Has Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' erred by ignoring atomic bomb victims?

Bivash Mukherjee
Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" is winning praise for its cinematic brilliance, yet it may have erred by turning a blind eye to the pain of atomic bomb victims.
Bivash Mukherjee

Christopher Nolan's latest work, "Oppenheimer," is probably his most direct, straightforward narrative film to date.

The celebrated American director, whose credits include "Interstellar," "Tenet," "Mememto" and the Batman series, is known for his rather unconventional and nonlinear approach to filmmaking, often prompting a revisit to the theaters for a second watch. But even if "Oppenheimer" traverses between different layers, jumping frantically between time and space, spectacular imagery, and incessant talk, it is surprisingly easy to comprehend.

The biopic deals with a complex, flawed character roped in by the US Army to take charge of the secretive mission, code-named the Manhattan Project. Their task was to build atomic bombs. Where the film fails is in glossing over a very difficult phase in history and its inability to address the wider and more pressing challenges of our times.

Shockingly, there is not a single Japanese in Nolan's frame, and his assertion that his sole interest lies in Oppenheimer, "the most important person who ever lived," does not cut much ice. Imagine "Schindler's List" without the Holocaust victims!

Has Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' erred by ignoring atomic bomb victims?

Should the quantum physicist be revered as a heroic figure, or should he be seen for what he really is: an ambitious, misguided individual who collaborated with some of the best scientific minds of the century to deliver the world's first weapon of mass destruction?

With catastrophic results.

Oppenheimer lived in an era of war, but the casualties and horrors of the wars are barely mentioned in the film. An estimated 200,000 people – about 100,000 in an instant – perished in the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but clearly, that is of no interest to Nolan, who reduces them to a mere historical footnote.

In one of the most insensitive moments in the film, Oppenheimer now hailed as the "father of the atomic bomb," nonchalantly tells his cheering colleagues, "I'll bet the Japanese didn't like it." Probably realizing the sensitivity of the moment, Nolan throws in a charred body at the foot of his protagonist, suggesting a possible change of heart.

The film then casually flips through the consequences of building an atomic bomb and returns to Hollywood's obsession with cliches and high drama.

In the end, we have a blackboard-scribbling, chain-smoking theoretical physicist (Cillian Murphy) who is uncharacteristically naive, marries one woman while spending time with another, and is a linguist who also organizes labor unions.

Then there is the jealous and power-hungry official (a brilliant Robert Downey Jr) bent on bringing down America's new hero, the good army men (Matt Damon), and the tiresome Senate and Committee hearings that prioritize ideological discussions over scientific discourse.

That is not surprising given that Oppenheimer lived during the dreaded McCarthy era, when men of intelligence and suspected communists were hounded out, browbeaten and broken.

All these add to the desired dramatic effect – and Nolan is a master at that – yet it feels that the American director, or Hollywood per se, may have missed a great opportunity to reflect on the horrors of nuclear wars, given that the world we find ourselves in today is far from the peaceful and pacifist society we had envisioned after the tragic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The film instead chooses to sympathize with Oppenheimer, who, despite his intellect and genius, is, for all documented purposes, a war criminal.

"Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds ..."

This is how Oppenheimer is said to have reacted to the atomic bomb test in 1945, invoking the sacred shloka, or verse, from the ancient Indian scripture, the Bhagwad Gita. Nolan, however, refers to it early in the film with his protagonist engaged in intense sexual activity. Talk of heightened cinematic effect!

You do, of course, hear the shloka in the later part of the film.

Nevertheless, as early reports of catastrophic scenes in Japan pour in, a remorseful Oppenheimer, in a meeting with President Harry S Truman, laments that he has blood on his hands. The president calls him a crybaby and shuts the door on him!

Thereafter, the film takes on a completely different trajectory – the mundane Senate and commission hearings – thereby losing its purpose and becoming largely irrelevant.

Nolan has tried to justify that he wanted to stay close to the book, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," on which the film is based.

"Everything is his experience, or my interpretation of his experience. Because as I keep reminding everyone, it's not a documentary. It is an interpretation. That's my job," Nolan has been quoted as saying by NBC Insider. "The feeling for me as a filmmaker was very strongly that to depart from Oppenheimer's experience would betray the terms of the storytelling."

Has Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' erred by ignoring atomic bomb victims?

American director Christopher Nolan

That argument does not hold much water. How can Oppenheimer be excused for the death and destruction caused by his act? It was ambition, no less, that prompted him to take up the job. In fact, he was nearly its spokesman and shrugged away colleagues who warned him of the consequences of building the atomic bomb.

The fact is, Oppenheimer wanted the bomb to be used, though he had hoped it would be against Nazi Germany. He steadfastly argued that using it would end all wars.

"They won't fear it until they understand it," Oppenheimer says in the film. "And they won't understand it until they've used it. When the world learns the terrible secret of Los Alamos, our work will ensure a peace mankind has never seen …"

That's obviously not how things unfolded. Instead, it sparked an arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, two countries that had been wartime allies but were wary of each other. The triumphant Americans, showing little or no remorse, returned to Asia in just over five years – in the 1950s in South Korea and then in the late sixties in Vietnam, raining down over 380,000 tons of napalm in Indochina alone. Napalm's most recent use was during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Clearly, as long as civilizations exist on this planet, conflicts, in their most primitive form, will likely be inevitable. The erudite Oppenheimer would probably have known that.

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