Aug 1, 2023 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Oppenheimer"

It’s exceedingly rare for a subject like nuclear ethics to enter the zeitgeist, but with his critically acclaimed blockbuster Oppenheimer, writer-director Christopher Nolan has accomplished this feat. Perhaps it has something to do with the moment—nuclear-armed Russia's brutal war in Ukraine persists, and with extreme weather and UFOs in the headlines, the worldwide public might be somewhat primed to be entertained by a movie about people grappling with the possible end of the world. And with its somber and dark tone, Oppenheimer is the perfect counterpoint to the other summer blockbuster, Barbie, which masks its social commentary behind a pink, beachy aesthetic.

But a three-hour film about such a weighty topic released in the middle of summer, wouldn’t have made over $300 million in a week if it didn’t have a compelling story to tell. And that’s because, much like his eponymous film, J. Robert Oppenheimer was also a rarity, a scientist who was a legitimate celebrity. With his ever-present dangling cigarette, haunted eyes, and porkpie hat, he almost had the allure of a tortured rock star. Inspired partly by David Bowie, Cillian Murphy brilliantly brings this to the screen, as Nolan’s writing and direction throws him in a downward spiral of trauma, in which, amazingly, his role in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is just one component.


Oppenheimer, based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Shewrin, is first and foremost a biopic. The narrative jumps around, but the main story sees Oppenheimer progress from a troubled grad student, to a maybe somewhat communist-sympathizing yet world-renowned physicist professor at Berkeley, to the head of the Manhattan Project. From there, he and his team build the atomic bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people—and end World War II.

The end of the war is a natural dividing line in Oppenheimer’s life (and world history), and Nolan focuses just as much, if not more, on what came after for Oppenheimer. As the film shows it, he was never the same. Wracked by guilt, he takes a post leading the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, but, as the Cold War begins in earnest, declines to fully endorse the building of the even-more-destructive hydrogen bomb. This, combined with an extremely consequential personal slight against Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), an original member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and President Eisenhower’s first pick for secretary of commerce, leads certain government officials to investigate Oppenheimer’s past associations with various left-wing groups and individuals, including those connected to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

In a series of brutal “kangaroo court” hearings, Oppenheimer’s life is dissected and torn apart in front of his wife and closest colleagues. His security clearance is stripped, effectively ending his career in the field of nuclear physics. Afterwards, he kept up a public profile and was eventually recognized by President Lyndon Johnson for his contributions. He died in 1967 from throat cancer.

The Bomb

The centerpiece of this film is the Trinity test at Los Alamos in New Mexico, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. Adding to the drama is the (close to zero) chance that this explosion ignites the atmosphere and destroys the entire world. Nolan certainly does this moment justice as the viewers, along with Oppenheimer and his team, are in awe of, at first, the incredible explosion and towering inferno, and then, when you’ve almost forgotten that it’s coming, an earth-shattering shockwave and thunderous noise. The scientists and workers at Los Alamos euphemistically referred to what they were building as “The Gadget,” but after seeing it in action, there’s no doubt in Oppenheimer’s mind about what they’ve created. With a view of the spectacle miles away in the desert, he utters his famous line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Though not a pacificist, Oppenheimer was a principled man. While at Berkeley in the 1930s, he raised funds for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War and attended meetings of left-wing organizations. As the son of German-Jewish immigrants, he is horrified by the news about Hitler in the run-up to the invasion of Poland, and as a physicist who was partly educated in his parents’ birth nation, he knows the capabilities of the scientists who may now be working with the Nazis. And by 1939—due to the famous letter from Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard—President Roosevelt knows the “secret” too. As the Nazis continue on their path of destruction through Europe, Oppenheimer sees no choice but to lead the Manhattan Project. Hitler having the bomb first is unthinkable and he uses this fact to convince a dream team of scientists to move out to New Mexico with their families to start working on The Gadget.

The work is so complicated and painstaking that by the time of the Trinity test in July 1945, Hitler is dead and Germany is in ruins. Still, the Pacific War rages on as the Japanese show no sign of surrendering even after the U.S. firebombs Tokyo, killing at least 100,000 civilians. Stripped of his original, and more personal, motivation, Oppenheimer somewhat loses himself. At a meeting in Washington with government and military officials, he expresses the doubts of the scientific community about using such a destructive weapon on Imperial Japan—which is seen by some as less of a global threat than Nazi Germany—but doesn’t object when the planners reveal the cities full of civilians that they’re targeting.

After the bombings, the enormity of what he’s enabled engulfs Oppenheimer. He is so wracked by panic attacks that in a meeting with Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) in the Oval Office—while his face is on the cover of Time—he admits his guilt. The president waves him off, says that he takes responsibility for the action, and calls him a “crybaby.” It was years before his security clearance is stripped, but Oppenheimer is already on the path that will alienate him from the highest reaches of the U.S. government.

Nuclear Ethics for this Moment, A Carnegie Council virtual event

The Victims’ Perspectives

Writing in 2023, it’s hard to imagine that after the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all that the American public—including the Manhattan Project scientists—got was a radio address from the president. This left Oppenheimer to imagine the shockwave, the blinding light, and the skin peeling off the victims, visions and sensations that plagued him for the rest of his life. This is all that the viewers get to see, as well. There are no scenes in Japan, just the mention of the over 220,000 victims from one of Oppenheimer’s interrogators. There’s also no mention of the communities in New Mexico that were harmed by the Trinity blast. In setting up Los Alamos, Oppenheimer offhandedly mentions that Native Americans use the land for burials on occasion, but as fire and radiation overtake this land and the workers cheer the successful test, these inhabitants are seemingly forgotten. In reality, the so-called “Downwinders” suffered from elevated rates of heart disease, leukemia, and other cancers due to the nuclear fallout and, because of the remote location, they were often unable to get sufficient medical care.

These omissions are not an oversight, though. “Everything is [Oppenheimer’s] experience, or my interpretation of his experience,” said Nolan. “Because as I keep reminding everyone, it’s not a documentary. It is an interpretation.” As Nolan sees it, the bomb is personal for Oppenheimer. When he talks about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the screen shakes and rubble appears around him—it’s as if he’s feeling the effects. As mentioned in the film, many of the victims did not fall sick until days, months, or even years later from radiation poisoning. This seems to be Oppenheimer’s experience, as well, as he becomes more and more affected by guilt in the years after.

Nolan’s explanation, though, comes with an asterisk. There are several scenes in which Oppenheimer is not present, most significantly the confirmation hearings of Strauss for the commerce secretary role and several meetings connected to it, all filmed in black and white to help signify the change of perspective. Nolan’s justification could be that these scenes directly affected Oppenheimer in his security clearance judgement and he was aware of what was discussed and who was saying it. But surely Nolan—the director of mind-bending epics like Inception, Interstellar, and The Prestige—could have found a way to work in a scene or two from Japan or the communities in the Southwest. As it stands, the only reactions we see to the atomic bomb are from the people who built it, who are mostly white, American, affluent, and suffered no physical effects.

McCarthyism & A Bureaucratic Nightmare

As Nolan tells it, the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance and the development of the atomic bomb were inextricably linked. After he realized what it actually meant to destroy two cities with nuclear weapons—to be “the destroyer of worlds,” no matter what the president says—Oppenheimer couldn’t bring himself to endorse the idea of a hydrogen bomb. This set off alarm bells for certain U.S. officials. The nuclear program was no longer in response to genocidal fascism, it was competing now with a nation that, in theory, embraced communism, an ideology that Oppenheimer at the very least flirted with in the years before World War II. But as McCarthyism heated up in the 1950s, these flirtations (or more) combined with the fact that his wife, brother, girlfriend, and close friends, were all literally card-carrying communists at some point led to the investigations of his political activities before the Manhattan Project.

These investigations were also intertwined with Strauss’ personal animus against Oppenheimer, due to a policy disagreement about isotopes and a public rebuke at a Congressional hearing. It’s a bit surreal that Nolan spends so much time on this affair when the other “subplot” involves weapons that can destroy the planet. Still, Strauss’ actions cut Oppenheimer to the core. Due to papers that Strauss has unearthed, Oppenheimer is forced to sit, observe, and even participate as the sham hearings go over the moral calculations of building the bomb, the trauma of losing a lover to a mysterious suicide, and the fact that his own colleagues see him as unstable and sullen. At the end of the hearings, he’s broken and no longer has a say in how the weapons that he “fathered” will be used.

The juxtaposition of bureaucracy grinding Oppenheimer down and the development of world-altering nuclear weapons, at times, makes it seem like you’re watching two different films. The revelation of Strauss’ betrayal of Oppenheimer is portrayed like a “whodunit,” ramping up the drama with flashbacks and montages and repetition of key scenes. But it’s hard to get truly invested when these scenes come just minutes after your seat literally shook because of the intensity of the Trinity test.

Still, this is indeed how his contributions to the U.S. nuclear program ended for Oppenheimer. It’s a stark reminder of how risky it is for humans, imperfect and petty and often blinded by emotion, to be in control of weapons that can destroy their world.

Discussion Questions

  1. Was President Truman justified in ordering the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What were his other options?
  2. Was it wrong for Nolan to not include the perspectives of the Downwinders and the Japanese victims of the atomic bombings? Did it make sense from a cinematic perspective?
  3. Was Oppenheimer the right person to lead the Manhattan Project? Did his political leanings and personality make him a dangerous person to lead the project?
  4. Should Oppenheimer have felt guilty about his role in the atomic bombings at the end of World War II?
  5. Should the Manhattan Project have been abandoned after the Nazis were defeated?
  6. Was the investigation into Oppenheimer's past justified? If you were a government official, would you have had concerns about his security clearance status?
  7. Was Oppenheimer right to voice concerns about the hydrogen bomb even though there was evidence that the Soviet Union had already developed it?

Works Cited

"How Cillian Murphy Found His ‘Resting Physicist’s Face’," New York, Bilge Ebiri, July 28, 2023

"'Oppenheimer' draws debate over the absence of Japanese bombing victims in the film," NBC News, Kimmy Yam, July 26, 2023

"Trinity Test Downwinders," National Park Service, March 17, 2023

"We Are All Oppenheimer," Vice, Matthew Gault, July 25, 2023

"What Does 'Oppenheimer' Get Wrong?," American University, School of International Service, Kay Summers, July 24, 2023

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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