Nolan's Sad Man Crush on Oppenheimer

Atomic Cloud over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Photos: Atomic Cloud over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

When I learned there was a movie about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project directed by Christopher Nolan, I recalled a book I read many years ago—The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Rhodes' book had a profound impact on me, so I was very much looking forward to seeing Oppenheimer when it was released in July 2023. Boy, was I disappointed.

Oppenheimer received rave reviews from most critics, but most people I know who saw it, like myself, felt it was overrated. Some couldn't quite put their finger on what exactly was wrong with it or why they didn't like it. I can't speak for them, but I can speak for myself. 

The development of the atomic bomb has opened up a Pandora’s Box. Nuclear weapons are now owned by unstable governments, the types of regimes that could care less about disarmament agreements. The unease that the nuclear age has produced is only marginally alluded to in the movie. A large percentage of the three-hour movie is a maudlin devotion to Oppenheimer's “victimhood” for his leftist ties.

Nolan is clearly smitten with Oppenheimer as many people are. Nolan's movie is essentially a man-crush Valentine to Oppenheimer and his ilk. In an infatuated and doting fashion, Nolan romanticizes and glamorizes the Manhattan Project. In a token nod to the death and devastation this project ultimately wreaked, Oppenheimer is portrayed as a tragic figure. Oppenheimer was "naive" about the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer could learn a new language and speak it fluently in weeks, yet supposedly he was a clueless simpleton about the ramifications of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer was also a womanizer who had affairs with wives of his friends almost as if he felt entitled to do so. It would be more accurate to say that Oppenheimer was very good at rationalizing as opposed to being naive. But to his fawning fans, he was "complex," basically a euphemism for "sleazy" or "dubious."

Oppenheimer did experience remorse after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as most people will after doing something they're not proud of, and spoke out against nuclear weapons. But this is a laughable, and some would say hypocritical, afterthought, too little too late. The disturbing genie is out of the bottle and can't be put back in.

The reason most often cited as justification for the creation of a nuclear weapon was that the Nazis were working on one. But evidence obtained towards the end of the war showed the Nazis weren’t even close to developing one—they had been sidetracked by going down a blind alley in their research.

Rhodes noted in his book: 

"One of the mysteries of the Second World War was the lack of an early and dedicated American intelligence effort to discover the extent of German progress toward atomic bomb development. If, as the record repeatedly emphasizes, the United States was seriously worried that Germany might reverse the course of the war with such a surprise secret weapon, why did its intelligence organizations, or the Manhattan Project, not mount a major effort of espionage?"

And furthermore, Hitler and the Nazis were defeated before the bomb was ever completed. 

The second most cited reason for developing and using the atomic bomb was that the Japanese would have never been defeated otherwise, and the bomb saved many American lives. When Americans became aware of the horrific aftermath of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman and his officials prompted Secretary of War Henry Stimson to put in writing that dropping both bombs prevented “over a million casualties, to American forces alone.” When Stimson's ghostwriter was later asked where he got that number, he replied, "Oh, we pulled it out of thin air."

The debate rages on to this day whether the use of atomic bombs was necessary. Even people who believe that they did save "over a million casualties" or at least brought a rapid close to a deadly war, concede two atomic bombs in three days on two cities was probably overkill, a gratuitous use of overwhelming force on innocent civilians. And never mind the long-term consequences of introducing nuclear weapons to the world.

But I’m not writing primarily to argue whether the development and use of the atomic bomb were justified but rather to point out the vanity and foolishness of idolizing people like Oppenheimer as many people do, including Nolan.

Let's call a spade a spade. Before the bombing of Japan, Oppenheimer was haughty, ruthlessly ambitious, single-minded, and obsessive in his focus, and some would say a self-important narcissist. The vainglory of being the first to develop the atomic bomb outweighed any logical reason or true moral conviction. And never mind how obviously intoxicating it is to be credited with that sort of power.

Albert Einstein, who sent the famous letter (drafted by Leo Szilard) to Roosevelt suggesting the U.S. conduct research and work on nuclear weapons as Germany was likely doing so, later stated, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb.”

Hindsight is always 20/20. In other words, he was stating it would have been better and wiser to have done nothing at all. Although a non-practicing Jew, he was Jewish nonetheless, and his sentiment lines up with timeless truth expressed in numerous scriptures in the Old Testament attesting to the futility of trusting in the cleverness of man and sophisticated entities like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. It's worth noting the Jews and their culture and religion still thrive and exist, and these other kingdoms, who outnumbered and outclassed them in population, technology, and weaponry, are now obsolete.

Our technology-obsessed culture worships and whitewash people like Oppenheimer—so-called "wise" but morally bankrupt fools who wreak havoc on humanity with their intellectual “superiority” and "brilliance."

Maybe you think I'm too harsh? If so, I dare you to read the eyewitness accounts of the atomic bombings and their aftermath by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagine such an outcome for a city you live in or your loved ones live in, which is not out of the realm of possibility in this day and age.

The chapter titled "Tongues of Fire" in Rhodes' book gives plenty of detail. If you’re unable to buy or borrow this book, accounts of Hiroshima are told in the archived article: "Hiroshima" by John Hersey published on August 23, 1946.

Yes, Oppenheimer was a tragic figure, but not in the way Nolan melodramatically portrays. The classic definition of tragedy has nothing to do with naïveté but rather a fall and sorrowful circumstances resulting from a flaw, most notably hubris a.k.a. overweening pride. And Oppenheimer's tragedy has become our tragedy.