oppenheimer still
A still from the film Oppenheimer

Ignore Oppenheimer sex scene, there's more to the film

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A couple of years back I wrote an article for The Federal, titled Hiroshima Day: What transpired before and after the ‘great bang’. This was about the final decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki using mainly classified materials which were released much later.

These bombs instantly killed lakhs of civilians, affecting radiologically many more and leaving the towns and their neighbourhoods completely poisoned for decades. The movie Oppenheimer reconstructs the events focusing on the life of the hero of the day, Dr J Robert Oppenheimer. It also elaborates what happened afterwards, prophetically predicted by many including Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard.

Also read: Who was Oppenheimer? Read about genius scientist, a bundle of contradictions

This movie is based on the book American Prometheus: The Triump and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin.

Building up drama

Christopher Nolan directed the movie, while Cillian Murphy essayed the role of the protagonist Oppenheimer or Oppy (as he was addressed). The movie was made in nonlinear fashion going back and forth in time. Oppy was subjected to humiliation during the McCarthy era in the United States as a Soviet spy and many of his associates betrayed him. He was also defended by several of his colleagues from the Manhattan project and he was finally declared loyal citizen of America but security clearance was removed because of perceived risk.

Emily Blunt as his wife Kitty, and Florence Pugh as his girlfriend Jean Tatlock, were brilliant in emotional scenes. Both were associated with the Communist Party of the United States and Oppenheimer’s liberal and left wing sympathies clearly played up during the senate hearings. Added to that his brother Frank Oppenheimer played by Dylan Arnold was also a member of the CP (USA).

In spite of all such factors he was chosen to lead the Manhattan project by Leslie Groves played by Matt Damon. Let us not forget the first issue of Monthly Review, the left wing magazine that had a brilliant article by Einstein on ‘Why Socialism’. The drama builds up nicely, starting with the early days of Oppenheimer as a student at Cambridge, Gottingen and later as a young professor trying to teach quantum theory to reluctant American students.

Watch | Oppenheimer beats Barbie in India 

His varied interests in philosophy, including the Bhagavad Gita, poetry and passion to understand the nature of the stars are the background. His conflict with Edward Teller against the super bomb and Lewis Strauss, member of AEC, who was paranoid about Oppenheimer badmouthing him to Einstein became crucial to the attempts of revenge against him during the trial.

Hits and misses

Credit goes to the director who reconstructed the project site with minute details and also the secrecy associated with the project. The scene of Trinity test with the drama of possible failure due to uncertainties of trigger explosions is dramatically brought out. I understand the actual explosion was not generated using computer graphics but actual miniaturisation of the event.

The conflicting positions of scientists like Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, Fermi, Szilard, Einstein, and Teller were exhibited well. Einstein’s role even though minimal played by Tom Conti was appealing. In the closing scenes, Einstein brilliantly points out that Pandora’s Box has opened and Oppenheimer has become the Prometheus who stole the fire from Zeus and will be punished. And of course Truman was dismissive of Oppenheimer’s regrets for creating the bomb, and even misrepresented the bombing details in the radio declaration.

Also read: Oppenheimer review: Breathtaking visuals, enigmatic Murphy make for a flawed yet thrilling fare

Having said these, the director probably missed showing how the Japanese felt about the bombing and also the contradictory positions of Oppenheimer for using the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with actual enthusiastic participation in the decision to minute details of location, timing and looking for details of actual effectiveness. He also missed including the role of one of the outstanding mathematician who was in the inner circles of decision making, namely Von Neumann. He also missed pointing out the alleged real reason for bombing was to establish American role in Japan before Soviet Union could enter through their forces.

Worth a watch

The movie is brilliantly made and worth watching for the truthfulness of the presentation of historic event with details of emotions, empathy of scientists who made it possible. Not to be left behind our Hindutva friends have started campaign against the movie on such irrelevant issues of using words from the Gita in a sex scene. Hope it gets ignored.

It is indeed satisfying to see many of the dialogues in my article (Hiroshima Day, What transpired before and after the ‘great bang’), which were taken from declassified materials, actually used in the movie.

(Prof (retd) TR Govindarajan, Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, is a visiting professor at Krea University.)

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