In the new MSNBC documentary “To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb,” the impact of the 1945 nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is seen in gruesome detail: US military archive footage recorded days after the bombings they show survivors covered in horrific burns, with sagging flesh and scorched clothing on their bodies, as they stand amidst the rubble of razed cities. Though the documentary, which is now streaming on Peacock, was released in part to build excitement for Christopher Nolan’s Universal-produced “Oppenheimer,” no such footage appears in the film of him.
Nolan defended the decision in conversation following the film’s New York screening over the weekend. His depiction of Manhattan Project lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) doesn’t show Hiroshima or Nagasaki, he said, not to sanitize the subject matter, but because the film extends from the specific point of view of the subject. “We know a lot more about him at the time,” Nolan said. “He He learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio, as in the rest of the world.”
Ever since his first feature films “Following” and “Memento,” Nolan has been fixated on subjective perspectives as a central aspect of his cinematic strategy. “Oppenheimer” follows suit by rotating between two perspectives throughout. The physicist’s experiences unfold in color, while the recollections of the disgraced chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) unfold in black and white sequences interwoven into the story. “It’s not a documentary,” Nolan said. “It’s an interpretation. This is my job. I think it’s a narrative drama film.
Most of “Oppenheimer,” however, explores Oppenheimer’s version of events and his evolving moral compass. It shows his willingness to encourage bombing targets that would cause mass casualties to demonstrate the bomb’s power, as well as his later regrets, which he made public, consequently losing his security clearance.
A key scene, retold in the documentary, has the scientist in the Oval Office announcing that he has “blood on his hands” to a puzzled Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman). That admission, which reportedly led the president to denounce Oppenheimer as a “crybaby,” came after Oppenheimer realized he’d been in denial in all ramifications of his work. “There’s also a recurring motif that has a lot to do with him closing his eyes,” Nolan said. “For me, it’s really about staying in his head.”
That approach seemed to satisfy experts who met with Nolan for a discussion on Saturday, a day before the 78th anniversary of the Trinity Test at Los Alamos National Laborary, in which Oppenheimer oversaw the first successful nuclear test. In the past, Nolan’s “Interstellar” wormhole scientific approach to the time-shifting dynamics of “Tenet” helped him build a foundation of support from the scientific community. With “Oppenheimer,” the physicist’s seal of approval has more to do with the philosophical aspects of the film, which explores the role of science in determining the fate of all human life.
“I just saw the film and I’m still under the spell,” said Italian physicist Carlo Riveli, one of the film’s consultants. “I think everyone should see this movie not just because it’s great, but because the kinds of questions it raises aren’t just about the 1940s and general questions about the morality of science. These are burning questions today. The doomsday clock that should estimate the risk of a nuclear catastrophe has never been closer to midnight. We are in a situation where the kinds of concerns Oppenheimer expressed—in his confused way—are our concerns today. I think that’s what the film brings out so strongly.
As for the portrayal of the Trinity Test and the scientific brainstorming that went into it, Nolan once again enlisted the support of Nobel Prize-winning “Interstellar” adviser Kip Thorne, who joined the discussion on Saturday. “I think he did very well as he always does,” said Thorne. “Of all the people I’ve worked with in Hollywood, he understands more science having learned it researching online than anyone except Anne Hathaway.”
Nolan recreated the nuclear detonation without CGI on location, a striking contrast to the last time he depicted such an explosion, for the climax of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012. The scene, which features Batman speeding towards the horizon to detonate a nuclear device a safe distance from Gotham, had no practical effect. “It’s meant to make you feel far enough away that it doesn’t affect you,” Nolan said. “You should get the feeling we got away with it. We did it with CG. My team has done incredible research.” The Trinity Test, on the other hand, posed a different challenge. “This was meant to feel beautiful and terrifying in equal measure,” Nolan said. “Real-world images have that bite.”
The Trinity scene also marks the beginning of Oppenheimer’s realization that he had helped create a device with the power to destroy the world. That perspective injects the film with a polemical urgency designed to impact contemporary conversations about the creation and preservation of nuclear devices around the world. “Nuclear weapons are an extremely dangerous thing to keep around the house,” Nolan said. “As I come out of making this film, and as it begins to spread around the world, I realized that our relationship with the role of nuclear weapons comes and goes because of the political situation, and it shouldn’t, because the threat is constant. … Some of the closest moments of nuclear disaster were actually in times of relative calm.
The severity of the current threat remains an open question. Nolan was also joined in the conversation by Thomas Mason, the current director of Los Alamos, which occupies Oppenheimer’s old job. He cited an observation by historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari that suggested wartime conflict decreased as a direct result of the initial nuclear detonations. “If you look at all of recorded human history, most of the time, 15 percent of the population has died from violence, from armed conflict,” Mason said. “Since 1945, it’s been single-digit percentages. So Oppenheimer’s dream of ending the war obviously didn’t come true, but as awful as the concept of nuclear destruction is, it acted as a brake.
At that point Rivoli interrupted him. “So far,” he said. Nervous laughter echoed through the room.
Universal Pictures releases “Oppenheimer” in theaters on Friday, July 21.