Oppenheimer, the Hero? Selling America by the Trinitrotoluene Ton

Photograph Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory – https://about.lanl.gov/history-innovation/badges/

As a physicist and baby boomer whose parents both served in World War II, I had to see Christopher Nolan’s cinematic creation about one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic figures, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the self-styled Destroyer of Worlds known as Oppie to most. Having seen the 1980 BBC miniseries on the Manhattan Project with Sam Waterston, read numerous books on the mysterious workings at Los Alamos, and taught quantum mechanics (the same subject Oppie first taught), I knew a bit of his story, but I was keen to see how Hollywood depicted what some consider the defining moment of modern history, of which Oppie was lead architect. I should have known better. At least they got the physics right.

The figures for Hiroshima and Nagasaki are well known in all their statistical horror – 34 kilotons of TNT, 68,000 buildings destroyed, 170,000 people dead (10,000 per square mile) from two 1,800-foot “air bursts.” Some of the hundreds of thousands of surviving hibakusha were so badly disfigured they would never again show themselves in public or have children because of the fear of birth defects. Not that such horror is shown in Oppenheimer the movie as the human consequences of detonating an atomic bomb are oddly neutered throughout.

Oppenheimer is not about a bomb or the destruction of two cities at the end of a war. It’s about the rise, fall, and rise of its creator, ever tormented at the hands of a divided American political class. Is he a Red? A security risk? Is he a reformed anti-war activist? Nobody knows, the dichotomy of his persona presented on par with the duality of energy and matter, spectacle and reality, life and death. The movie excelled in turning destruction into victory, Oppie’s victory, while the bomb becomes essentially a $2-billion McGuffin exploded two-thirds in.

And so for two hours we get a biopic of the man who oversaw the building of a bomb, followed by some prosecutorial drama between Lewis Strauss, the head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, the pronunciation of whose name is whimsically dramatized. Strauss orchestrated Oppie’s downfall by having his security clearance renewal denied in 1954 amid a growing Cold War of “missile gaps” and “Red scares.” All because Oppie was against developing the “Super,” which could unearth even more destruction from the unseen mysteries of matter (a more powerful fusion H-bomb detonated by an already well-developed fission A-bomb). Oppie’s undoing may have started at a 1949 General Advisory Committee meeting after he stated that the destructive power of the H-bomb is unlimited and that such a “weapon of genocide … should never be produced.”[1] Could sanity prevail after the madness, mass destruction, and horrors of world war? Maybe curses could be returned to Pandora’s box. Maybe Prometheus could be freed. Unfortunately, the possibility of a non-nuclear world doesn’t look good in digital detail.

In the preface to the 2005 book upon which the movie is based, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppie’s answer to nuclear annihilation is to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. Yet the movie is more interested in Oppie’s political comeuppance than exploring any Faustian bargain. Enrico Fermi says nothing, while Niels Bohr gets one memorable line, “New world. New Weapons,” and little else. The movie and book both consider Oppie’s maltreatment as the unique selling point. American exceptionalism is delivered via technical superiority and political infighting without a depiction of mass carnage or real victims.

In truth, many scientists were opposed to the use of atomic weapons. Often called the Father of the Bomb because of his famous energy-matter equation and 1939 letter to Roosevelt, Einstein said, “Had I known the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”[2] He also sent a second letter to Roosevelt dated March 25, 1945, about the lack of contact between scientists and the government, but FDR died before he could read it. Einstein would spend the rest of his life campaigning for arms control, reduced militaries, and a “supernational” security authority.

Fermi wanted the focus after the war to shift from making weapons to peaceful aims, hoping “to devote more and more activity to peaceful purposes and less and less to the production of weapons.”[3] Bohr even met FDR to talk about “atomic diplomacy” with the Soviets and limit the escalation of a coming new conflict in an unholy arms race, shelved by Winston Churchill. And so the bomb-making spree began, estimated at $5 trillion for the US and likely as much or more for the Soviets in the decades of insanity that followed. Imagine $10 trillion spent on Shiva’s other incarnations?

Okay, that’s what Oppenheimer wasn’t about, so what is it about? The three hours did pass by quickly, so I must have been entertained despite an often-intrusive musical score. Part battle between the boffins and the brass. Could the head military honcho General Leslie Groves control the supposed free-thinking lefty scientists like Oppie, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard to deliver the bomb before the Nazis and afterwards when their consciences returned in peacetime? It’s one thing to build a doomsday machine to deter future aggression that can never be used, but a whole other world-ending deal to use it. Could Oppie and Co. be controlled after their nuclear toolmaking was over?

Part stargazing. Matt Damon was suitably gruff as the pragmatic Groves, more socially maladroit than the suave on-screen Oppenheimer played by Cillian Murphy, although the gruff Groves oddly turned to mumbles in 1956 about the horror of ground zero, including the effects of lingering radiation and the pain of living with mutated genes. The real Groves grimly stated that an atomic blast was “a very pleasant way to die.”[4] Okay, blockbusters don’t do ugly, so instead we get Groves bullying a recalcitrant scientist who expressed doubts about the project: “How about because this is the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world?” Arrogant, gruff, and cinematic fiction. Artistic license.

Was Oppenheimer an anti-war movie? That rendering is problematic when so much screen time is dedicated to building the bomb, while no scenes of real people dying are shown, the ultimate reality of the biggest-ever effing weapon of mass destruction. Nor are there scenes of arms talks, protest marches, or a ticking Doomsday Clock? Millions of people were and are against nuclear weapons, not just the mute master-creator.

Was Oppenheimer serious about arms reduction as suggested by the black-and-white versus colour temporal jumps to build up, tear down, and reconstruct Oppie’s supposed activist credentials? That possibility gets lost in the conflated spectacle of personal redemption within an odious political culture, Oppie unstuck in time like poor Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s book was based on the real fire-bombing of Dresden, six months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where Vonnegut as a POW survived. Anti-war on every page. In Oppenheimer, however, we get Oppie’s pain as he is tortured over and over again. You can almost see his liver being pecked out.

Oppenheimer is a movie about vendettas and settling scores. Oppie versus Strauss, Oppie versus Groves (somewhat), Oppie versus Truman (and the military-industrial complex), and the US v. Germany, Japan, and Russia. Japan paid for Pearl Harbor. They were always going to pay, even if the goal of the Manhattan Project was to beat Germany to the bomb. Exonerated and yet humiliated at the same time, Oppie is cut down to size by Gary Oldman’s Harry Truman, who says to him in the Oval Office, “You think anyone in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, gives a shit who built the bomb? They care who dropped it. I did.” That is, the United States, just or unjust.

Forget the misfit prophet versus establishment theme as in genius Mozart versus jealous Salieri. Ditto overcoming personal doubts about the harm caused in life and death. Not when an old lover’s suicide is made out to be more important than the hundreds of thousands who perished on August 6 and 9.

Redemption of a reputation? How can a Destroyer of Worlds’ reputation be redeemed? In From Faust to Strangelove, Roslynn Haynes noted that physicists could no longer be considered innocents after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their moral superiority questioned as was “their ability to initiate a new, peaceful society.”[5] Indeed, we still have wars despite the weapons (roughly 12,500 nuclear weapons at last count[6]). Physics may be to blame in all its rock-turning obsession, aided by unlimited government spending.

Are we meant to see ourselves in a flawed Destroyer of Worlds’ life? In America’s flaws? We are all post-war tech children now, controlled by so much military cum commercial material: transistors, microwaves, the internet (AI robot drone delivery vehicles coming soon). Much of the science and engineering of today comes from military development. We are children of the bomb, but how can we be faulted other than by some artificially manufactured sin?

Alas, tools always get used. And so 12,500 theoretically impotent yet real world-destroyers await their eventual use. As a former US air force ICBM operator noted, “a good day in nuclear missile operations is a quiet one,” which fortunately for him and us most days were.[7] I don’t want to know about a bad day. Was that Nolan’s message? – nuclear annihilation is inevitable unless we do something. Even in a sanitized spectacle that denies real pain.

Oppenheimer didn’t dare to explore the reasons behind dropping atomic bombs on two cities in a country where the war was essentially over: revenge, arrogance, and superiority. That movie would be called Black Rain, showing how one can be more than intellectually opposed to killing. That Oppie had more than just figurative blood on his hands. The wrong Greek myth was employed. The wrong script.

Indeed, Oppenheimer suffers from the same criticism levelled by the anti-war wife of a buddy of Kurt Vonnegut’s in Slaughterhouse-Five, which he then turns into the theme of his book. Nolan needed a Mary O’Hare to tell him that war is not glory. It never is. That no one’s reputation can be redeemed by mass destruction. As Mary accuses him in the introduction: “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

What a waste to rationalize the horrors of the nuclear era in one man’s rise and fall and rise? Or to glorify making enemies of friends? Or to measure human progress and security in megatons of unusable TNT? Oppie the hero? All that was missing was the cape. “So it goes.”


[1] Baggott, J., Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atomic Bomb, p. 456, Icon Books, London, 2019.

[2] Isaacson, W., Einstein: His Life and Universe, p. 485, Simon & Schuster, London, 2007.

[3] Fermi, E., “Discovery of fission,” American Institute of Physics, 1952.

[4] “US Congress, Senate, Special Committee on Atomic Energy,” 79th Congress, Washington, D.C., November 1945.

[5] Haynes, R.D., From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature, p. 303, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1994.

[6] “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, June 2023.

[7] Smith, C., “I was a US nuclear missile operator. I’m grateful for the Oppenheimer film,” The Guardian, July 24, 2023.

John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: johnkingstonwhite@gmail.com