Time, Guilt and Redemption in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

This essay is the attempt at a deeper understanding of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Beginning with the analysis of the filmographic techniques Nolan utilizes in the film, we will follow the clues that lead us to a better understanding of the conflict between the protagonist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his antagonist Lewis Strauss. Establishing context with Oppenheimer’s spiritual precursor Tenet, we will take a closer look at the phenomenon of time, one of Nolan’s favourite and most intriguing topics. From there, we will shed light on time’s role in answering the question about Oppenheimer’s guilt as well as his possible atonement.

Christopher Nolan’s name has become synonymous for upscale, mind-bending movies. All-time classics like Inception, Interstellar or The Dark Knight Trilogy have had a lasting impact on today’s cinematic landscape. Actually, talking about Nolan’s cinematic influence one might aswell name the complete list of his movies, for they are all milestones of modern cinema, each one a classic in its own right. With his work, Nolan has not only raised the bar, but also set the tone for movie-making for ever.

2 Storylines – Color vs. Black and White

In his new masterpiece, Oppenheimer, Nolan depicts the life of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), who directed the development of the first nuclear bomb for the Manhattan Project during World War 2. Compared to many of Nolan’s other movies, Oppenheimer lacks the mind-bending story elements related to time, as in Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet. Oppenheimer is not a sci-fi movie, in which a particular technological advancement opens up new ways of experiencing time. There is no machine to allow someone to infiltrate another person’s dream; there is no black hole through which we overcome the dimensionalities of spacetime; there is no time-inversion machine. But Oppenheimer takes advantage of a narrative technique which Nolan had already applied in Memento: One line of storytelling is filmed in color, and another line of storytelling leads us through the movie in black and white.

The storyline filmed in color is the chain of events experienced through the subjective lense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It is worth mentioning that the astounding feat of Oppenheimer’s screenplay is that it is written in first person. Meanwhile, there is another timeline, “a more objective view” of the events, as Nolan states, shot in black and white. Notice that Nolan says “a more objective view”, not “an objective view” – and this “more” objective perspective on the events is seen from another character’s point of view. This character is Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), a high functionary of the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission), the organisation in charge of the Manhattan Project.

Oddly enough, Lewis Strauss, whose perspective is juxtaposed to Oppenheimer’s lense, is his antagonist. To prepare for his role, Nolan advised Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. to watch Milos Forman’s Amadeus (which at this point we feel the need to express that, for us, it is the greatest movie of all times), to get a grasp of the constellation between the 2 protagonists: the troubled, struggling genius on one hand, and the well-established, powerful and jealous adversary. Thus, the main conflict of the movie is already contained in the 2 perspectives: the one of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, and the one of his antagonist, Lewis Strauss. Why is that so? What’s the beef?

Understanding the Central Conflict

The conflict between Strauss and Oppenheimer ensued firstly, because Strauss felt blown off when Oppenheimer stated that Strauss’s concerns regarding the export of isotopes were unfounded. Secondly, in what is probably the key scene of the film, Oppenheimer talks to Einstein with Strauss approaching the two. As Einstein suddenly turns away from Oppenheimer and walks past Strauss without taking any notice of him, Strauss assumes that Oppenheimer had been badmouthing to Einstein about him. These first two reasons are personal to an almost pettily degree, and can barely have any meaning for the whole story. But the third reason as to why Strauss swore a vendetta on Oppenheimer brings us deeper into the story.

As a theoretical physicist, Oppenheimer has always been fascinated with the theory of relativity and with quantum physics. When Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) approaches him to build an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer is reluctant to develop a weapon of mass destruction of such a scale. He only agrees because he is being told that the Nazis are working on the same type of weapon, and he knows that Werner von Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), whom he once met personally, is a brilliant scientist and likely to succeed in building such a weapon. If the Nazis had an atom bomb before anybody else, they would win the war. On the other hand, Groves knows that Oppenheimer had connections and sympathies with the communist party in the United States, although he never joined the party. This makes him suspicious, and Groves needs to remove all doubt over Oppenheimer’s loyalties to grant the scientist his security clearance, which will enable him to work on the development on the nuclear bomb.

Hence, Oppenheimer agrees, although reluctantly. He sees the development of nuclear weapons as a necessary evil. But his lack of enthusiasm is misinterpreted as suppressed opposition. During the research in Los Alamos, one of his assistants develops a theory that nuclear weapons might be much more effective when fueled with hydrogen. Oppenheimer understands the danger of this power and keeps the research going, but disagrees with putting it into use.

As the Nazis capitulate, Oppenheimer sees no reason for using the bomb. But it is already too late. Although Oppenheimer disagrees, Truman drops the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The whole situation worsens for Oppenheimer when US-intelligence discovers that the Soviet Union has a plutonium bomb just like the one he has been developing in Los Alamos. Strauss, being a fierce anti-communist, wonders how the Soviets managed to develop the exact same type of weapon so fast. He claims that there must have been a mole in Oppenheimer’s team, and raises suspicion against Oppenheimer himself due to his past relations with members of the communist party.

To take revenge on the man who publicly embarrassed him, and whom he thought had denigrated him in front of Einstein, Strauss plots against Oppenheimer to have his security clearance revoked and damage his reputation.

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

In Memento, the 2 storylines differ in their chronologic direction. The scenes shot in black and white are narrating forward in time, while the scenes shot in color are narrating backwards. The key scene begins in black and white, and in-midst turns into color. In Memento, the two storylines are differentiated by their temporal direction – a topic Nolan delved deeper into in Tenet. As we hinted at in the beginning of this essay, time has been the consistent topic troughout Nolan’s whole work.

But in Oppenheimer, there is no such thing as different time-streams like in Tenet. There is no slowing-down of time by interlacing dream levels as in Inception. And there is no overcoming of spacetime through entering a black hole as in Interstellar. As we explained at the beginning of this essay, Oppenheimer is not a sci-fi movie. So, what do we make of this? Does time have no relevance in Oppenheimer?

It does. But in Oppenheimer, Nolan addresses the topic of time in a way he’s never done before.

In Oppenheimer, Nolan works with how time “feels” for the viewer.

Formally, Oppenheimer consists of 2 parts: The first part shows Oppenheimer developing as a scientist, gaining reputation and working on the Manhattan Project. This part is extremely fast-paced, to a degree that it becomes almost stressful and difficult to keep up with the speed of events. In the second part, Oppenheimer undergoes the hearings orchestrated by his antagonist Lewis Strauss. This part is not fast-paced, but painfully long-stretched, feels unbearably repetitive and almost senselessly painful. We share Oppenheimer’s agony, we suffer with him through countless hearings and repetitions of the past events. We share with him the awareness that the outcome of these hearings is already predetermined to his downfall. In the face of this senseless suffering that feels never-ending at the same time, one might be reminded of the myth of Sisyphos. But it is not Sisyphos to whom Oppenheimer is spiritually related. It is Prometheus.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is inspired by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer-Award winning biography American Prometheus: Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Just as the lightbringer Prometheus, who brought the advancement of fire to mankind from the gods, Oppenheimer brings the technology of nuclear power from the sphere of quantum physics. Just as Prometheus is chained on the Caucasian mountains, with a vulture eating his regrowing liver every day, so Oppenheimer suffers extensively during the hearings which lead to the destruction of his public image and reputation. It is noteworthy mentioning that for the ancient Greeks, the liver was considered the seat of human emotions. This corresponds with Oppenheimer’s emotional agony depicted during the hearings.

Nolan’s inspiration for Oppenheimer

Nolan first came in touch with American Prometheus when Robert Pattinson, who played the character Neil, gifted him a copy of the book after filming Tenet. Pattinson came to read the book inspired by a scene in Tenet, in which Priya mentions Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. to the Protagonist about the scientist who had invented the time inversion machine, comparing her to Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

In this scene, the dubious character Priya talks to the Protagonist about the scientist who had invented the time inversion machine. She narrates that just like Oppenheimer became concerned that the detonation of a nuclear bomb might cause an infinite chain reaction and destroy the whole world, the unknown scientist from the future who developed time inversion was concerned that her invention might destroy the world. Priya proceeds to explain that, unlike Oppenheimer, the scientist in Tenet committed suicide, as to not be forced to build another device. Before committing suicide, she broke the Algorithm into 9 parts as to make it impossible for others to ignite it again.

The scientist from Tenet’s way of dealing with the consequences remains rather obscure, since we only hear of it from an unreliable character. If Priya’s version is true, the scientist putting an end to her life and splitting up the pieces of the Algorithm is obviously not the successful way to nullify the consequences of her invention. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a story to tell about dark forces from the future trying to put the Algorithm together and ignite it, while the Protagonist ist trying to prevent them from doing so.

But we want to not deviate too deep into Tenet, and keep our focus on Oppenheimer, although both movies are obviously deeply related.

The similarity between the scientist from Tenet and Oppenheimer lies in them both having developed a weapon that can potentially destroy the world. The difference between them lies in the way they deal with the consequences of their invention.

This point is crucial for the understanding of Oppenheimer. As Christopher Nolan pointedly remarked, Oppenheimer is “a movie about consequences. Unintended consequences particularly.”

Robert Oppenheimer agreed to help develop a nuclear bomb for the sole sake of preventing the Nazis from winning World War II, should they build one first. This might be a noble cause. Despite his good intentions, his downfall was caused by the fact that the actual outcome was entirely different from the intended purpose. Firstly, not only had it never been necessary to use the nuclear bombs against Nazi Germany, but they even were used against Japan. Oppenheimer opposed the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki since Japan owned no nuclear weapons and he saw no need in using such excessive force. In his eyes, the development and use of nuclear weapons was justifed only by the threat of a hostile warparty using one first.

Oppenheimer has to deal with the fact that his own creation had consequences beyond the scope he could overview. In the film, he discusses this topic mainly with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti). Just as Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula paved the way for the development of nuclear weapons, so Oppenheimer’s development of the nuclear weapons had consequences beyond his original scope. As already mentioned, Oppenheimer only agreed to develop nuclear weapons because he thought the Nazis would succeed in building one, and he wanted to do so before they did. Ironically, the whole Manhattan Project was set in motion as no other than Einstein wrote a letter to US-president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, warning him of Germany’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and urging the president to start a nuclear program of their own. Later, in 1947, a Newsweek-article quoted Einstein saying: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would never have lifted a finger.”

Hence, Nolan’s claim that his latest masterpiece is a movie not only “about consequences”, but “Unintended consequences particularly”, is in fact a euphemism. Speaking about “unintended consequences” means raising the question about responsibility – or, looking all the way down to the bottom of the question, about guilt.

Oppenheimer is not so much about rendering a final verdict about the famous physicist. Instead, Nolan’s interest lies in exploring the dynamics of responsibility, consequence, guilt, punishment – and redemption.

Robert Oppenheimer is responsible for developing the nuclear bomb. Could he have foreseen the consequences? Does that absolve him from all responsibility for the consequences? How responsible was he, when the final decision for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not in his hands, and he had no way to prevent them? Was his public defamation the reckoning for what he had done? Did his suffering atone him? Did his rehabilitation after David L. Hill’s (Rami Malek) testimony, that Strauss orchestrated Oppenheimer’s downfall, atone him?

It is a curious coincidence that David Hill paving the way for Oppenheimer’s rehabilitation corresponds to Prometheus being unchained by Hercules. But is the restoring of his reputation enough to really atone him in the deepest sense of the word?

We find a valuable clue to these questions in the final scene of the film, where Einstein speaks to Oppenheimer.

You once had a reception for me at Berkeley. Gave me an award. You all believed I’d lost the ability to understand what I’d started. So that award wasn’t for me… it was for all of you.

Now it’s your turn to deal with the consequences of your achievements. And one day… when they’ve punished you enough…

They’ll serve salmon and potato salad, make speeches, give you a medal…

Pat you on the back and tell you all is forgiven…

Just remember. It won’t be for you…

…it’ll be for them.

Albert is trying to tell him that the kind of human forgiveness displayed in his rehabilitation merely serves the people pronouncing it. Robert understands this. By telling Einstein that he believed that they had started “a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world”, while visualizing “the expanding nuclear arsenals of the world”, Oppenheimer had already confessed that he holds himself guilty of all the future atrocities he sees to be caused by nuclear weapons.

That’s the perspective of a contrite scientist, just like the one in Tenet who killed herself. But is this self-condemnation the true judgement? The final verdict?

Maybe a viable approach could be to come full circle with our initial distinction of the two story lines: Oppenheimer’s and the “more objective” one. How could this answer our central question? Is Oppenheimer’s contrite perspective too subjective, while Strauss’s view is “more objective”, although derived from a misunderstanding – because Strauss thought that Einstein’s consternation was caused from Oppenheimer badmouthing him? Is the punishment by Strauss’s hands, derived from the misunderstanding, the appropriate punishment, sufficient to atone him? Is all said and done after his political rehabilitation? Is the misunderstanding that which helps the truth unfold?

We know that time has a particular significance in almost all of Nolan’s movies. In this case, time expands beyond the story, since we and our history are still part of it. The openness of time towards the future holds the possibility that nuclear weapons are never going to be used again. This would certainly absolve Oppenheimer. But on the other hand, does that mean that it would condemn him, if it did happen? And, to add a gradual measure to the question: Would it be less of his guilt if nuclear weapons were not to be used until, let’s say, in 1000 years? 10.000 years? Does time make a difference? Can time absolve us?

We are left with the open question for time to answer. Only history and the forthcoming events will tell.

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