Oppenheimer— A Modern Morality Play

Oppenheimer— A Modern Morality Play July 25, 2023

This is in some ways, an epic of epic proportions.  It is frankly too long, but it raises such an important question, namely whether there is any justification for using weapons of mass destruction that do not discriminate between combatants and innocent citizens, even in a lesser of two evils situation, that one must be content to sit and watch this painful long drama a bit at a time.  I will talk about the film below, but first I would like you to watch not merely a trailer, but an actual CBS interview with Robert Oppenheimer in 1965.

The movie is in fact three hours long, like some of the war epics of my youth– like The Longest Day.  And also like that film many movie stars wanted to be in this one, not least because Christopher Nolan has a reputation for making remarkable and intelligent films.  In this one you get Robert Downey Jr. as a mean old man. you get Matt Damon as a tough as nails Army officer, you get Emily Blunt as a loyal wife, even when Oppenheimer was not always faithful to her, you get Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, you get Rami Malek as a supportive scientist,  Tom Conti as a believable Einstein and of course Cillian Murphy as the main man in the film.   The part of the film that was definitely too long was the grilling of Oppenheimer after the war by a committee under the influence of McCarthyism looking to pin the communist label on Robert Oppenheimer.   On the other hand the ending juxtaposition of that committee and the Senate committee charged with deciding whether to make Lewis Strauss secretary of commerce was brilliantly done.   There are some interesting and famous lines in this film– for example the explanation as to why the building of the atomic bomb was called the Trinity (as well as the Manhattan) project.  It was because of John Donne’s famous poem about the Trinity whose opening line is ‘batter my heart three-personed God….’   the other famous line comes from the Sanskrit of the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita ‘ Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds’ which Oppenheimer applied to himself.   This is a saying of Lord Krishna explaining that Time is the destroyer of all fleeting things.  Time conquers all.

My wife quite rightly complained that for as long as the movie is, and as meritorious as it is in raising all the deep moral problems with creating nuclear weapons,  it did not spend enough time explaining the science, or showing the laboratory work on plutonium etc. that led to the creation of the bomb.  There were some brief discussions about fission and fusion but not enough to enlighten the audience, so they could really understand what all those physicists were debating.   In the end, I think it is fair to say that Oppenheimer did not deserve to lose his security clearance, didn’t deserve to be smeared as a communist, when in fact he loved America and was a loyal American trying to help end the war with less loss of life, not more.  He was a good example of what happens when you are caught between a rock and a hard place, and you must choose a lesser of two evils course  of action about a major world-shaking decision.  His moral calculus was good on those large issues, but definitely not in his personal life, being unfaithful to more than one wife, including Kitty who stood by him through thick and thin.  And while we are at it– we didn’t need the actual nude scenes of Oppenheimer with his lover (who committed suicide when he completely shut down the adulterous relationship), not once but twice.  It really added nothing to the film, and was unnecessary. This latter is why the film got an R rating, and rightly so.

All in all, however this is one of the most powerful films you are ever likely to see about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and about the sin of pride of brilliant scientists who are much too confident and cocky about being able to keep things in check while handling a power that can indeed destroy our world.

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