Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”: A Symposium, Part I
“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”
— Bhagavad Gita
If you’ve lived your whole life with a gun to your head, do you even notice it’s there? For those of us who grew up long after the novelty of nuclear weapons had worn off, long after the bomb drills in schools, the Cuban missile crisis, and the explosion of Dionysian living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, we didn’t have to learn to stop worrying and love the bomb because we hadn’t worried much about it in the first place. The anxieties of my childhood were shaped more by Waco and Ruby Ridge than by Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Sure there was some concern that in the shattered remains of the Soviet Union some of the nukes had gotten up and walked away. Maybe a big city would be taken out by terrorists who smuggled in a dirty bomb. But we didn’t live in a big city, and the only kind of nuclear holocaust that would have affected us would have had to be carried by a state actor, namely Russia. Such were the blessings of living in the short peace at the end of history.
It took decades for Americans to get used to this fiery sword of Damocles hanging over our collective heads. The advent of the bomb had changed everything. The literature, music, social and sexual norms, everything was affected by the ambient tension of MAD (mutually assured destruction). The atmosphere described in those days was reminiscent of Isaiah 22:13 “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.” The father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer recounted in the 1965 NBC News documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb that “we knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed; a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” Destroying the world in a literal sense was a chief anxiety of the atomic age. Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” While the world has not (yet) been physically destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, the world that existed before the bomb was shattered when this terrible new technology made the leap from theory to practice.
The end of history didn’t last long, the nuclear anxiety is back. We had a taste of it during the period of North Korean belligerence shortly after Trump took office, but the war of worlds was brought to a touching end by President Trump and Respected Comrade Kim Jong-un, who learned to stop worrying and love each other. Now we find our deranged government fighting a proxy war against Russia on its border, a country with about 1,600 active deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Nuclear warheads that dwarf in power those devastating firecrackers dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Time has been a major theme in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre, and his sense of time for releasing a film about the father of the nuclear weapon could hardly be more prescient.
Christopher Nolan is something of an aberration in today’s technology-obsessed world. He writes his scripts on an old computer that has no internet connection and hand delivers the physical copies to his actors. He doesn’t have a smartphone, he regards them as a distraction. He doesn’t use computer-generated effects because he believes that they don’t grab the audience or make them feel danger in the way that practical effects do. And he and his cinematographer Van Hoytema shoot on actual film stock rather than digital cameras. On the set of Dunkirk, this technique turned out to be a godsend during the scene where a Spitfire fighter plane crashes into the English Channel. It is one of the most dramatic scenes, showing the pilot struggling to get out of the cockpit as it fills with water. The replica Spitfire that was used for the scene cost $5 million, and the IMAX camera about $1 million. During filming, the plane sank much faster than anyone anticipated and the camera sank with it, remaining submerged for more than 90 minutes while divers attempted to retrieve it. The soaked film inside was kept wet and flown immediately to the film lab where it was successfully developed. If Nolan had been using a digital camera, the entire effort would have been lost. This commitment to traditional ways of filmmaking is not just an endearing eccentricity on the part of Nolan, but an understanding that the medium and techniques an artist uses has an internal logic that governs the final product. By using the tried-and-true methods and media and remaining personally disconnected from the internet hive, Nolan has been able to continue putting out prestige films long after the rest of his field has devolved.
Nolan is a master of the filmmaking craft. What makes him such an extraordinary director is especially his ability to weave high-level concepts into human stories. His use of game theory in The Dark Knight was so well-applied that my university game theory professor would play scenes from the film to illustrate concepts such as the prisoner’s dilemma. For Interstellar, Nolan brought in CalTech theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Kip Thorne as an executive producer and scientific consultant. Recounting his work with Thorne, Nolan has made the point that the processes of physicists are not so different from those of writers and artists. Intuition, the feeling of understanding something is very important to physicists and affirms that no great discoveries are made by the process of reason alone. There is a mystical component to genius that goes beyond the material, along with the human dimensions of the geniuses themselves. It is the inclusion of these components that make Nolan’s treatment of scientific topics so compelling.
The basic story of Oppenheimer is that of a sensitive young man stumbling towards a terrible greatness. In Oppenheimer’s dealings with regular people, he comes off as naive. This inability to fully relate to average people or to ever really be understood by them is both a strength and a handicap. If he had really understood them, he would have likely been a lot more skeptical about handing them the bomb. In a scene taking place after the bombing of Hiroshima, where he addresses a rabid crowd of people who had worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, the camera cuts close, the faces of the audience swinish and bestial in appearance, and he suddenly realizes the gravity of what he’s done. The moral crisis for Oppenheimer was not the use of the bomb on a civilian population center — that was rationally justified when compared to the greater toll on both sides that an invasion of Japan’s home islands would incur. He explained many years later, “People hoped that it would […] put an end to the butchery that had been going on for many years […] murderous raids on cities, on Rotterdam and Dresden and Tokyo itself. I know only that I was told that an invasion would be necessary and it would be incredibly costly.” The moral crisis had to do with the fact that he had just put the most powerful weapon in the history of the world into the hands of ‘normies’. During the development of the bomb, he had taken for granted that men like himself (or future leaders like Donald Trump, for instance) would use it to avert war and usher in an era of peace and mutual cooperation. He had been tricked into becoming the alchemist of a cabal of freemasons who turned on him after he had unlocked the secret to the creation and destruction of primordial matter.
After an illness that left him unable to enter college on schedule, Oppenheimer went to New Mexico to build back his health. There are earth energies emanating from places across the state that are healing and raising consciousness — Taos even has an audible hum. The official nickname of New Mexico is “The Land of Enchantment”, and it enchanted the young Oppie. The other meaning of enchantment — that of alchemy/magic/spirituality/occultism — also applies to New Mexico. The geography, history, and nomenclature hint at a cosmological spiritual war: the city of Santa Fe (Holy Faith), the sacred mountains of Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) and Shiprock, the roads Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) and El Camino del Diablo (Devil’s Highway), to name just a few. Throughout his budding career Oppenheimer would frequently return to his ranch in New Mexico and spend time in the wilderness, traveling hundreds of miles by horseback and refilling himself in nature before returning to the scientific institutions to push the bounds of theoretical knowledge. For his greatest endeavor, the Manhattan Project, he would return to New Mexico, this time bringing the institutions to himself.
The portrayal of the Manhattan Project in Oppenheimer made me think about what I could achieve if I could gather the smartest people I know to live and work towards a single goal in a special place we selected. It reminded me that innovation concentrates in emerging fields not because there is no innovation to be done in established fields, but because established fields are imprisoned in byzantine webs of rules and regulations. In a scene in the film, General Leslie Groves, upon reviewing the new security guidelines, says that not only he would not have hired Oppenheimer based on the new security guidelines, we would not have been able to hire any of the principal figures involved in the Manhattan Project. This is a key point. America’s great technological projects have been led by outlaws and scalawags. Could Werner Von Braun get a security clearance today? Could a freak like Jack Parsons even get onto an Air Force base? I met a bright young woman during the GWOT who was well suited for intelligence work; she spoke Arabic fluently and was from an Iraqi family, but her clearance was turned down on the basis of her having worked as a cocktail waitress in college. The people in charge of reviewing her application found this to be too disreputable to allow for her clearance. The depiction of Oppenheimer’s clearance ordeal shouldn’t be interpreted as a slam on Senator McCarthy’s work in flushing communists out of the U.S. Government — McCarthy wasn’t involved in the case. Rather, it should be seen as an accurate depiction of what happens today with the way patriotic Americans are purged from military and intelligence organs.
The depiction of the manipulation of procedural outcomes in Oppenheimer is masterful, as is its treatment of the dawn of the atomic age. The personal foibles of its titular character remind us, “Brilliance makes up for a lot.” Well, the acting is brilliant. The cinematography is brilliant. The directing is brilliant. The story is brilliant. The film is brilliant. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is cinema at its best, and we should feel fortunate that we can witness it.