Fact, Fiction, and the Father of the Bomb: On Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”
By Alex WellersteinAugust 30, 2023
Some of Oppenheimer’s affect was clearly deliberate—he consciously played the role of a worldly, “brilliant” intellectual with broad-ranging interests and a rapid-firing mind. His close friend, the physicist I. I. Rabi, later told physicist and historian Jeremy Bernstein that “[Oppenheimer] lived a charade, and you went along with it.” The interest in Hindu philosophy and scripture, the Sanskrit, the cowboy-rancher, the poet, the flirtations with communism, the reading of Das Kapital in the original German—this was “Oppie,” a character invented by an insecure young man in the 1920s who struggled to be taken seriously by the luminaries he admired, and who felt a deep need to leave behind his cushy German Jewish upbringing on the Upper West Side.
That Oppenheimer himself played a role makes it especially fitting that his life has been adapted not only into a dozen or so full-length biographies but also in far more general histories of the atomic bomb and many prominent fictional portrayals in film, television, graphic novels, and one opera. (The best study of Oppenheimer’s use as a narrative figure is David K. Hecht’s 2015 book Storytelling and Science: Rewriting Oppenheimer in the Nuclear Age.) And while he has been subjected to the Hollywood treatment several times before, he has perhaps never been granted as much artistic treatment, nor quite such an enormous filming budget, as he has this summer with the debut of Oppenheimer, the latest film by Christopher Nolan.
Nolan wrote, directed, and produced Oppenheimer, explicitly basing it largely on the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005), written by Kai Bird and the late historian Martin J. Sherwin. Nolan clearly fell into the Oppenheimer rabbit hole and, one can surmise, became captivated by the challenge of how to represent his paradoxical mind. What has resulted from that fascination is plainly a labor of love, both for Nolan and his leading actor, Cillian Murphy. According to Nolan’s promotional interviews, the script was written exclusively in the first person—from Oppenheimer’s perspective—a remarkable and telling revelation about the questions Nolan was pursuing. The film is fast-paced, with short, quick-cut scenes that proceed out of chronological order over a very long running time; a sense of anxious dread hangs over the entire affair. Oppenheimer is not easy to watch, and the large number of A- and B-list actors playing small roles (as historical figures both famous and obscure) is distracting and, at times, confusing, even for someone who knows the historical source material.
And yet, improbably, the film has become a summer blockbuster: within a few weeks, it reportedly earned several multiples of its purported $100 million price tag. As Variety put it, “considering ‘Oppenheimer’ is a three-hour, R-rated biographical drama, these numbers are staggering.” Much of this can be credited to Nolan, almost universally acknowledged as the premier director working at the intersection between think piece and spectacle.
When I learned that Nolan was making an Oppenheimer film, the first question that came to mind was: why? None of Nolan’s other films suggested an interest in historical biography, and if anything, the most frequent critique of Nolan is his indifference to deep characterization. Since I have been thinking about J. Robert Oppenheimer for some 20 years, I can certainly understand his allure, but to Nolan? I worried that Oppenheimer’s inner complexity and subtlety, the very thing that historians find interesting about him, would be turned into a simplistic parody (the brilliant scientist, the weeping martyr, the weapons maker, etc.).
And so, upon watching the film, I was impressed by how much Nolan as writer, and Murphy as actor, tried to avoid this particular snare. Murphy’s Oppenheimer exudes tension, intelligence, and, crucially, insecurity. He is not portrayed as a hero, or someone you would want to emulate, or potentially even someone you would like to have dinner with. He is smart, yes, but he’s also a show-off, a know-it-all whose need to be considered “brilliant” by others drives him at times to be impressive, cruel, and thoughtless. It is remarkable that Nolan and Murphy went in this direction. One gets the sense that Nolan thinks Oppenheimer is important, and interesting, but not that he likes Oppenheimer. This may have helped him avoid the most seductive trap of all: trying to make Oppenheimer a relatable everyman.
The film zigs and zags temporally, using Oppenheimer’s 1954 security clearance hearing as an organizer of sorts, jumping between 1954 and various moments from Oppenheimer’s earlier life. There is also some footage, always in black-and-white to distinguish it from Oppenheimer’s point of view, that follows the perspective of Lewis Strauss (played with verve by Robert Downey Jr.), Oppenheimer’s political enemy and the architect of his security clearance revocation. A few periods in Oppenheimer’s life receive particular focus: his early years as a student in Cambridge (ca. 1925), his years as a young professor at the University of California, Berkeley (1930s), the years he worked on the Manhattan Project (1942–45), the detection of the Soviet atomic bomb and the debate over the hydrogen bomb (1949–50), and the turn in political fortunes that led to his security clearance hearing and revocation (1953–54). Though this leaves out some key periods in his biography (more on that in a moment), it still feels like a lot to cover in a single film—too much, perhaps.
As a historian of nuclear weapons, I have been asked innumerable times since the film came out whether it was accurate. It is a harder question to answer than one might think. At some level, the answer is “of course not”—but that is true of not only all historical films but also, to a certain degree, all historical books. “Truth” is a tricky thing in general, and “historical truth” even trickier; scholars are always finding fault with each other’s works, and there is never any real consensus on the true character of a historical figure even for people with less apparent depth than Oppenheimer. And then there’s the fact that the standard for works of art is surely different. In Oppenheimer, many of the characters’ lines are in fact taken from historical documents, sometimes verbatim. When David Krumholtz delivers Rabi’s famous line about being appreciative of Oppenheimer’s contributions (“and what more do you want, mermaids?”), he uses an unusually verbatim quote, including a section (“and a whole series of Super bombs”) that was redacted until 2015, and is not present in any Oppenheimer biography that I know of.
The film also contains tricky mixtures of real and wholly imagined dialogue. In his testimony at Oppenheimer’s hearing, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the military head of the Manhattan Project, concedes that, had he been acting according to the standards of the postwar Atomic Energy Act during World War II, he would not have given Oppenheimer a security clearance. This is indeed in the transcript of the security hearing. But in the film, Groves shoots off one more line, to the effect that he wouldn’t have cleared any of the scientists by that standard. It’s a good line—but the real Groves never said it, nor did he imply it in his actual testimony. Though supportive of Oppenheimer, he was also shielding himself from his own political and legal vulnerabilities. But the sentiment is right for the film, serving as an indication that Groves bore Oppenheimer no ill feeling, and that the priorities and requirements of World War II were different from those of the Cold War.
More troublesome are the aspects of the film that are based on untrustworthy historical accounts. A terrific scene, which takes place just after Hiroshima, shows Oppenheimer giving a rousing and patriotic speech to a bloodthirsty crowd while internally haunted by thoughts of the burned and dead. It is the one place where Oppenheimer’s conflicting feelings toward Hiroshima are portrayed, and where what had happened at Hiroshima is imagined.
The scene is powerful and appropriately disturbing. You could hear a pin drop during this scene in the sold-out theater I attended. But did this particular speech actually happen? It was not invented whole cloth by Nolan; the setup and dialogue were taken from a scientist’s recollections. But the scientist in question, Samuel Cohen, is the only person who has ever indicated that this event happened, and he only wrote it down many decades after the fact. (In his self-published memoir, Cohen insinuates that “[t]here’s an explanation” for the fact that nobody has ever written about this other than himself, but that he couldn’t be bothered to write about it.) Cohen was a bit of a fabulist; he created an identity for himself as the “father of the neutron bomb” based on work he did on the possibilities of enhanced-radiation warheads at the RAND Corporation in the late 1950s, which actual weapons designers from the period regarded as fairly insignificant. He was also no fan of Oppenheimer’s, considering him “a real sadist.” I do not put much stock in Cohen’s story.
But one can see the appeal of such a scene for Nolan: no other accounts have Oppenheimer giving any such speech after Hiroshima, or doing anything other than perhaps going to one party and then leaving. The literal or hewing-to-the-facts approach would be anticlimactic—whereas incorporating Cohen’s account allows for a complex exploration of the American reaction to Hiroshima, the Los Alamos reaction to Hiroshima, and Oppenheimer’s reaction to Hiroshima. It gives Nolan and Murphy a broader canvas to work with. Is there a greater truth being expressed, whatever the quality of the source? I am not sure. It depends on what one believes about Oppenheimer’s mental state immediately after Hiroshima, before the accounts of casualties and suffering came in, before Nagasaki, and before he was enlisted to (erroneously, it turns out) deny Japanese reports of radiation sickness. (Michael D. Gordin’s 2007 book Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War is a close account emphasizing just how rapidly attitudes on the atomic bomb changed in the days between its first use and the eventual surrender of Japan.)
Another example of Hollywood invention occurs when Nolan has Oppenheimer meet President Harry Truman, and the president calls Oppenheimer a “crybaby” for complaining about having blood on his hands. What is the source of these insults? The “crybaby” and “blood” bits come from later stories told by Truman, when he was trying to impress upon others how impractical and irritating scientists can be, and how it was he, Harry Truman, who truly had blood on his hands (Truman had his own complex relationship to the bombings, despite his tough talk). There is also an account from biographer Nuel Pharr Davis of Oppenheimer’s side of that story, but Davis provides no citation whatsoever, nor even a date when this conversation may have taken place.
Nolan also interpolates into this meeting a line in which Oppenheimer suggests that the future of Los Alamos should be to “give it back to the Indians.” Not only is this unlikely to be a true line—a sentiment to the contrary is more likely—but also the only person who might have suggested that Oppenheimer said this was Edward Teller (another Oppenheimer enemy), and only in 1950 as part of an explicit attempt to recruit opposition to Oppenheimer and lobby for Teller’s own weapons laboratory (which would eventually become Livermore). As the late Oppenheimer biographer Priscilla McMillan pointed out, “Give It Back to the Indians” was a popular show tune from 1939, and if Oppenheimer ever did say the phrase, it was probably in jest, and certainly not to the president. (My wife has suggested that this would be like hearing someone describe themselves as a “Gangster of Love” and interpreting it as a literal assertion, rather than a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Steve Miller Band.) In Teller’s actual testimony at Oppenheimer’s security hearing, Teller distanced himself from the line, claiming that he heard it “attributed to Oppenheimer” but could not recall ever hearing him say it.
The film is full of such questionably accurate scenes. Did Oppenheimer actually try to poison his tutor at Cambridge with a poisoned apple? We don’t really know. Young Oppenheimer, as reflected through his letters of the period, was prone to making exaggerated, “shocking” statements of this sort. (Many of Oppenheimer’s letters from the 1920s contain what Jeremy Bernstein refers to as “Oppenheimer exuberance.”) It makes for a more perplexing character portrait to imagine these moments as literal, as Nolan does in the film, which raises this question: is representing them as literal truth getting at a deeper truth, or introducing a deeper confusion? Does the ambivalence of historians about an event give the artist full latitude to present it either way?
The most shocking (and creative) reappropriation is the famous line from the Bhagavad Gītā that Oppenheimer later claimed flashed into his mind during the world’s first nuclear test, Trinity: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The actual line is an idiosyncratic translation, deployed as a near incomprehensible (and perhaps pretentiously “Oppie”) analogy about duty and awe. Disregarding whatever the real Oppenheimer might have meant by it, Nolan’s film turns the quote into an orgasm, or a memory of an orgasm. There is something about this kind of transformation that I respect more than the subtler ones.
Nolan is most editorial when he invents lines about Oppenheimer’s motivations and mental state and puts them into the mouths of observers: Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall) suggests that Oppenheimer’s difficulties as a parent (and perhaps as a person) might be the result of staring into the infinite void of the universe for too long; Kitty Oppenheimer suggests that her husband’s need for the security hearing is a form of penance for his guilt about Hiroshima (an interesting thesis, one he surely would not have agreed with, but who knows?); Strauss suggests that Oppenheimer would like the world to remember him for Trinity, not Hiroshima (also interesting, although putting interesting sentiments into the mouth of a sworn enemy and unreliable narrator tends to dilute their credibility). I might not agree with these interpolations, but I respect that they are not superficial “theses” about Oppenheimer. That Murphy’s character does not endorse or deny any of them is, I think, a plus: the film suggests them as possible interpretations but does not collapse the uncertainty into one definitive reality.
Nolan’s film is most directly misleading about actual history when Oppenheimer is portrayed as getting sidelined, starting at the end of the Los Alamos sequence when it is suggested that, despite his usefulness to the military and the government, they are only interested in Oppenheimer’s technical abilities and not in his advice on other matters. It is further implied that in the film’s postwar period, Oppenheimer becomes marginalized, in part because Strauss is the sort of person who actually controls policy. This is wrong on several levels. Oppenheimer was much closer to the policy process during World War II than the film depicts, including in the targeting of the atomic bombs (and not just from a technical perspective). The film’s implication of distance between Oppenheimer and the government officials involved in dropping the atomic bomb is inaccurate; they all saw eye to eye, and Oppenheimer personally endorsed the idea that the bombs ought be dropped on “urban areas” without warning. He even suggested, after the Trinity test, ways in which the bomb designs could be modified to use more of their scarce nuclear fuel, so that there would be many more bombs ready to drop on Japan (Groves rejected this suggestion for the first bombs). Many years later, well after Oppenheimer had died, Strauss told an interviewer that these scientists during World War II felt a “compulsion to use the bomb—an obsession,” and while one should be wary of the source, in this case I think he was right.
In truth, Oppenheimer enjoyed tremendous influence in the atomic energy establishment after World War II. The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission for its first, formative years was not Strauss but David Lilienthal, a liberal New Dealer who considered himself a close friend of Oppenheimer’s and a political ally. Oppenheimer’s views did not always carry the day, but one cannot really describe him as sidelined until Eisenhower became president in 1953, and then only because Strauss was made AEC chairman (Strauss’s anti-Oppenheimer campaign, whatever its deep motivations, began in earnest when he feared that Eisenhower would be charmed by Oppenheimer’s way of thinking). One can see how this makes a less clean narrative about Oppenheimer and early nuclear policy, and one can see as well why Nolan probably felt that jumping from 1945 to 1949 worked better for an already long film.
There are other areas where the film’s limited bandwidth creates distortion. The reactions to both the first Soviet atomic test and the hydrogen bomb debate feel rushed and devoid of stakes. One does not get a sense of what the H-bomb debate was about, or why people who supported building the atomic bombs would find the H-bombs morally objectionable. The brief section that addresses the plans for using the atomic bombs in Japan reinforces narratives that historians have for decades known to be false (like the idea that it was seen as a question of “bomb or invade”—in reality, these were not considered alternative options, and it was not at all clear that one, two, or even more atomic bombs would end the war). (Groves told Oppenheimer after Trinity, for example, “It is necessary to drop the first Little Boy and the first Fat Man and probably a second one in accordance with our original plans. It may be that as many as three [Fat Man bombs] may have to be dropped to conform to planned strategical operations,” along with the Little Boy bomb.) One gets the sense that these are not the kinds of historical questions that Nolan cares about.
So what does the director care about? Why make a film about Oppenheimer at all? Cold War narratives about Oppenheimer tend to be moralizing parables about the dangers of McCarthyism and the security state. This is not Nolan’s interest; to his credit, he makes it very clear that though the Oppenheimer hearings were a farce as far as justice was concerned, once the scientist’s behavior was under the microscope, it became hard for anyone, including Oppenheimer, to justify it. Oppenheimer might have gotten to his precarious position because he offended a few powerful people, and because he opposed them on the question of thermonuclear weapons, but his fate was sealed by his admission that he had lied repeatedly to security officers and had maintained connections—even sexual ones—with known or suspected communists after becoming the head of Los Alamos. One doesn’t leave Nolan’s film concerned that Oppenheimer didn’t get justice.
Nolan’s interest in Oppenheimer centers on two themes. One of them is the complexity of Oppenheimer’s character. The other is global destruction, threaded through the entire film from its first images until its last scene. The fact that these two themes are intertwined in the same person is, I think, the point. In Oppenheimer, the intensely personal is suffused with the apocalyptic imagination. The visions that kept Oppenheimer up at night were not about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for better or worse. They were about the next war, the one he hoped Hiroshima and Nagasaki would make impossible.
When Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace met Oppenheimer a few months after the end of World War II, he described a man in great distress. “I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer,” Wallace wrote in his diary. “He seemed to feel that the destruction of the entire human race was imminent. […] The guilt consciousness of the atomic bomb scientists is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen.” (The result of this meeting was Wallace’s arranging of Oppenheimer’s disastrous encounter with Truman in the Oval Office.) Oppenheimer was, at this point, desperately trying to advocate for a world in which no nation would have nuclear weapons, using the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the nascent plans for even worse weapons, as an impetus for remaking the entire nature of war and international relations. He did not succeed; we live in his worst nightmare, where multiple states have civilization-killing quantities of nuclear arms ready for deployment at a moment’s notice.
This harried, eschatological prophet, desperately trying to invoke what influence he has in order to convince the people with real power not to use that power poorly, is the Oppenheimer that Murphy channels, and that Nolan is interested in. I have always thought that Prometheus was the wrong reference point, one that Oppenheimer himself would have strongly rejected. Oppenheimer was no champion of humanity, and his punishment was not for having “stolen fire,” but for more mundane transgressions, including those of the flesh, a fact that Nolan’s film emphasizes. In his Bhagavad Gītā reference, Oppenheimer renders himself as Prince Arjuna, who was cajoled by something great and terrible into taking on a burden he did not want. Even that feels incomplete, for while Oppenheimer was initially willing to go to war, he was afterwards gripped with an intense desire to push things in a different direction. Perhaps we need to invent a new, modern mythology for such a figure; perhaps that is what Nolan is really trying to do. Let’s hope the film will be remembered for this, and not just for its curious juxtaposition with the other summer blockbuster, Greta Gerwig’s (excellent) Barbie.
Alex Wellerstein is a professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the author of Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States (2021).
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