first line being “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you…” The issues that he wrestled with still confront us — whether to maintain or to abolish our nuclear arsenals and to confine atomic research within narrow national boundaries or to share it freely among scientists of all nations. The latter is complicated by military control and its need for secrecy based upon the fear of what others might do. Just as there are no easy answers to the question of whether or not it was necessary to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so there are none for these questions. Yet is important that we keep discussing them Christopher Nolan’s film makes an important contribution to such a discussion.

Dr. Edward McNulty

For more on African American scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, go here.

Dr. Edward McNulty, a semi-retired Presbyterian minister, was for many years the film critic for Presbyterians Today. He has been posting weekly film reviews at his Visual Parables site for 32 years. His three Westminster John Knox film books are “Faith & Film,” “Praying the Movies” and “Praying the Movies II.” His newest book is “Jesus Christ: Movie Star.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.