Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s subtly crafted film interpretation of Kai Bird’s American Prometheus, offers a wealth of information for students of International Relations. The topic – the development of the atomic bomb – has been a chestnut of IR syllabuses for half a century. The moral dilemmas and international consequences of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a hotbed of every IR classroom discussion. Moreover, the world that followed, with the fear of the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), are recurring themes in the global teaching of international affairs. In this important film, Nolan dissects the controversial legacy of Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), as ‘father of the atomic bomb’. In 1943, at the invitation of General Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon), Oppenheimer takes over the directorship of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the site of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, which is preparing an atomic bomb. As Nolan shows, Oppenheimer was initially driven by moral concerns. As for how he overcame his initial dilemma, as a Jewish man he deeply feared the outcome if the Nazis developed a weapon with such a lethal capability. In doing so he overcame the initial moral reluctance of the scholars, and no doubt the younger Oppenheimer, like everyone else, was swept up by the frenzied pace of historical events.
However, after Hitler’s defeat, Oppenheimer still helped plant the bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, now believing it would quickly end the horrific war in the Pacific, and (naively) the concept of war itself . As Nolan shows, the reluctant physicist turned to nuclear weapons. Now we know that scholars have criticized the argument that the bombs hastened Japan’s surrender. Some historians and IR experts suggest that the real turning point was the threat of a Soviet invasion. Certainly, as this film shows, Oppenheimer’s utopian vision was challenged by fellow scientists like Edward Teller (played by Benny Safdie) and even by the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.) , which is an ever more destructive H-bomb. Predictably, this was completely out of proportion to anything the world had ever seen – much less necessary. Deterrence had quickly become a game of nuclear destructive power. This filled Oppenheimer with personal anguish and regret.
IR students will then be able to see how these global issues played out against the self-destruction of a brilliant scientist and the gruesome character assassination of his entire family circle. The large searchlights of the American security apparatus quickly beamed into the house of the silent scientist. Now Oppenheimer opposed the subsequent nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. Predictably, he encountered the equally formidable weapon of American political oppression – namely anti-communist hysteria. The Great State went looking for Oppenheimer’s skeletons. Oppenheimer soon fell victim to his personal ties to the Communist Party, through so-called “Commy camp followers” such as his brother Frank (played by Dylan Arnold), wife Kitty (played by Emily Blunt), and ex-lover Jean Tatlock (played by by Florence Pugh). There was a huge security file generated by state spies poking around in the scientists’ personal lives. All this caused enormous public humiliation for a character prone to psychosis and lifelong mental health problems.
IR instructors will marvel at how well the film is deftly constructed to help the audience understand on an intellectual level the breakthrough that led the protagonist to see himself as the ‘Death, Destroyer of Worlds’ of the Hindu scriptures. It provides excellent material for class discussion of the moral debate over nuclear weapons, as the film beautifully teases an unprecedented conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (played by Tom Conti). The explosion of the A-bomb, during its first test in the New Mexico desert, exudes the primal force that led Oppenheimer to see himself as a kind of “American Prometheus” (as in Nolan’s 2005 biography). Nolan’s A-bomb is miraculous, reminding IR instructors that the atomic bomb was resolutely seen at the time as an achievement and not a nightmare. So, inside Oppenheimer. a man’s private, internal and political lives are openly laid bare, each a luminous part of the inherent contradiction that defines a man’s soul.
We also get a good sense of IR history from this film. Chronological timelines are processed visually through the use of color and black and white films. We are immersed in the Trinity Tests and the Second World War through brilliant color, while the post-war era is in contrast archival black and white. The most important event is the Trinity nuclear test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, when Oppenheimer is said to have reflected (and later sung) on Vishnu’s lines from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Later in the 1950s, the film revisits him as a disillusioned, helpless official, hunted by the McCarthyites for his communist connections. We are quickly reminded that even the most momentous events in global history are ultimately (in their creation) someone’s painful private history. This in turn raises dilemmas for us as IR scholars, regarding the mutual territories of private and public IR.
Perhaps the film’s pivotal moment is its depiction of the legendary postwar meeting in the White House Oval Office between Oppenheimer and President Harry Truman (played by Gary Oldman), who made the executive decision to drop the bomb. Nolan and Murphy hint that the inventor is asking for absolution from the president, muttering that he feels like he has “blood on his hands.” Truman, in a rather priestly gesture, immediately takes full responsibility as president and ponders: Does Oppenheimer think the Japanese care who made the bomb? As IR researchers, then, we see how private, internal, and political lives interact, as destruction and hubris fuel a relentless logic (literally) of a chain reaction.
French filmmaker François Truffaut argued that “war films, even pacifist ones, even the best ones, willingly or not, glorify war and somehow make it attractive.” This is perhaps why Nolan does not show the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so that we as viewers are spared our own dilemmas. We are subtly transported from the phantasmagoric prowess of Oppenheimer’s physics to the realization that the Cold War really began before the Second World War was over – it was always there, shaping the bizarre but ubiquitous paranoia of atomic bomb politics. We see Oppenheimer contraindicated as the ruthless nuclear fanatic and Oppenheimer as the mystical idealist who merges. And we see that the race to complete the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, proved beyond doubt that the nuclear age had arrived. This is IR history presented in one brilliant tableau for discussion.
Writing about Christopher Nolan Oppenheimer Thomas Gaulkin makes important revelations for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. First, the history of the Bulletin is inextricably linked to the history of the making of the atomic bomb, not least because Oppenheimer himself was the first chairman of the Bulletin’s Sponsorship Board. Many of the other major scientific figures depicted in the film also served as early sponsors of the Bulletin (including Albert Einstein and Edward Teller). His second revelation is that each inventor becomes less and less important as time goes by. However, by changing the world for the scientist, events take their own power and set their own course in IR history.
OppenheimerWe must realize that the film is Nolan’s prismatic psychological study of one man’s human choices and struggles, and not a history of the bomb. To that extent, this film can only offer a personal vignette. It is only a sketch of the vast, ever-evolving subject of nuclear weapons in international relations. It’s just a cameo shot from a story that has its own indefinite nuclear half-life and that possesses more primal energy than any human, even one as brilliant as Oppenheimer. This is a reminder of the larger tapestry of contemporary international relations.
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