“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Upon witnessing the Trinity atomic bomb test in 1945, American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer thought of the words from the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s holy texts. The bomb was deployed months later in Japan, ending World War II but ushering in an age of nuclear proliferation.
Now, filmmaker Christopher Nolan takes on the complicated Father of the Atomic Bomb in his latest feature, Oppenheimer, with regular Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy playing the title figure. The robust ensemble also includes Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, David Dastmalchian, and Gary Oldman, among others.
Based on the Pulitzer-winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer will tell the physicist’s life story, primarily through his involvement with the Manhattan Project as head of the Los Alamos Laboratory. Thematically reminiscent of the Hayao Miyazaki film The Wind Rises, and with all the visual touches of a tried and true Nolan experience, the trailer’s combination of grandeur and personal ambition collides with deadly results.
While Oppenheimer never expressed regret about his creation — author Ray Monk wrote in his 2012 biography Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center that the night before the first bomb dropped in Japan, Oppenheimer stood above the Los Alamos assembly line “like a prize-winning boxer” — he protested the use of a second bomb on Nagasaki. He wrote to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson advocating for a nuclear weapon ban, and told President Truman he had “blood on [his] hands.”
While otherwise best-known for his left-wing politics biting him during McCarthyism, which the movie is also exploring, Oppenheimer was also something of a philosopher; he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy from Christ’s College in 1927, and was known to dabble in religious studies to counterbalance his scientific profession. Hinduism was of particular interest, which is why Oppenheimer quoted Gita when he was interviewed for the 1965 television documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb.
In 1967, Oppenheimer’s close friend, Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi, said Oppenheimer was compelled to explore the outer reaches of our collective knowledge:
“Oppenheimer was overeducated in those fields, which lie outside the scientific tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion in particular, which resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended to feel there was much more of the mysterious and novel than there actually was ...”
A historical figure like Oppenheimer is catnip for Christopher Nolan, who can split the atomic difference between Hollywood spectacle, technical precision, and thoughtful introspection. His newest film looks like a fascinating cross between the abstract, elegiac parts of Interstellar and the period dressing of Dunkirk. Oppenheimer’s work on our deadliest weapons, mixed with his desire to build a better world, makes him a complex figure, and definitely an intriguing subject for a Nolan movie.
Oppenheimer will open in theaters on July 21, 2023.