By Connor Murray
Have you heard of this movie coming out in late July? It’s about an American icon who altered the course of human history.
I am, of course, talking about Barbie, but of more immediate interest to readers of this blog, there’s another film, Oppenheimer, that depicts actor Cillian Murphy as the so-called “father of the atomic bomb.”
This film represents the nuclear policy community’s most significant popular culture moment in a generation. Given that the movie is a big-budget Hollywood production, it is reasonable to anticipate that it will blend fact with fiction for artistic effect. It may be necessary to look beyond the drama and visual effects for some insight into the development of nuclear weapons. Here are three things that I will be looking out for as I watch the film:
1. Oppenheimer’s role. This film is about the man, J. Robert Oppenheimer, but it also depicts the workings of the “Manhattan Project” and the testing that led to the development of the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer was an accomplished scientist, but the movie could place him at the center of policy decisions about the development of nuclear weapons and their testing. This was (and should be) the role of elected officials, not scientists. The focus on Oppenheimer may also limit discussion on the legacy of nuclear testing and how it continues to impact people and our environment today. How will the film handle the dynamic between science, policy, and the legacy of Oppenheimer’s work?
2. Oppenheimer’s own relationship with his work. Oppenheimer was a leading member of the project to develop the atomic bomb and, therefore, the creation of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The context of World War II led Oppenheimer and his colleagues to believe their work was critical to victory, but he later experienced regret at the destructive potential of the weapons he helped develop. This led to his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb and efforts to avoid a nuclear arms race. How will the film depict this transition and the effect the work had on Oppenheimer himself?
3. Leo Szilard’s role. This physicist, who originally conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933 and wrote the letter for Albert Einstein’s signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project, also founded our sister organization, Council for a Livable World in 1962.
Szilard was instrumental in the United States government’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons development. His joint letter with Albert Einstein to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt led to the government’s decision to pursue nuclear fission research and ultimately the Manhattan Project. Szilard went on to become the chief physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago as part of the project before leading a group of scientists to petition President Harry Truman not to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. Will he even be in the film?
I have not yet seen the movie but hope it will provide new impetus to the conversation about the dangers of nuclear weapons today. In discussing the film with friends and family, and professionally with those shaping U.S. nuclear policy, I hope to raise awareness of the destructive nature of nuclear weapons, as we consider their role in the complex set of issues that global security presents.
Whatever its dramatic or artistic merits, this should be an important film. At the Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, we encourage those who watch this film to take in the awesome destruction and personal struggles depicted in it, and then join us to ensure that no weapon like this is ever used again.