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A legacy of paradox.
The law and the gospel in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” and the life of its namesake.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
There is, perhaps, no better analog to understand our present moment than Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Oppenheimer, which depicts the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer who is lauded as “the father of the atomic bomb.” With a script derived from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, authored by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin in 2006, Nolan’s film is the latest in a series of cinematic achievements crafted by an artist with near Kubrickian precision. From a technical standpoint, Oppenheimer’s place in Nolan’s filmography makes perfect sense. In many ways, its tone and structure seem like the natural evolution for a director whose previous entries boast of such anti-blockbuster concepts as dream thievery, time inversion, and interstellar travel. It was only a matter of time, perhaps, that the global ramifications of the scientific achievement and weaponization of nuclear fission would be mined and turned into a masterful three hours of filmmaking that remains unlike any other biopic ever before. After all, it’s not every day that IMAX cameras are used to capture images of men sitting and talking on 65mm film.
In that way, Oppenheimer is without question a Christopher Nolan film, with some hailing it as “the most ‘Christopher Nolan movie’ that Nolan has made.” This can be seen from the simple fact that the crux of the film revolves around the incessant interweaving of multiple strands of story each occurring at different moments in time. Beginning with his studies at the University of Cambridge in England to his appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, we are shown the troubled genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer (masterfully portrayed by Cillian Murphy), which ultimately resulted in him being selected to serve as the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, America’s endeavor to build the first atom bomb during the height of the Second World War. This thread culminates in a bone-chilling sequence revisiting the famed Trinity test, which saw the world’s first nuclear weapon detonation. Another thread of storytelling concerns the 1954 inquiry into Oppenheimer’s past communist sympathies and relationships in order to ascertain whether or not he was “an agent of the Soviet Union,” as was alleged in a now-infamous letter that made its way to the desk of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and ultimately to President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself.
The 1954 inquest of Oppenheimer was held under the guise that the famed scientist that brought nuclear weaponry onto the world scene was, in fact, a threat to U.S. national security. Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked, effectively killing whatever influence he might have had on nuclear policy going forward and leaving a blemish on the renowned physicist’s eventual legacy. The final strand of history Nolan weaves into his film concerns Lewis Strauss (played to perfection by Robert Downey, Jr.) and the unraveling of his own legacy and life in politics during a heated Cabinet confirmation hearing in 1959. As each strand of history unfolds, though, we are not necessarily shown what was right, only what was. In keeping with much of his earlier filmography, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is imbued with ambiguity, which is, perhaps, what makes it the achievement that it is.
To understand a man as complex as Oppenheimer is, in a way, to understand the complexities of artificial intelligence, which is to say, we can’t. Oppenheimer’s historical legacy is one that is rooted in the word “contradiction,” and much of the film’s runtime is devoted to painting a paradoxical portrait of one of the most polarizing figures of the twentieth century; a man whom Nolan himself refers to as “the most important person who ever lived.” As infinite as the theoretical quantum mechanics are which inspired Oppenheimer from the earliest stages of his scientific odyssey, the moral quandaries surrounding his greatest accomplishment are equally as infinite. As such, the film is suffused with equal parts frustration and vindication. Both Oppenheimer’s strongest supporters and cruelest critics will find plenty of ammunition to reinforce their position, an outcome which is surely frustrating in some regard.
It would be easier, perhaps, if we were given a definitive answer on what to think about a man the likes of Oppenheimer, whose genius was only tempered by his hubris. But rather than telling us what to think, Nolan insists that we decide that for ourselves. “The movie hasn’t entirely figured him out,” writes Alissa Wilkinson, “and history hasn’t either.” While some might consider the last hour of Oppenheimer a tedious experience since it forces you to sit through scene after scene of men in suits sitting in dimly lit rooms talking over each other, such is the point. Whatever you think of Oppenheimer’s political bent or nuclear policies and the way in which the latter half of his public career was mired with such controversy, his life and legacy cannot be reduced to the mere black-and-white letters that appear in the array of biographies or textbooks that bear his name. The only ones who insist on telling us what to think are the body of adjudicators whose swollen jingoism feels like little more than an enterprise in self-justification.
Perhaps what is most poignant about Nolan’s Oppenheimer is its black-and-white depiction of the law. This is both a metaphorical and literal device since a large swath of the movie is presented in a searing black-and-white color palette. The result of the law, of course, is always categorical black-and-white binaries. Men and their motives are compartmentalized with absolutist precision as either good or evil. But for however easier this is for us to grasp, this is rarely how life works. In reality, the motives of men are much greyer than we would like to imagine. This isn’t to suppose that there is no ultimate right or wrong, it’s just to say that our grasp of that is much more limited than we’d like to imagine. Oppenheimer is a cinematic achievement mostly because it insists that there are no easy ways to understand its namesake. The moral dilemma that is birthed out of his most celebrated scientific achievement shouldn’t merely exist as debate fodder for undergraduate ethics classes. Rather, his legacy should live on in the paradoxical mercy of tension and contradiction.
In the end, Nolan’s film almost functions like a lens of searing grace, allowing us to see in Oppenheimer a picture of ourselves, one in which our troubled and guilty souls are made to wrestle with the same level of contradiction that racked the man whose finest achievement gave the world the power to destroy itself. As one commentator put it, the film “is about the dance between creation and destruction.” Within that dance is the choreography of conceit, power, and pride, a veritable mirror for understanding humanity. The effect of grace, though, runs counter to the absolutism of the law, allowing for paradoxes and contradictions. This can be understood, from a theological perspective, by remembering a basic tenet of reformation doctrine, that being, simul justus et peccator, in which it is affirmed that one can be a sinner and a saint at the same time. The discomforting reality is that we, too, are people of conflict and contradiction. The good news, though, is that there is a body that can absolve us from such a fate. It’s the body that heaved upon a cross as the ultimate point of contradiction, wherein death and defeat were merely the prelude to resurrection.