Killerheimer: American Betrayal in Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan

Jimmy So analyzes what “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” have to say about America.

By Jimmy SoMarch 20, 2024

Killerheimer: American Betrayal in Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan

“IF YOU SEE Oppenheimer last then you might be a bit of a psychopath,” Barbie actor Issa Rae said, and thus was born the orthodox viewing order of last summer’s blockbusters. The suggestion was to first let Oppenheimer terrify you with its vision of a new world order, then use Barbie to rekindle hope. Viewed in this way, “Barbenheimer” becomes an antidote to the threat of nuclear holocaust.

Yet Barbenheimer as redemption seems like a remedy that comes too cheaply. I propose that we submit ourselves to the much more bracing ordeal of “Killerheimer”—a portmanteau of Killers of the Flower Moon and Oppenheimer, two of the most severe warnings against optimism about the United States today. The central theme and dramatic tension that runs through Killerheimer—indeed, through the entire bodies of work by Martin Scorsese and, to a slightly lesser extent, by Christopher Nolan—is American betrayal. Killerheimer is a robust admonition that the United States must change to become what it promises to be, but it’s also an oblique confession that such change might be impossible.

Much has been said about the two supposedly separate types of Scorsese movies: the “crises of faith” explored in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), and Silence (2016), and the dissection of toxic men overpowered by the American dream in almost everything else besides the documentaries—most certainly in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). But what engenders the crisis of identity in all of Scorsese’s (anti)heroes is the betrayal of a greater promise—of America, or God, or sometimes both.

Recall what Willem Dafoe’s Jesus says when God sends Satan to tell him that he is not the Messiah and doesn’t have to die. “Thank God!” It’s the funniest line in all of Scorsese. Or go back to Henry Hill’s voice at the start of Goodfellas—“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” because otherwise he was destined to be a nobody. Like all of Scorsese’s protagonists—like Travis Bickle, like Jake LaMotta, like Jordan Belfort—Henry desperately wants to partake in the great national pursuit of happiness. But they all eventually learn that Uncle Sam doesn’t really approve of their particular way of succeeding. Scorsese’s tendency is to show that they get away with it, however, that at its very heart the American dream is a perverted one. Just look at how, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, he turns the camera around, toward the audience, as Belfort addresses us, the suckers: “Sell me this pen.”

Nolan’s leading men—as in Scorsese, there are few leading ladies—are let down by their inability to control the world around them: on a global and intergalactic scale (Interstellar [2014], Tenet [2020]); on the level of law, order, and justice (The Dark Knight trilogy [2005–12], Dunkirk [2017]); and on the scale of their own minds (Memento [2000], Insomnia [2002], The Prestige [2006], Inception [2010]). Cobb, in Inception, is the embodiment of our collective fear of being stuck in limbo, never to awaken. Batman never recovers from his parents’ deaths, nor is he the same after encountering Heath Ledger’s demonic Joker, who ranks as one of cinema’s greatest agents of chaos—“a dog chasing cars,” as he calls himself.

Nolan’s heroes are not usually betrayed by their nation—that is, until the arrival of J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy. Murphy manages to compress so much wide-eyed yet cool intensity into his gaunt frame that he seems a little terrified even of himself and what he is capable of accomplishing. Oppenheimer is adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005). As that book’s subtitle makes clear, Oppenheimer’s life can be clearly divided into a rise followed by a fall. There’s a kinetic electricity in Nolan’s working up to the completion of “the Gadget,” as the scientists refer to the atomic bomb; the refining of uranium is cleverly represented by the dropping of two, three, or, in a particularly rhapsodic moment, five marbles into a goldfish bowl, until eventually it is filled up. Nolan is famously dedicated to getting the science right; Interstellar was based on the work of Nobel laureate Kip Thorne, who consulted on the film to ensure that the physics was spot-on. There is no doubt that Oppenheimer’s climax, the Trinity test, is anything but textbook accurate.

The blast on July 16, 1945, is what burns Oppenheimer into cinematic history. When the countdown reaches zero, two hours into a thrumming movie so full of rapid-fire talk and churning sounds that we’ve hardly had a chance to rest, everything comes to a sudden silence, except for the breathing of a single human being. In an instant, it is bright as day, and only after a few seconds does a hurricane of fire fill the frame.

The Trinity test is the most heart-pounding scene in Oppenheimer, but it is also a showstopper. Nothing of equal weight follows. I can’t help but think of David Lynch’s surreal interpretation of the same event six years earlier in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), which portrays Trinity as a primordial big bang, and then devotes much of the rest of the episode to the claim that it gave birth to evil in the postwar universe. That might be a little too over-the-top, but you need not submit to Lynch’s mythmaking to think that he has made Oppenheimer’s argument—that the world was irrevocably changed because of Trinity—before (and perhaps better) than Nolan had.

But neither Nolan’s nor Lynch’s treatment of the blast compares to John Adams’s in his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic. Nolan has been criticized for not depicting the bombings of Japan, but neither did Adams, whose Trinity explosion is represented by a bone-chilling scream, at which point the opera concludes with the voice of a woman asking for water in Japanese. I’ve never braved that ending without crumbling into tears.

Nolan allows himself only one chance to make us feel the weight of Oppenheimer’s anguish over Hiroshima. Shortly after the dropping of the bomb, Oppenheimer gives a speech to a cheering audience at Los Alamos and imagines them with strips of skin fleeced off their faces. None of them are Japanese or Native Americans, who suffered from the fallout of Trinity and were the first casualties of the atomic bomb. Instead, Nolan only manages to portray imaginary victims.

It is understood that what’s depicted in this scene is strictly from Oppenheimer’s point of view, but later, when he is attending a lecture where slides from Hiroshima are being shown, Nolan shows him looking down the whole time, away from the screen. There’s no evidence, however, that the real Oppenheimer refused to contend with the consequences of his actions to such an extent.

As a filmmaker, Nolan is of course not obliged to debate whether the United States should have dropped the bomb, whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the last acts of World War II or the first of the Cold War. But I can’t help but think that his inability to convey the emotional impact of the bombings constitutes an evasion. The film’s biggest stumbling block is not that it chose to avoid dramatizing the atrocities committed against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it is that it chose to depict Oppenheimer sleepwalking through the moral crisis that ensues.

What the film depicts well, and what Nolan seems most interested in, is the betrayal of Oppenheimer himself. To his political enemies, it was convenient that he had left-wing sympathies, and though he was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, he had donated money to it, and his wife Kitty, his mistress Jean Tatlock, and his brother Frank were all active in the party. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover investigated Oppenheimer, but he was still given the security clearance to run Los Alamos. After the war, however, the Red Scare caught up with the man who, after vanquishing the atom and Imperial Japan, met a much more formidable opponent, a petty fellow named Lewis Strauss, the autocratic chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, played by Robert Downey Jr., whose ruthless, resentful performance commandeers the movie. “Lewis Strauss was once a lowly shoe salesman?” Oppenheimer asks Strauss when he first meets him. “No, just a shoe salesman,” comes the wounded reply; thus was planted the seed of hatred.

Strauss, with the help of Hoover, orchestrated a hearing against Oppenheimer and succeeded in unceremoniously revoking his security clearance in 1954. Bird, Sherwin, and Nolan all recognize that this is the story of a man who had seemingly conquered the limits of physics itself, and then met with someone who had no shame about using his political power for revenge. Oppenheimer helped build the nuclear state we live in today, but he was not protected by it. “The Government of the United States is here on trial also,” as Oppenheimer’s counsel at the hearing summed up in his closing statement, Bird and Sherwin tell us. “America must not devour her own children.”


A film that depicts an even more twisted way that America has crushed her own is Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese’s movie, adapted from the book of the same name by journalist David Grann, depicts one of the strangest and darkest chapters in American history.

During the 1870s, the Osage people were forced by the US government to sell their land in Kansas and buy a worthless patch of reservation in Oklahoma. But a few decades later, oil was discovered there, and because they owned the land, every member of the tribe was entitled to an equal share of the mineral trust and royalties, called a headright. As much as they wanted to, the government and the oilmen could not simply take their land or headrights from them. Prospectors paid the Osage for leases to drill and provided a percentage of the profits.

The Osage quickly became the world’s richest people per capita, buying Pierce-Arrows and expensive jewelry. But in 1921, the government passed a law instituting a ludicrous system to restrict the rights of the tribe. Full-blooded Osage members were deemed “incompetent” to manage their own finances and had court-appointed white guardians dole out their funds. The Osage also couldn’t sell their headrights, which could only be inherited—or transferred if they died in, say, an accidental shooting, or a regrettable suicide, or from a mysterious “wasting illness,” which sometimes looked like good old-fashioned poisoning. In the event of such deaths, the rights would pass to their next of kin, which explains why so many white men ingratiated themselves with Osage women and became their husbands. A ridiculous arrangement had made it easy for men to commit murder for profit, and that’s exactly what happened. The Osage called it the Reign of Terror.

That was how Mollie Kyle, played with noble majesty by Lily Gladstone, found herself married to her driver, the bumbling idiot Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). Burkhart’s uncle was William Hale (Robert De Niro), the “King of the Osage Hills,” as he is known, who made it a point to be a friend and benefactor to every Osage person, all the while arranging the deaths of many of Mollie’s friends and family, starting with the murder of Mollie’s sister, Anna Brown, in the spring of 1921. When the death toll rose to more than 20, Mollie and an Osage delegation traveled to Washington, DC, to implore President Calvin Coolidge to help. The deputy director of the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, sent agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to find out what was going on, and in 1926 Hale and Burkhart were arrested and convicted, ostensibly ending the Reign of Terror. Or did it?

The case helped Hoover legitimize what soon became the FBI, and he approved a 1933 episode of the radio program The Lucky Strike Hour dramatizing the killings, a reinterpretation of which Scorsese chooses to conclude the movie. “Right had won. […] This brings to a close the authenticated story of the ‘Osage Indian Murders,’” the radio host announces, but there’s no mistaking that Scorsese is being tongue-in-cheek here. Hale received a life sentence but was paroled after serving nearly 20 years, and though, as Grann reports, Hale “was forbidden to set foot again in Oklahoma, […] according to relatives he once visited them and said, “If that damn Ernest had kept his mouth shut we’d be rich today.” He lived to the age of 87, dying in Arizona. Burkhart was also sentenced to a life term but was paroled as well, though he returned and robbed an Osage home and was subsequently sent back to prison. He got out in 1959, and seven years later was even pardoned by the state, which meant that he could legitimately go back to Oklahoma, where he lived in a mice-infested trailer just outside Osage County.

Those were the fates of the perpetrators who got caught, but as Grann discovered, there were probably murders that the bureau didn’t learn about before 1921, and likely ones that happened after 1926. “There were a lot more murders during the Reign of Terror than people know about,” the director of the Osage Nation Museum told Grann. “A lot more.” You could be led to believe that Killers wraps up nicely as the tale of a benevolent federal apparatus that righted wrongs in a dark-red state. But such a hope would be sadly misplaced.

The breakdown of trust in America is central to both Scorsese’s and Nolan’s films, made very apparent by the choice of books they decided to adapt. Killers of the Flower Moon is above all a story of amazement at the sheer scale of betrayal, or as an Osage told Grann, “Who would believe that anyone would marry you and kill your family for your money?” The book became a sensation, in part because it showed that you might have to guard against greed even in love. In a country that witnessed the horrors of slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples, there are still fresh treacheries that can shock us, new ways that America’s perfidy can surprise us.

Killers, however, shares something of Oppenheimer’s biggest failing. As Scorsese takes the place of the FBI and rides to the rescue to tell the story of the Osage people, the emotional reckoning ends up feeling less than forceful. The movie seems conflicted in its attempt to morally complicate Ernest Burkhart, who feels oddly like Robert Oppenheimer: tortured, compartmentalized, lethal on a grand scale, but someone we get to know as an “earnest” guy who, in his twisted way, thinks he loves his wife as he doggedly pursues his grim task. Such is the result of telling the story of the Red Scare and the Osage murders through the eyes of Oppenheimer and Burkhart. The movies attempt to wrestle with big questions surrounding the United States’ involvement in those betrayals, but they’re insulated in similar ways, weirdly limp and ineffectual in generating their supposedly devastating moral visions.

The books American Prometheus and Killers of the Flower Moon both end with meditations about the traumas the US leaves behind, and in this theme, too, the films fall short. Instead, you have to turn to the final chapters of the books, which trace the effects of wounds still being felt decades later. Oppenheimer died a broken man, and the damage extended to his children. Teenage son Peter was bullied by a classmate who said his father was a communist, and he felt tortured and furious as he watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on TV. He eventually moved to New Mexico but didn’t tell people who his father was. Oppenheimer’s daughter, Toni, struggled after her father’s death, hanging herself in his cottage in the US Virgin Islands, above the shores of a place that is now called Oppenheimer Beach.

Mollie Kyle’s children hardly fared better. Her daughter Elizabeth became paranoid and rarely stayed in one place for long. When Burkhart died in 1987, his ashes were given to his son Cowboy, and instead of scattering them, he remained so angry at his father that he “just chucked [them] over a bridge” one night, according to Cowboy’s daughter Margie. The Osage, predictably, fell on hard times. Killers concludes with the disillusionment Grann felt knowing that the FBI’s case was so flawed, that Hoover’s G-men left so much evidence unexamined, that the system was so thoroughly corrupted that not just dozens but probably hundreds of other murders went undetected in “a culture of killing” that has left the Osage community devastated today. The Great Depression and the subsequent plunge in the price of oil had already wiped out many Osage fortunes, and over the next few decades, the Oklahoma boomtowns began to die off. When Grann visited in the 2010s, many of these towns were largely abandoned. “Stores gone, post office gone, train gone, school gone, oil gone, boys and girls gone,” a longtime resident said. “[O]nly thing not gone is graveyard and it git bigger.”

In the end, Killerheimer is a reminder that the promise of American exceptionalism doesn’t amount to much if the nation fails to protect the most vulnerable. It’s a dark warning that American democracy is so fragilely balanced, and so easily corrupted, that we require the collective efforts of custodians to guard against the misuse of what has become the most powerful empire the world has ever seen.

LARB Contributor

Jimmy So is the editor of the book imprint Columbia Global Reports, and teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.


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