clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
J. Robert Oppenheimer stands in silhouette on a tower with his test atomic bomb over the New Mexico desert in a scene from the film Oppenheimer. Image: Universal Pictures

Filed under:

Oppenheimer undoes decades of American denial

How Hollywood finally made The Bomb personal

Of the many details worth returning to in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, one of the most striking comes only after learning how the film was made. In what might be the movie’s most harrowing scene, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) delivers a victory speech to the assembled scientists of the Manhattan Project after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Oppenheimer gives a jingoistic speech to rapturous applause, Nolan depicts the physicist to be in internal anguish, as visions of destruction warp his perception of the event.

Oppenheimer imagines the nuclear flash blinding the crowd, as the rumble of their stamping feet (an auditory motif heard throughout the film before we finally see where it comes from, two hours in) gives way to the shockwave of atomic devastation, and a young woman pleads to Oppenheimer as her face peels away in the radioactive fallout.

The scene is nightmarish on its own, but it has one final emotional wound to give: That woman is played by Flora Nolan, the director’s daughter. In an interview with Vulture, Nolan, a middle-aged father of four who lived through the latter years of the Cold War, notes that another of his children was initially dismissive of a movie about the atomic bomb.

J. Robert Oppenheimer stands with his hands on his waist as he walks between twin stands of crowded bleachers full of cheering people waving handheld U.S. flags in a scene from the film Oppenheimer. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

“‘No one really worries anymore about nuclear weapons and war,’” he recounts his child telling him. “To which my response was, ‘Well, maybe they should.’”

Nolan is sympathetic to the younger generation’s indifference. Earlier in the interview, he talks about how the culture can only really handle one apocalypse at a time, and it’s not like we’re lacking in doomsdays to choose from. So how does one make people reconsider a doom they’ve moved on from? By making it personal.

He puts his daughter in the frame, and watches her face melt away.

American popular culture has long wrestled with The Bomb, but largely from the perspective of its wielder, the only world power to have unleashed it on human victims. As such, many American works about The Bomb follow the template laid out by our most seminal films about atomic destruction: Stanley Kubrick’s farcical Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and its darker contemporary, Sidney Lumet’s harrowing drama Fail Safe.

These are films that wrestle with what it means for humanity to have such destruction at its disposal, serving as meditations on the absurdity of proliferation as deterrence and what happens when those who command the military machinery of empire and are empowered by the politics of culture war are given a loaded gun aimed at the planet itself. They are tellingly built around power: what it means to have it, use it, not use it, or even comprehend it at such a scale. In these works, The Bomb is simply Doomsday, and some people simply want to see it come to pass. Others reckon that perhaps in making Doomsday possible, we have also made it inevitable.

American cinema would revisit this perspective on The Bomb again and again: in 1989’s Fat Man and Little Boy, 1995’s Hiroshima, 2000’s Thirteen Days, and others. We used The Bomb, and our cinema fixates on what it means to have that power. But to consider how that power changed us, we turned to genre fiction.

The Trinity test was the Big Bang of an entire era of science fiction, as the Atomic Age brought on American monster movies like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, stories about atomic radiation awakening or transforming dormant forces to wreak havoc on American citizens as scientists raced to stop them. Looking back, these movies can be understood as works of anxiety, contemplating the karmic retribution that may have come with using The Bomb. Maybe it looks like ants you long thought beneath you suddenly growing in size to threaten all life. Or maybe it’s an ancient dinosaur, rising from its slumber to destroy Coney Island.

Yet with The Bomb also came wonder. What could this strange and awe-inspiring power do to change our world in ways that weren’t destructive? This was the impetus for many stories of the ’50s and ’60s, and the most relevant of The Bomb’s pop cultural progeny is the one that also dominates the modern box office: the Marvel comics of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others.

One of the peculiarities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how, in updating heroes and villains from the ’60s for a modern audience, The Bomb has been entirely erased from their collective origins. The spider that bit Peter Parker is no longer radioactive, the Hulk’s origin is not a nuclear fable but part of the arms race for a second Captain America, and mutants — initially billed as “The Children of the Atom” — barely exist.

Marvel’s superheroes, once the personification of atomic anxiety, are now something else entirely. They’re heroes for the generation Nolan’s children belong to, characters born of the military-industrial complex, the surveillance state, and ecological destruction. They’re also barely people. As has been pointed out many times, the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lack interiority, sexuality, or any place in the world beyond their role as paramilitary agents.

captain america, thor, and the avengers in endgame finale Image: Marvel Studios

Compare this to what was once possible: Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk, which preserved the character’s radioactive origins and used them as a metaphor for cycles of abuse and violence, choosing to recontextualize a prior generation’s fears into a smaller, personal dynamic. The result is a strange film that deals with repression, a story about a man who thinks he feels nothing at all but in fact feels all too much. The destructive power of radiation, passed down from father to son. Doomsday in our genes.

American pop culture rarely got this intimate when exploring The Bomb, and Hulk is an anomaly in its blockbuster lineage. Abroad, filmmakers were more likely to wrestle with what humanity might look like juxtaposed against our newfound capability for destruction, as films like Hiroshima mon amour, Akira, and, most famously, Gojira, weaved stories about the ways we’ve changed as people living so close to oblivion.

Oppenheimer, however, is the latest in what’s been a slow reconsideration of The Bomb, in which American mass media seems like it’s finally stepping away from examining the fallout in terms of power and guilt and instead as something more personally devastating. Like in Ang Lee’s Hulk, we are starting to consider the notion that we are not the same people we were before The Bomb.

Midway through Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s astonishing revival of their influential ’90s drama, the story pivots sharply for an episode that feels like an art film hidden in an 18-part television series. In one of the most arresting hours of television ever aired, Part 8 of The Return breaks from its dreamlike mystery to embark on a surreal odyssey that begins with the Trinity test in White Sands, New Mexico.

The mostly wordless hour devotes a tremendous amount of time to the destructive power of the weapon, filling the screen with fire, zooming in even closer to depict representations of subatomic chaos, and finally entering the metaphysical — as the barrier between the real world and Someplace Else is torn asunder, and a mysterious entity introduces a new evil into the world.

A black and white shot of the Trinity Test in White Sands New Mexico as depicted in Twin Peaks: The Return Image: Showtime

In interviews, Frost has called Part 8 an “origin story” for Twin Peaks. It’s the small town that could have been any town, one where everything appeared to be so mundane that it couldn’t possibly be hiding anything sinister. This is naive, of course, but over the course of the original series, the prequel movie, and The Return, Twin Peaks contemplated the nature of evil and the ways it could thrive in simple, humdrum American neighborhoods. And while some of that evil is doubtless the cost of humanity’s free will, maybe, the series posits, we let something into our world that we shouldn’t have, and found something that didn’t belong here. Maybe, in committing humanity’s most evil act, we married our futures to a new kind of evil that would manifest in ways we couldn’t foresee.

Oppenheimer ends with a moment of emotional devastation to match the physical destruction caused by The Bomb’s terrible potential. It returns to a meeting between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, and a brief conversation that is implied, but not heard, until the movie’s final moments.

In the scene, Oppenheimer recalls a moment where he brought Einstein calculations showing that setting off the atomic bomb might result in a sustained chain reaction that could potentially destroy the entire world, engulfing it in nuclear fire. Oppenheimer asks Einstein if he remembers that fear. Einstein notes that the world still spins, and that the Trinity test was a success. But Oppenheimer isn’t so sure.

As the camera holds on Oppenheimer’s haunted face, the extreme close-up is intercut with intercontinental ballistic missiles being fired as their rockets cut smoky trails through a beautiful sky. We see a vision of Oppenheimer in a cockpit looking at missile fire soaring above him, then the rain falling in the present as he thinks back to the conversation. He tells Einstein that that’s the problem: That chain reaction has already happened. It’s happening now. And he can’t stop it.

Oppenheimer walks the empty dirt roads of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos as the sun sets behind him in a scene from Oppenheimer Image: Universal Pictures

It is easy to read this final moment as a powerful reassertion of the ongoing threat that still exists thanks to the spark Oppenheimer lit, a fire that threatens to rob us of our lives and children right in front of our eyes. But nearly 80 years later, our doomsday arsenal has only diversified.

Americans stockpile guns and numb each other to mass shootings; serve as vectors for misinformation in ways both knowing and unwitting; and bolster the rapacious efforts of tech barons or corporate executives to lay claim to every last public space or thought, furthering climate disaster in the process. And it is all argued about from a distance, on broadcast networks and in newspapers and at congressional hearings and through screens, in a manner that might as well be as far from us as White Sands, New Mexico, in the predawn hours of July 16, 1945, when a group of men showed us for the first time that we had the power to destroy the world we live in.

This is the nightmare of Oppenheimer. That we forget the doom we live with every day. That we grow accustomed to our capability for destruction and all the ways we can end our world. That it might take the image of someone we care about, screaming in front of us in the wake of apocalyptic fire, to keep us from marching toward oblivion in our own way.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon