This article contains Oppenheimer spoilers.
It can be said that Christopher Nolan has always known how to end a movie. From Leonard Shelby concluding his journey where it began and asking “now where was I?” in Memento to the topper that wouldn’t stop spinning in Inception, this is a filmmaker who looks for the most potent image that will burrow its way into audiences’ heads.
Yet the final scene of his most ambitious film to date is something more impressive, if altogether disquieting. Oppenheimer definitely implants a grim idea in the viewer’s mind, but it does so by giving the uncanny impression that we are seeing it through J. Robert Oppenheimer’s eyes first. Standing by the duck pond that Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) has been consigned to by posterity, and where Oppie will be joining him in exile sooner than he realizes, the man credited with fathering the atomic bomb asks if Albert recalls Edward Teller’s theory about a nuclear explosion triggering the end of the world.
“I remember it well, what of it?” Einstein asks. “I believe we did,” Oppenheimer says while an IMAX camera plummets so deeply into Cillian Murphy’s blue eyes that the viewer feels like we are being left to drown in his despair—despair at the prospect of nuclear war, despair at self-annihilation, and the lingering, eternal despair that comes with the realization that for the rest of time on this planet, these weapons will be at humanity’s disposal. It’s a chilling signoff for a film that plumbs the ambiguities of Oppenheimer’s life without offering easy answers. While Nolan made a picture accessible to almost any viewer, he refused to provide any degree of comfort, reassurance, or easily memeable sentiment and message.
Which is one of the many reasons I’ve long been skeptical of the common criticism about Oppenheimer being too long or that “the trial” in the last hour dragged on and on. More than once, I’ve been told the movie could have ended after Trinity, the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945 which is shot and edited with all the tension of a thriller in Nolan and Jennifer Lame’s hands. It should be noted that the Trinity test, and the exuberant satisfaction Oppenheimer briefly feels toward his accomplishment as fellow scientists hoist him on their shoulders before the American flag, occurs at exactly the two-hour mark in the film.
The implication, therefore, seems to be that Oppenheimer should have ended on a note of triumph—a disastrous choice, to put it mildly, for the story of engineering a doomsday weapon—or that the movie could have glossed over Oppenheimer’s later years. Why should we care if Oppenheimer’s security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was revoked, or that the architect of his downfall, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), suffered his own public humiliation?
The answer, of course, is that it is these turns of events which elevate a riveting piece of biographic storytelling into a cinematic prophecy of doom that on its own will likely be with us for many years to come.
Living with the Bomb
The most crucial thing to understand about why Oppenheimer went on for a full third hour after World War II concluded in the shadow of a mushroom cloud is that there is no credible way to discuss this man without delving into the fact that the government which entrusted him to build the device also pillared and besmirched his name to the point of infamy.
During a panel with Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd on the 78th anniversary of the Trinity test, Nobel Prize Laureate and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne said he knew scientists early in his career who demurred from pursuing a public life in government service or policy-making because of how Oppenheimer was treated.
Said Thorne, “I was as much influenced by my father who dealt with McCarthyism as the chair of a faculty in Utah at the time. We had a governor who was dictating to the board of trustees to fire faculty with left wing tendencies. So I went through this in my own family.”
The implication that Oppenheimer was a traitor, or at least untrustworthy with American secrets due to his political leanings, sent a chill through academia and government institutions that lasted for generations. With a simple letter speciously raising doubts about Oppenheimer’s loyalty to his country, William L. Borden (who was working as a proxy for Strauss) was able to discredit and muzzle the most respected scientific mind of the 20th century in American life; the man who ended World War II and brought our boys home. If the far-right could do that to him because he expressed vocal opinions about the hydrogen bomb, no one was safe.
So any biopic about Oppenheimer legitimately needed to cover a life that eerily matched the arc of Greek tragedy to a tee. After all, historians Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin named their definitive biography on the man American Prometheus, and what is a Promethean tale if you skip the part where the gods condemn him to be chained to a rock so his guts will be pecked out each morning?
Oppenheimer dramatizes these elements, and does so with spectacular detail and specificity. Even biographer Bird remarked with astonishment at the same Trinity anniversary panel that Nolan did something he and Sherwin had not: he went through the transcript of Lewis Strauss’ failed confirmation hearing and discovered a surprise witness named Dr. David Hill (Rami Malek in the movie), who was called on to essentially smear an unprepared Strauss with the same kind of one-sided testimony Strauss used to decimate Oppenheimer in his security clearance hearing five years earlier. The dramatic irony that this was done as revenge by the scientific community against the political class’ most envious party was not lost on Nolan.
In fact, it creates one-half of the climactic crescendo wherein Strauss raves after his Cabinet post begins slipping away that “I gave [Oppenheimer] exactly what he wanted: to be remembered for Trinity! Not Hiroshima! Not Nagasaki! He should be thanking me!” Of course Strauss’ fury also articulates why the film is so much richer and, ultimately, ambiguous. It explores part and parcel the facts of Oppenheimer’s life, and in doing so invites you to descend down into the pits of Hades.
A Trial Without a Jury or a Verdict
The most powerful sequence in Oppenheimer arguably occurs at the top of the third hour. After an exhilarating taste of success and triumph, Oppenheimer is left out of the final, gruesome moments of World War II. Two nuclear bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the span of three days in August 1945. Two hundred twenty thousand lives were snuffed out in biblical fire or the lingering, years-long horror of radiation poisoning. And J. Robert learns about it just like every other American—by listening to the radio.
Then comes Nolan’s cinematic flourish. He lets you live in Oppie’s nightmare just as it is beginning to coalesce. While giving a patriotic speech crowing about the success of the nuclear weapons’ use on Japanese cities, Oppenheimer’s unconvincing stabs at jingoism fade away as he can only hear the sound of a woman screaming; then comes a bright light as the face of a young girl melts away. It is a new world for Oppenheimer, America, and the whole the human species. But only after he has let the genie out of the bottle does the film’s interpretation of Oppenheimer begin to seriously grapple with the long term ramifications of that release.
There is an argument to be made that Oppenheimer should have shown the nuclear holocaust inflicted on the Japanese people. I respect this opinion, although Nolan’s choice to trap you in Oppenheimer’s large, yet still limited, vantage point is the dramatically right one. It took this scientist years to come to terms with the horror of what he wrought on Japan, and the movie lets it slowly seep in.
There is also the uncomfortable fact that this story is bigger than just World War II. In the film, Oppenheimer considers the irony that his former tutor opined in the press that the nuclear bomb not so much ended World War II as it began what we now call the Cold War with the Soviet Union (which really happened). But the point of the Oppenheimer film is that what those scientists at Los Alamos did was bigger than just World War II or the Cold War—or even the 20th century itself.
Oppenheimer built, sharpened, and fastened a global Sword of Damocles above our collective heads, and it hangs there still. It will, in fact, hang there forever, unless one nation finally pushes the button and invites the inevitable response.
The last hour is about Oppenheimer, as a character and a film, coming to terms with that legacy. This is not a typical biopic about a great man, but a portrait of a soul damned by unspoken regrets and second-guesses that he never articulated to anyone. The film even posits Oppenheimer went through the humiliation of an unwinnable security clearance hearing as some form of penance for fathering the bomb.
“Did you think if you let them tar and feather you that the world will forgive you?” his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) asks. “It won’t.”
“We’ll see” is Oppenheimer’s cryptic response. While we suspect Oppenheimer’s fight for political survival was not quite so history book-minded, the reality is he truly did tell the President of the United States “I have blood on my hands,” and spent the rest of his brief public life attempting to steer the United States away from the infinitely more deadly hydrogen bomb and the arms race it inevitably courted. He was then banished to the duck pond next to Einstein for his troubles.
Dramatically seeing that destruction is as cathartic as it is disturbing, with Jason Clarke’s government attorney Roger Robb embodying Zeus’ hungry eagle which is always eager to feast on Prometheus’ liver. It should be noted, this context also is what allows Kitty Oppenheimer, a brilliant woman whose mind is left to curdle by the oppressive expectations of her era, to finally speak candidly in one of the best scenes in the movie.
In the end though, the finale asks the audience to interrogate Oppenheimer the man. Can you forgive him? Should you even bother entertaining the idea? The real man never publicly admitted remorse over what happened in Japan, and whether he felt profound guilt or not, he still ushered in a nuclear age without end. There is no escape from the future Oppenheimer has wrought—not even for J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is professionally and spiritually destroyed by the legacy he pursued with wide open arms.
The last hour of Oppenheimer is not about the father of the atomic bomb; it’s about the father of our tomorrow and each and every one that will come after. Until one day, maybe it won’t.