Basanta Lohani and Usha Lohani

Published On: August 20, 2023 07:00 PM NPT By: Basanta Lohani and Usha Lohani

Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb

Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb

Few can trail along the complex terrain of groundbreaking achievements. And, filmmakers chose the story of such titans to compound it into a blockbuster. In this genre, the character is nonfictional but the dramatization isn’t. Thus, the filmmaker's dramatization could, to an extent, divorce it from reality. 

We must admit right at the outset that we have watched very few of these films. The one that comes to our mind now is ‘A Beautiful Mind’ released over two decades ago. It’s still lingering in our mind primarily because Actor Russell Crowe had wonderfully portrayed John Nash, the 'mathematical genius' whose master’s dissertation earned his Ph.D. as well from Princeton University in 1950. And, for this very work in game theory, Professor Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics thirty-five years later in 1994.

A few days ago, we went to Kathmandu’s Chhaya Center to watch an autobiographical movie named Oppenheimer. It is based on the life of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, 'the father of the atomic bomb.' His biographers have dubbed him as ‘American Prometheus.’ They derived the name from Greek mythology. The way it goes Prometheus secretly took fire from the abode of gods and gave it to mankind for the betterment of humanity. And, god punished him. 

So was Oppenheimer. He secured the nuclear fire but was punished nine years later by the security hearing removing his security clearance. To do so, the so-called ‘strictly confidential’ security hearing voted to bring in Oppenheimer’s association with the American Communist Party during the 1930s. We presume the security hearing’s decision is basically, we would say, a sequel of 'conflicting fear.’ While developing the hydrogen bomb in the early 50s Oppenheimer's hidden fear of the destructive use of adding nuclear arsenal came in direct conflict with the wide-open second Red Scare spearheaded by Joseph Mycarthy, the US Senator.

What precipitated a decision on the making of the atomic bomb in America, again, was fear. This fear was born in America because scientists in Nazi Germany accidently learned about fission, the splitting of atoms. That Hitler would build an atomic bomb gained currency after Einstein conveyed it to American President Roosevelt. Thus, a nuclear project office was established in New York’s Manhattan.

Although work began understanding its different components in different centers of the US, including the laboratory at Canada’s Toronto, it became known as the Manhattan Project.

 After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, America entered the war and Manhattan Project got the boost. By 1942 with all the accumulated findings and information amidst the raging second world war, Oppenheimer was hired by the army to lead the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico to manufacture the bomb.

By then Oppenheimer had gone beyond Physics while wondering at the mystery of the universe. Thus was his shelter in Bhagavad Gita that he had read in original Sanskrit. So, he was thus caught between his duty of getting a bomb because of Hitler and the worry of a ‘chain reaction’ that may go for its acquisition for destructive use. 

Now we can evaluate the portrayal. In the first part, the movie revolves around the making of a physicist the way Oppenheimer pursued at various universities - Harvard, Cambridge, Germany's University of Göttingen, and California Institute of Technology (Caltech). While a student in Cambridge, Oppenheimer intended to kill his teacher through a poisoned apple as shown in the movie 

is refuted by his grandson Charles Oppenheimer as something not corroborated by historical facts.

The rest of his university learning had bright spots. His pursuit finally continued at the University of California at Berkeley as a professor of Physics. Then comes the second part of the movie. That’s the making of the atomic bomb. 

Here I remember our great poet Devkota, a slight digression though. In his poem 'To a Beautiful Prostitute', he unveils his lunatic persona thus:

'Yes, a madman, I am moonstruck!

Into a higher region gone astray.'

I suppose those who transcend a higher plane get the upthrust from this kind of lunatic persona in them. John Nash, a mathematician, who changed the zero-sum game to all players winning the game in game theory, was diagnosed case of schizophrenia. Oppenheimer too had to undergo treatment for depression while he was studying physics at the University of Cambridge.

In the second part, that’s the securing of the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory, its test at a site in Arizona that Oppenheimer code-named ‘Trinity’. Thereafter, when the bombs were dropped on which he had no control, his state of mind was visible in President Trueman’s oval office. The contrast in terms of Oppenheimer's tenderness and Trueman’s insensitivity in the interaction is well reflected.

So, the portrayal of the higher plane behavioral rhythm of Oppenheimer by Cillian Murphy in the making of a history-changing achievement is gripping. Oppenheimer’s total commitment and leadership in Los Alamos to get the bomb and his worry in terms of himself being 'Death ' aftermath of his achievement is extremely difficult to portray in the film. But Murphy has managed to do it with well-composed facial expressions and body movements. Murphy maintains energetic body movements and scientific interactions and hidden worrisome facial expressions till the test in Trinity. 

Then begins a more difficult expression. The hidden worrisome facial expressions remain no more hidden. American President Truman's decision to drop the bombs on Japan's Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing tens of thousands of people, three months after Germany's surrender, comprised twin objectives - to force Japan for quick surrender, and to establish post-war American supremacy. But for a humanist Oppenheimer, thousands of deaths and sufferings of people were hard to bear. At this point, despite good dialogue delivery with a stammering voice and broken words, Murphy can’t reach the pitch to show a kind of heartbroken Oppenheimer composure. 

Murphy sees an alert on Oppenheimer’s thought process. He obtained the bomb for contingency, not for its primarily destructive use. Besides, Oppenheimer was excessively concerned about what may trigger a chain reaction resulting in nuclear proliferation. So was Einstein, who persuaded President Roosevelt. 

Murphy has performed well in showing Oppenheimer’s clear conscience and the attitude born out of it - calm, clear and resolute. In a three-month-long security hearing, Murphy maintained this posture artistically. Yes, Oppenheimer had communist leanings. As he clarified, it remained more at an intellectual level. But the undercurrent of the security hearing was the communist phobia. Thus, he was denied the security clearance. 


Our concern is the beauty of the movie. Thus, the question here is the artistry while depicting Oppenheimer in the making of a personality of an atomic bomb manufacturer and the transfixed settings. In Oppenheimer, we find the artistry canvas is relatively narrower. That’s why the excessive dramatization through computer-aided maneuvers has devoured some of the genuine human interplay. But we both enjoyed Oppenheimer.

A lurking question but not fear? Yes, German scientists gave the nuclear pile but Hitler wasn't towards a bomb. Had Hitler's bomb fear not prevailed, Oppenheimer wouldn't have got the chance to make the bomb. Thirty-one scientists associated with the Manhattan Project won the Nobel Prize. But thrice nominated Oppenheimer didn't. Without bombs, would there have been any Oppenheimer movies?


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