December 2023

The Destroyer (and Saver) of Worlds


Miles David Moore


    That civilization may not sink,
    Its great battle lost,
    Quiet the dog, tether the pony
    To a distant post.
    Our master Caesar is in the tent
    Where the maps are spread,
    His eyes fixed upon nothing,
    A hand under his head.
    Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
    His mind moves upon silence.
    William Butler Yeats, "Long-Legged Fly"

The irony of J. Robert Oppenheimer's life is that, in order to save the world, he had to lead the effort to create a device that could destroy it.  That this irony weighed on him heavily is the main point—though not the only point—of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, which he based on American Prometheus, the Oppenheimer biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. 

My Scene4 colleague Patrick Walsh has already written an excellent column about the history behind Oppenheimer and the eternal controversy over whether dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified.  Walsh is unambiguous in his opinion on the latter, and it is the same as mine.  I only need to tell you that Staff Sgt. Russell E. Moore was stationed on Okinawa in the summer of 1945.  He was my father, and he almost certainly would have been in the first wave of American soldiers to invade Honshu, the main island of Japan.

I won't regurgitate the history Walsh presents, but I will quote from the 1981 New Republic essay by Paul Fussell that Walsh links to his column.  Fussell, like Walsh, does not minimize the horrors of atomic weapons.  The images from Hiroshima that Fussell describes—a naked man holding his eyeball in his palm, dying mothers nursing dead babies—make that plain.   But Fussell also tells of his experience as a second lieutenant in the 45th Infantry Division in France, preparing to ship out to Japan to take part in the invasion.  Then his unit learned of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  "(F)or all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy," he writes.  "We were going to live.  We were going to grow to adulthood after all.  The killing was all going to be over, and peace was actually going to be the state of things."

The immediate and overwhelming goal in 1945, Fussell reminds us, was to end the war.  "As with the Russian Revolution, there are two sides—that's why it's a tragedy instead of a disaster—and unless we are…single-mindedly unimaginative and cruel, we will be painfully aware of both sides at once." 

J. Robert Oppenheimer was not just painfully but agonizingly aware of both sides, and Nolan's film shows us that this was his undoing, leaving him defenseless against the vicious, small-minded bureaucrats who came for him a decade after the war.  Just as British authorities were more concerned with what Alan Turing did in his bedroom than in his study, U.S. authorities cared less about Oppenheimer's services to his country than the Communist affiliations of his wife, his brother, and many of his friends.  Subdued and guilt-ridden, Oppenheimer was unprepared for the prosecutorial zeal of his enemies.

This is the long way of establishing the point that Oppenheimer is a masterpiece, one of the greatest biographical films ever made.  Nolan's film deals with the most profound questions of science, politics, and morality, and does so in a way that keeps us on the edge of our seats.  It is the supreme accolade for Nolan, his cast, and his crew that the apposite adjective for their three-hour film is "taut."

Like Caesar, Oppenheimer (portrayed in the film by Cillian Murphy) was acquainted with the long-legged fly, with the silence of momentous decisions; unlike Caesar, but like Prometheus, his was not the final decision.  Nolan makes it blindingly plain what this cost Oppenheimer in grief and guilt.  Nowhere is this plainer than in Oppenheimer's meeting with President Truman (Gary Oldman).  Oppenheimer and Truman cannot connect: they both know the long-legged fly, but from opposing sides.  Oppenheimer is haunted by the burned, maimed victims of the bomb, and fears its proliferation.  Truman, who has the power of Caesar, is a World War I veteran and, unlike Oppenheimer, knows what it was like to fight in the trenches.  In any case, Truman does not, and will never, second-guess his decision to drop the bomb.  When Truman says, "Don't let that crybaby back in here," that forever ends Oppenheimer's hopes of preventing the nuclear arms race.

Oppenheimer gives us the panorama of its subject's adult life, which, not surprisingly, was messy.   Brilliant enough to learn Dutch in six weeks because he had to deliver a lecture in Amsterdam, he was also vindictive enough to inject an apple with potassium cyanide in a fit of pique.  (You'll have to see Oppenheimer to discover the circumstances and the outcome.)  Married to the tart-tongued Kitty (Emily Blunt), he still finds himself drawn to the bed of Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). 

The disarray of Oppenheimer's life is accentuated by a superior attitude toward his colleagues.  "Don't alienate the only people in the world who understand what you do," his Berkeley colleague Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) warns him.  "You may need them."

Then Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) bulldozes his way into Oppenheimer's life, and Oppenheimer suddenly finds he needs all the physicists he can get to beat the Nazis to an atomic bomb.  The creation of the Manhattan Project—for which Oppenheimer recruits such scientists as Lawrence, Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), and Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz)--is the dramatic centerpiece of the
film.  It is here that Nolan and his technical crew—including cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, editor Jennifer Lame, and a raft of sound and visual effects experts—truly show their mettle.  The countdown to the detonation of the first bomb, and its immediate aftermath, are textbook examples of how to use pacing, image, and sound (or the absence of it) to create unbearable tension and a pervasive sense of dread.  Nolan carries the use of blinding light, ear-splitting noise and sudden silences throughout the last half of the film to underscore Oppenheimer's feelings of guilt and alienation.

There is not one ounce of padding in Oppenheimer, and its leanness allows the superb ensemble cast to stand out.  Everyone is so excellent that it's hard to single anyone out for praise—except, of course, for Cillian Murphy.  Walsh calls Oppenheimer a "destiny role" for Murphy, and it is impossible to quarrel with that.  Murphy's rainwater-blue eyes are a remarkable vector for the conveyance of thought and emotion, and in J. Robert Oppenheimer he has a role that allows him to deploy those eyes to maximum effect.  As much as one movie can possibly do, Oppenheimer gives the totality of a
life, and Murphy does justice to that life, giving us a man who begins in cocksure pride and ends in the sorrow of an undeserved exile.  Oppenheimer was a very different man after Hiroshima than he was before it, and Murphy makes us feel the full force of that, but with exquisite subtlety.

There is one actor in Oppenheimer who stands out nearly as much as Murphy: Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and later Eisenhower's nominee for Secretary of Commerce.  Every scene in Oppenheimer that features Strauss is in black -and-white, emphasizing both Strauss' simplistic politics and the narrowness of his intellect.  Downey makes of Strauss a tower of resentment and rage, a man of weak character who holds lifelong grudges against anyone he suspects of looking down on him.  The two he suspects most are Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and Oppenheimer.  The film begins and ends with Strauss observing from afar a conversation between Einstein and Oppenheimer, certain they are speaking unflatteringly of him.  Only at the end do we hear what Einstein and Oppenheimer are saying, and it has nothing to do with Strauss, or with anything Strauss could comprehend. 

Einstein and Oppenheimer have known the silence of the long-legged fly; they have been in the tent where the maps are spread.  Strauss is the barking dog, the neighing pony.  The world has always had many like him.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Miles David Moore
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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