“Oppenheimer” – An Exploration of Nuclear Legacy and Its Omissions

“Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan, couldn’t have arrived at a timelier moment. Against the backdrop of increased Russian nuclear threats, the film delves deep into the complexities of nuclear weapons and their profound impact on global affairs. The movie based on the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer depicts the moral and strategic debates created by...

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“Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan, couldn’t have arrived at a timelier moment. Against the backdrop of increased Russian nuclear threats, the film delves deep into the complexities of nuclear weapons and their profound impact on global affairs. The movie based on the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer depicts the moral and strategic debates created by the development and use of atomic weapons and the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. However, the film omitted the human cost of the making and use of Oppenheimer’s creation and concealed the destruction nuclear weapons are capable of.  

The film covers the historical events leading to the Trinity Test on July 16, 1945, the first detonation of an atomic bomb. The news of Germany’s invasion of Poland shakes the trajectory of Oppenheimer’s journey dramatically. New discoveries in physics and the Nazi’s persecution of Jews ignited Oppenheimer’s obsession with the creation of a weapon more powerful than any other weapon created before. Despite his left-wing views, Oppenheimer becomes part of the Manhattan Project and is named Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Nolan exposes the urgency of national security concerns, which at times overrode ethical considerations, as the Manhattan Project relentlessly pursued its objectives. 

One glaring omission is the history of Native American and Hispano communities that populated the areas around Los Alamos and also worked at the lab. Earlier in the film, Oppenheimer suggested Los Alamos because it was an isolated place with no civilization around. In reality, many Native Americans were displaced from their ancestral lands thanks to the Manhattan Project. Not only in Los Alamos, but also Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee; the sites of plutonium production and uranium enrichment, respectively. Later in the movie Oppenheimer suggests to President Truman that he give Los Alamos “back to the Indians,” but there is no further discussion of how those populations were impacted by the nuclear weapon supply chain. 

The race for the creation of the bomb comes to a climax when the gadget was tested in the dessert of New Mexico. The Trinity Test is the only time the use of the atomic weapon is shown in “Oppenheimer”. The test was treated as a mere scientific experiment and flames of the explosion are shown in silence, with only Oppenheimer’s breath in the background. While the lack of sound makes the visuals even more hypnotizing, it also helps to hide the vast violence nuclear bombs are capable of. 

The use of the gadget in Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki and its aftermath are not shown. While some believe this decision was meant to respect the Japanese victims and not sensationalize war itself, it also sanitizes the violence by not showing the very human consequences of Oppenheimer’s ideas and calculations. The film mentions the psychological aspects of using nuclear weapons, evident in Oppenheimer’s perspective on the firebombing of Tokyo. While more people died during the firebombing of this city, the impact of nuclear war on humanity goes beyond mere body count—one single weapon can kill thousands while also inflicting psychological scars on an unprecedented scale. However, the viewer never comes close to witnessing the violent effects of the weapon, and therefore cannot grasp the magnitude of the carnage these weapons are capable of.

Regardless, the film makes it very clear that nuclear weapons are a threat to human mankind and that Oppenheimer is haunted by the use of his gadget. The creation of the bomb was the defining moment of Oppenheimer’s life, but not the beginning and certainly not the end. The rest of the movie depicts Oppenheimer’s internal struggle as he grapples with the profound realization that his creation, once seen as necessary to defeat the Nazis and end all wars, is now a symbol of death and a potential destroyer of worlds.

The movie also reminds us of the importance of nuclear activism and sensible nuclear policy. One pivotal scene features Lewis Strauss arguing that the primary focus of US nuclear policy should be deterrence, advocating for stockpiling more nuclear weapons and for the construction of the H-bomb to gain strategic superiority over the Soviets, who had recently tested their first atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, in response, expresses his concerns regarding the risks of an unchecked nuclear arms race with the Soviets in the post-war era and advocates for arms control talks and agreements. Throughout the movie, several instances highlight the Manhattan Project scientists’ efforts to dissuade President Truman from using the atomic bomb on Japan. In real life, scientists, including Oppenheimer, actively campaigned for arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament. Oppenheimer was deeply concerned about the risks posed by an uncontrolled nuclear arms race with the Soviets after the war and strongly advocated for arms control talks and agreements. “American Prometheus” recounts how Oppenheimer responded to Senator Robert Kennedy’s proposal for President Johnson to initiate talks with the Soviet Union to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation. Oppenheimer believed that such an initiative should have been undertaken immediately after the Trinity test, expressing that it was already 20 years overdue. 

While Nolan’s film has been praised for its gripping storytelling and powerful performances, it also underrepresented certain communities and hid the human consequences of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, “Oppenheimer” remains a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of nuclear history, providing audiences with a profound glimpse into the far-reaching consequences of humanity’s most powerful invention. The movie raises questions about the legacy of nuclear weapons in the context of the world we experience today. While the Trinity Test marked a significant milestone, as Oppenheimer points out in the last scene, it also signaled the start of a perilous chain reaction that could destroy the entire world. The film should remind us of the more powerful nuclear weapons we possess today and the ongoing importance of working to prevent these weapons from ever being used again.

Carla Montilla is a Program Assistant for Sustainable Energy and Environment at the Friends Committee for Legislation. She graduated from American University School of International Service with an MA in Ethics, Peace and Human Rights. Prior to that she graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with Degrees in History and Political Science. She has worked in issues related to nuclear history, nonproliferation, safeguards, and deterrence. She can be contacted at [email protected] and @CarlaMontilla18.

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