The real H-bomb? We are human beings. “Oppenheimer” puts us in the mirror

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By John

In the beginning it was an apple. There’s always an apple at the beginning. Ask Eva, ask Newton. In Snow White, better. Also because it is a poisoned apple: a student poisoned it out of spite and revenge against a professor who humiliated him. The student is Robert Oppenheimer, the professor is Patrick Blackett and the one who risks eating the apple is Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. And, as far as the apple episode is found right at the beginning of the story that Christopher Nolan tells us in the film «Oppenheimer», that is, when the protagonist is just a Cambridge student, everything is already there, or almost everything. Oppenheimer, apple poisoner, destroyer of worlds, who later regrets both.

On the other hand, the whole film is like this, in pure Nolan style: circular, intersected, with parts that recall each other, threads that are reconnected, fusions and fissions that decompose and recompose the narrative material, which is particularly incandescent here. Almost a radioactive nucleus. Almost a quantum experiment.

Every Nolan film is a little “Manhattan project”, or that project of which the physicist Oppenheimer – an exemplary Cillian Murphy, totally inscrutable to our gaze which also catches him close, very close, in the continuous close-ups – is the leader and helmsman. He is mediator, spokesperson and principal of an extraordinary pool of scientists, physicists, chemists and mathematicians, who develop the most frightening weapon in the history of humanity, the atomic bomb. Of which we see, without a shadow of realism (let’s make it clear straight away: realism does not exist in Nolan), the first test, baptized “Trinity” after a poem by John Donne (yes, Oppenheimer is also a passionate reader of myths and poetry, because as all theoretical physicists are fascinated by the symbolic weaving of the universes…).

Any film would have begun, or ended, with that test in the middle of the desert, the light that precedes the sound, the roar that crashes you into your seat, together with the awareness that a boundary has been crossed, the atom has broken and the « celestial fire” came out in the form of a mushroom, and nothing will ever be the same again. Any film would have begun, or ended, with the liberating applause that explodes shortly after the explosion, yet you only realize in that moment that, instead, Nolan has carefully constructed up to that point an anticlimax so that while that liberating joy is unleashed, you, you, the spectator, feel like Oppenheimer: annihilated. And the more they applaud and wave stars and stripes flags, the more oppressed, heavy, guilty you feel. And you see death where others see triumph. Any film would have ended, or begun, there, but not this, not Nolan’s quantum film which seems to tell us something completely different.

After all, physics is about paradoxes, light is waves and particles together, like us human beings, who are both ruthless and pitiful, stupid and brilliant, capable of heights of altruistic intelligence and depths of self-defeating idiocy. That we are scientists who invent and discover and soldiers and bureaucrats who use inventions and discoveries for the evil of the world. That we are, together, Robert Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (an extraordinary Robert Downey jr., perfect interpreter of that vain and greedy mediocrity that makes certain politicians more dangerous than an H-bomb), the one who was the author of the discredit campaign that led to Oppenheimer’s expulsion – due to his ancient communist sympathies and his very human doubts about the legitimacy of using such destructive weapons – from the government laboratories he had directed and from the information on what he himself had achieved.

Actually, much of the film consists of excised dialogue from the interminable hearings of the quasi-show trial that was supposed to behead Oppenheimer (with some visionary moments, perhaps those a little forced, even if it is Oppenheimer’s “subjective” view, and there is nothing more quantum than the unconscious that infiltrates perceptions, and of Nolan who wants to show us), and then of the Senate hearing for the nomination of Strauss as Secretary of Commerce, where his malignant role in the fall is revealed – through the mouth of Rami Malek who plays the physicist David Hill by Oppenheimer. And justice is, belatedly, done.

So what comes to our mind, in the end, is that the real lethal weapon is always us menand politics when it becomes the theater of deception and unscrupulous management of power: the masks of President Harry S. Truman (an excellent Gary Oldman), of the members of the commission, of General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), of the communist-phobic military Boris Pash (Casey Affleck) say it all, and they are very repugnant (all performers directed magnificently and in a state of grace, even for short or very short parts, including Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer’s wife, and the lover Florence Pugh, whose nude scenes are the emergence of the Freudian impulse, another great protagonist of the twentieth century).

The free community of scientists opposes this sticky world, from Einstein (Tom Conti) to Fermi (Danny Deferrari), to Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), to Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer): there was a moment, precisely in the twentieth century, in which in the same world ravaged by wars the most brilliant minds worked without distinctions of nationality, without opposing fronts and borders, in the only homeland of Science. But in the film we see how politics is the real nuclear fission, the chain reaction capable of setting the atmosphere on fire. How toxic waste is ambition, self-interest, prejudice, power. And, clearly, how the only ethical doubts are those that pass through Oppenheimer’s indecipherable eyes; never those, all too decipherable, of generals, senators and presidents.

So that definition applies which is the (English) title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin which inspired the film: «An American Prometheus». Not only because Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to men, but because he is then punished forever. In this case, from the very men to whom he had given it.
And here we are reminded of the ending of the poem «Bomba» by Gregory Corso, written in 1958: «Yet it is not enough to say that a bomb will fall / even to maintain that the celestial fire will come out / Know that the earth will madonna in its lap the Bomb / which in the heart of men to come other bombs will be born / judiciary bombs wrapped in ermine all beautiful / and they will plant themselves sitting on the snarling empires of the earth / ferocious with golden moustaches”.
Behold, in the hearts of men there is fission, fusion, the liberation of frightening forces. And, perhaps, sometimes, in the cinema.