Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer Follows Man Who Lived Long Enough to ‘Become the Villain’

J. Robert Oppenheimer was lauded as the father of the atomic bomb, but was then blasted by his own government for trying to contain it. Sounds like a Christopher Nolan protagonist.

J. Robert Oppenheimer is the Next Christopher Nolan Protagonist
Photo: Getty Images

Not everyone can die a hero. Christopher Nolan emphasized that point by even taking the mask away from Batman in The Dark Knight Trilogy, proving Bruce Wayne knows how to make an entrance and then be smart enough to plan an exit strategy. Exits proved vital to other Nolan projects as well, including the searing Dunkirk, a World War II epic highlighting the heroism of the common foot soldier and the British evacuation of France. Now his next movie will also be set during WWII, but it’s about an extraordinary man, who never forgave himself for building the weapon that ended the war, J. Robert Oppenheimer. There may be few historical figures who’d more readily wear Harvey Dent’s line, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

“I have become death, the destroyer of worlds,” the real Oppenheimer once said, quoting from The Bhagavat Ghita in an interview about creating the atom bomb.  Nolan’s film will focus on the genius scientist’s role in its development. As a young man, Oppenheimer distinguished himself as a student under J. J. Thomson, who had been awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physics for detecting the electron. After the start of World War II, Oppenheimer was invited by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to take over work on neutron calculations at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, also known as Berkeley Lab, which was struggling against the clock to develop an atomic bomb.

As the war and development progressed, the scientists needed more space. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the formation of the Manhattan Project on Dec. 28, 1942. Also known as Project Y, the Manhattan Project was formally established on Jan. 1, 1943. Oppenheimer was appointed scientific director. He directed the construction of the laboratories at Los Alamos and brought together the best minds in physics to solve theoretical and mechanical issues. Over 3,000 people worked on the project, including Albert Einstein, who first presented the military potential of an uncontrolled fission chain reaction to Roosevelt in the summer of 1939.

The first nuclear explosion was executed at a site on the Alamogordo air base, 120 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer named it “Trinity,” and it had the explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT. One month later, the bomb was used twice on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

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Those nuclear explosions ended the war, but Oppenheimer had mixed feelings. There is, after all, a physics laboratory named after him at the Ethical Culture Society School where Oppenheimer enrolled in September 1911. Founded by Dr. Felix Adler as an outgrowth of American Reform Judaism, the society concentrated on social justice, civic responsibility, and secular humanism. After the war, Oppenheimer lobbied for international arms control as an advisor of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949. Oppenheimer strongly opposed work on developing the hydrogen bomb.

The FBI had files on Oppenheimer, including a report of a January or February 1943 meeting where he heard about colleagues who were solicited for nuclear secrets by a shell oil employee on behalf of the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer failed to report it until August. The FBI furnished Oppenheimer’s files to his enemies. On Nov. 7, 1953, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover received a letter from William Liscum Borden, former executive director of Congress’ Joint Atomic Energy Committee, accusing Oppenheimer of being “an agent of the Soviet Union,” based on “11 years of minute surveillance.” The theoretical physicist’s phones were tapped, his office and home were bugged, and his mail was opened.

Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked 32 hours before it was set to expire in June 1954.  Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” dredged up old Communist sympathies in testimony to the Oppenheimer Security Hearing in Washington. Army Counterintelligence knew about Oppenheimer’s associations with Communist Party USA members, which included his wife, when he was made director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in 1942, and when he became chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the AEC in 1947.  The revocation stripped the renowned scientist of political power and made him a boogeyman during the height of the Red Scare.

In the fallout of his public exile from American government life, Oppenheimer established the World Academy of Art and Science in 1960, along with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Joseph Rotblat.  The scientific community never forgave the government for its treatment of Oppenheimer, and much of the findings of the committee were shot down under later scrutiny. Partially to right these wrongs, President Lyndon B. Johnson honored the scientist with the Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Award in 1963. Oppenheimer died of throat cancer in 1967.

Christopher Nolan is a courageous director who has never stopped taking risks, even after achieving mainstream success. A Nolan film is a brand, like a Martin Scorsese movie or a Hitchcock picture. Nolan is an auteur, writing and completely controlling every aspect of his films. From Memento to Inception, he has never stopped challenging audiences, nor has he ever pandered to them. Tenet was released while the pandemic was at its height and the film still grossed $363 million. Nolan is probably one of the few directors with the guts to make a bomb. The 1989 Manhattan Project drama Fat Man and Little Boy was blasted by critics and ignored by audiences, even with Paul Newman starring in it.

Nolan is best telling human stories with strong characters who are troubled by epic challenges and moral conundrums. Oppenheimer challenged and second-guessed his greatest achievements until the day he died, and seems like a natural choice to lend himself to Nolan’s recurring series of troubled protagonists.

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This upcoming biopic has the power to set things right, and redefine how history paints the necessary ambivalence of scientists at war. Oppenheimer was called “the father of the Atom bomb.” He should have demanded a paternity test and be known as the founding father of the American school of theoretical physics.