On July 20, a few staffers at the Center were able to see the one of the first local showings of the new Oppenheimer movie about the man known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Here are our initial takeaways of the movie that, along with Barbie as part of the “Barbenheimer” cultural phenomenon, is expected to break weekend box office records.
Note: spoilers follow. Not ready for spoilers yet? Read what Research Analyst Connor Murray was looking for ahead of his Oppenheimer viewing.
John Erath, Senior Policy Director: Is Oppenheimer a good movie? Undoubtedly. Director Christopher Nolan hits all his marks in a gripping character study wrapped up in an historical epic. Yes, some of the sequences in the last act come across as gimmicky and the female characters are underdeveloped, but the film does an outstanding job of conveying the complexity of the multifaceted scientific and moral dilemmas faced by its central figure.
Is it good history? Also, yes, allowing for some degree of artistic license. However, from the perspective of an organization called Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, there is one small problem. In the film, Oppenheimer is presented (albeit from his own perspective) as practically a naive, almost timid voice in favor of arms control, joined by some members of the scientific community. That may have been Oppenheimer’s perception, but it leaves out the roles played by diplomats and organizations such as the Center and its counterpart Council for a Livable World (founded by Leo Szilard, who has a small role in the film) in some remarkable successes eventually achieved because such groups did not give up on arms control as a means to make the world safer. But that, as they say in show business, is another story.
Oppenheimer’s final images present a vision of a world he and his fellow scientists created in which nuclear war seems inevitable. How about acknowledging the people who have thus far prevented it? When you’re ready for a sequel, Mr. Nolan, call me.
Matthew Teasdale, Research Analyst: Oppenheimer was an interesting story that showcased the uneasy moral conscious of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Seemingly amazed and traumatized by his invention, great flashing lights and the sounds of a pounding explosion plague Oppenheimer’s interactions with colleagues, political leaders and fellow scientists. He repeatedly calls for arms control and opposes the hydrogen bomb project which forces our protagonist to question himself and his deeds. Provocative and gripping, I highly recommend watching this flick for fellow disarmament enthusiasts!
Anna Schumann, Communications Director: Oppenheimer is, plainly, a must-see film. It was cinematically incredible: beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, everything you could want in any movie. More than that, it is also incredibly important as a way to attract new interest to the field of nuclear disarmament. This film provides the lowest barrier to entry to interest in nuclear weapons issues that I could ever hope for in a movie of its kind. By the end of the movie, I believe it was quite clear that the world we have is not the world Oppenheimer or many other atomic scientists wanted; indeed, it is quite the opposite. The movie does a service to the creators of the bomb, including our sister organization’s founder Leo Szilard, and the struggles they faced.
However, it also does a disservice to the communities who were harmed by the Trinity test, by the victims of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and subsequent nuclear tests, and to generations of downwinders who continue to suffer the effects of radiation without compensation. Yes, it was a movie about a man and his struggles, but because of the weapon he created, the Oppenheimer story does not start and end with the man himself. The Oppenheimer story is about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been sentenced to death by his creation and the ways in which the United States government has systematically normalized their oppression. In the scenes in which he briefly sees radiation victims, it would not have been hard to show that each marble added to those vessels creates multiple new victims as well.
While it is an imperfect movie for what — for whom — it excludes, I still believe that this movie is ultimately a win for the cause of nuclear disarmament, especially in light of the state of the world it debuted into. Ultimately, I am hopeful that Oppenheimer will lead to the next generational call for nuclear restraint and will usher in the next phase of nuclear arms control — this time, with the support of all who watch it.
Sophy Macartney, Scoville Fellow: I’m grateful to live in the time of Oppenheimer. Truly an impactful, well-done film at such a serendipitous time. Nuclear non-proliferation and arms control has never been as trendy as it is now, thanks to Christopher Nolan. It was pretty incredible to witness the field I work in be portrayed in a highly-anticipated piece of pop culture.
It was on-brand of Christopher Nolan to not spoon feed the spot, timeline, or flashbacks to viewers. It made the film more stimulating and definitely encouraged more history tracing. However, I imagine the complex and indirect presentation style of the film might have made it somewhat confusing for those not in the field- perhaps defeating the purpose of making the nuclear field more accessible.
I appreciated the distinction in calling a nuclear bomb a “weapon of mass genocide”, rather than weapon of mass destruction. This puts a bit more accountability in the phrase. But this brief distinction does not make up for the fact that the film does not recognize the communities impacted by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, nuclear weapons testing, and the long term humanitarian effects of the Manhattan project. I understand that this recognition was not the main purpose of the film, but it would have made my non-proliferation heart happy.
The bomb portrayed in the film is so far behind the capabilities of modern nuclear weapons nowadays. Although the film did point out that the thermonuclear device was more powerful than those used, this could have been further unpacked. Perhaps a timeline demonstrating the growth of nuclear weapons in power and number could have driven this point home.
Remembering the past is a layer of protection against dark history repeating itself. Remembering Oppenheimer and his fears is incredibly important now more than ever. All in all, Oppenheimer could not have come at a better time.