Become Death: On Christopher Nolan's “Oppenheimer”

By Paul ThompsonMarch 10, 2024

Become Death: On Christopher Nolan's “Oppenheimer”
THE EASY ARGUMENT is: Look at all this perfectly consumable pulp. It’s the Truffaut quote about how it’s impossible to make an anti-war film. It’s the US Navy putting the Top Gun script through rounds of rewrites, and the swarm of shrill but never incorrect Twitter users who lift the DOD fingerprints from the live-action versions of children’s comic book stories. (It’s the frame of The Dark Knight I inadvertently froze while taking notes for this essay that caused the person passing behind my computer to ask if it was 9/11 footage.) Why bother trying to interrogate American imperialism on-screen, this argument concludes, if being truly critical of it is industrially, perhaps even aesthetically, impossible?


In 1980, a man named Jon H. Else, who would go on to produce Henry Hampton’s renowned Civil Rights docuseries Eyes on the Prize (1987–90), win a MacArthur genius grant, and head the documentary program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, partnered with a public television station in San Jose to make his first film. The Day After Trinity, released in January 1981, pulls archival footage of the Manhattan Project base at Los Alamos—some of which had been classified until shortly before the film’s release—together with talking-head footage from dozens of physicists, mathematicians, soldiers, and New Mexicans who witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb in July 1945. It runs a little under an hour and a half and will make you want, at various points, to build your family a bomb shelter, scream in the face of a congressman, and do things I am too judicious to type into a surely discoverable Google Doc.

There are the high school kids who remember squinting at the gaunt men who toured their classrooms, comparing their faces to ones reproduced in their science textbooks; there are the ranchers who watched radioactive dust settle onto their cattle, burning their flesh until it was an unnatural white. (Another rancher saw his cat, previously “black as the ace of spades,” develop fine white polka dots all over its body. He would later sell the cat to tourists for five dollars.) Any account of the Trinity test notes that the explosive blast was visible from space. But on the ground in New Mexico, it was totalizing in ways that can’t be captured in satellite footage or on a seismograph. “We saw this great big flash of light,” a woman named Elizabeth Ingram remembers. “And my sister, she said, ‘What happened?’” At this point, Else interjects from off camera, “Was there anything odd about your sister asking about the light?” “Yes,” Ingram says, “because she was blind.”

The acute violence of the Trinity test, as captured and described in the documentary, is shocking, even—perhaps especially—to those who were taught in school about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan as a grim but necessary reality of war. But what’s even more striking about The Day After Trinity is the way Los Alamos is made to seem mundane. The GIs who hunted antelope with submachine guns blur together with the locals and their creaky rifles, the Nobel laureates with the schoolteachers turned infantrymen. Hundreds of babies, their place of birth officially a P.O. box, their parents drinking 200-proof lab alcohol and dancing to the music from a radio station with no call letters. Even the outward seepage of the intelligence apparatus was a little dull. “Santa Fe was full of young FBI agents, middle-aged agents,” another woman interviewed says. “[T]hey were so well dressed.” At this point, Else again interjects: “What did they do?” “They wore gray slacks and tweed jackets and shirts with neckties,” she says, “and they leaned against the walls of buildings.”

Beyond this juxtaposition of the brutal and the banal, The Day After Trinity successfully evokes the ways that the Los Alamos project was spiritually wrong and bureaucratically absurd. At one point, it’s reported that an “​​unmarked Pontiac sedan arrives at the McDonald Ranch, carrying the world’s entire supply of plutonium—about 10 pounds.” The Pontiac driver, likely fearing for his job, demanded a receipt. Approximate value, it read, $1 billion.

It has been widely known for years that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist tapped to lead the Manhattan Project, had insisted that those working at Los Alamos call the bomb they were building “the gadget.” This silly, self-absolving euphemism was so thoroughly metabolized by the scientists in New Mexico that it made its way into their private diary entries. One quoted in the documentary reads, “14 July, 1700 hours. Gadget complete. Should we have the chaplain here?”


At the time of this writing, 53 films have made at least a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Of those, all but six have come out in the past 16 years—in other words, since The Dark Knight (2008), the second of Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies, which was such a popular phenomenon that the uproar from its Best Picture exclusion forced the Oscars to expand that field to 10 films, as opposed to the traditional five. A handful of Marvel Comics adaptations had already been released or were in production when The Dark Knight hit theaters, but Nolan’s picture is the one that caused the industry- and culture-spanning paradigm shift toward superhero stories, and the increasingly strident demands that those stories be accepted as high art, or at least the highest art that adults should be expected to parse.

In addition to a genuinely spellbinding Heath Ledger performance as the Joker and a handful of practical stunts, the movie offers a trump card against complaints that Hollywood is dominated by liberalism. The Dark Knight’s third act is essentially an argument for both the basis and the methods of the war on terror, an extremely literal allegory about the necessity of illegal surveillance and extrajudicial torture—and the trust we should have in our leaders to deploy each with restraint. It is a definitive neocon text released just months before Barack Obama’s election.

The overwhelming success of The Dark Knight, of Inception (2010), and of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) assured not only that Nolan would be allowed to make major studio movies for the rest of his career but also that he’d be able to do so with essentially unlimited resources and creative control. Which is why, when Oppenheimer (2023) was announced, few blinked at a massive budget and year-long marketing campaign being dedicated to a three-hour biopic about a physicist starring Cillian Murphy, a wonderful Irish actor and longtime Nolan collaborator who nevertheless would not pass as a tent-pole lead in any other context.

Most of Nolan’s scripts are tortured: convoluted yet overexplained, obvious and self-impressed in all the wrong places. And still, Oppenheimer is astonishing in its sloppiness. It lurches from TV movie hackery (most of Emily Blunt’s scenes as Kitty Oppenheimer, in which she flits between accents, plays drunk by clutching a glass and slurring her words, and blurts out what should remain subtext) to moments, like Gary Oldman’s brief appearance as Harry Truman, that have all the grace and subtlety of an SNL cold open. (In one such scene, Alden Ehrenreich’s Senate aide drops the name “John F. Kennedy” like one would a new villain’s identity in one of those post-credits Marvel stingers.) The film’s fragmented structure is preposterous and anticlimactic, the fixation on Lewis Strauss’s Senate confirmation hearing a fundamental misunderstanding of the ways Oppenheimer was wronged—or the ways Oppenheimer was wrong about himself.

The film ends with Oppenheimer, besieged by Congress and the military-industrial complex, fretting over what he unleashed upon the world. Yet Nolan never really seems to grasp what it means for one man to be put in nominal charge of an empire’s machinery. When the bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are driven away from Los Alamos, a scene between Murphy’s Oppenheimer and Matt Damon’s General Leslie Groves is meant to dramatize the scientist’s loss of control over his creation. Yet this is not delivered as a realization, as a revealed truth; rather, Nolan depicts it as a personal betrayal, a man stabbed in the back by those he trusted.

This trivialization continues over the film’s final hour, which follows Oppenheimer’s fall from grace in Washington and a couple of—it should be said—mild smear campaigns launched against him. The invocation of his prior left-wing allegiances is treated by Nolan as disreputable rumor-mongering. (One of several moments in Oppenheimer designed to elicit an applause break sees Kitty dress down a group of investigators for characterizing her and her husband, both former Communist Party members, as former Communist Party members.) Nolan essentially dispenses with the complexity his subject’s being Jewish bestows on his willingness to beat the Nazis in the race to build nuclear weapons. Essentially, the film shows a man being railroaded by those who don’t understand him, or those who understand him well enough to marginalize him—a pathetic misreading by Nolan, who has personally benefited from being handed the keys to massive industrial might.

The real story of J. Robert Oppenheimer—a man who, before the Manhattan Project, was on a list of people to be immediately jailed in the case of a national emergency—is one of a man foolishly believing he stood at odds with the mechanisms of power rather than having already been subsumed into them. He was useful to the American government when he was building the bomb; in many ways, he was just as useful when his stance against nuclear proliferation could be paired with a public discrediting—a showing that no one, not even the most famous scientist of his generation, could question the country’s right to progress, prosperity, and a war to rid both hemispheres of communism. It is not just difficult to distill the world order that the end of World War II established into the story of one man—it is fundamentally impossible. The hand-wringing with which Oppenheimer ends might as well be the filmmaker dangling keys in front of the audience, happy to distract both us and himself.


Almost exactly two months after The Day After Trinity premiered on PBS, David Lynch lost Best Director (and his Elephant Man Best Picture) at the 53rd Academy Awards to Robert Redford and Ordinary People. While Lynch would go on to be nominated and lose two more times in that category—and eventually be given an honorary Oscar—his Mel Brooks–produced drama based on the life and death of Joseph Merrick is the only time he has made what could pass for a conventional American prestige film. In the years since, Lynch has instead earned a reputation as our foremost cinematic surrealist, his name shorthand for a certain type of dreamlike, seemingly disconnected storytelling.

While he is famously circumspect when asked about the “meaning” of his work, Lynch is not coy about its central, recurring subject: an abstract evil that lurks just beneath the veneer of daily life. He follows this evil into turn-of-the-century Los Angeles (1997’s Lost Highway, 2001’s Mulholland Drive, 2006’s Inland Empire), but its spiritual roots are in the manicured suburbs of the postwar 1950s, as hinted at by the production design of Blue Velvet (1986) or by how, in Twin Peaks, a sleepy town in the Pacific Northwest is constantly assailed not only by unspeakable darkness but also by characters who seem to have escaped from midcentury soap operas.

Twin Peaks ran for two seasons on ABC in 1990 and ’91 before being revived, in 2017, in a more expansive format on Showtime. That 17-hour third season is in many ways an exercise in denying viewers the comfort and catharsis they have come to expect from television; the show’s lead character exists in a sort of suspended animation for much of its run. But while Lynch pushed his series beyond Washington state, across the country and into other planes of existence, the season’s centerpiece actually makes a remarkably specific argument about when all this evil was first unleashed.

The season’s eighth episode, filmed largely in black and white, offers a skeleton key not just to Twin Peaks but to Lynch’s filmic project writ large. Though shot through with allusions to recurring Lynchian symbols and featuring minimal, cryptic dialogue, it pinpoints the Trinity test as the moment when something, perhaps in space-time but certainly in our moral and spiritual fabric, was irreparably ripped. This rupture is rendered abstractly but unmistakably: bomb begets bile begets bug begets small-town murders and genocidal wars. The mechanics, Lynch seems to argue, are too convoluted to trace in a linear fashion, and are ultimately beside the point. The bomb was such an evil thing to bring into the world that it infected us on a molecular level, its awesome power and unending malevolence coursing through everything and everyone who exists in its long shadow. Got a light?

LARB Contributor

Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, New York, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post, among other publications.


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