‘Oppenheimer’: Everything You Missed the First Time

‘Oppenheimer’: Everything You Missed the First Time

Oppenheimer, legendary director Christopher Nolan’s latest film, has exploded at the box office. It’s the saga of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who masterminded the atomic bomb. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film boasts ratings above 90% from both critics and fans.

This three-hour Oscar contender burgeons with historical details, symbolic language, and hidden meanings. It’s a lot to absorb, but highly worthwhile. Before we dive into some of those finer points, here’s a plot refresher.

What Happens in ‘Oppenheimer’?

In 1926, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) studies at the University of Cambridge. Here, the troubled young man unsuccessfully tries to poison an apple belonging to his tutor, whom he dislikes.

After earning a Ph.D. in physics, he becomes a Berkeley professor. During World War II, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) asks him to join the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer leads a team of scientists working covertly in New Mexico to develop the atomic bomb. At one point, Oppenheimer speaks privately with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti).

After Nazi Germany’s surrender, the Manhattan Project participants reassess their work’s purpose. Regardless, the first successful nuclear explosion occurs in the 1945 Trinity Test. President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) then bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer feels remorse due to the huge death toll. Revealing these feelings in a meeting with Truman, he reaps disdain. That meeting (along with Oppenheimer’s brother’s Communist connections) makes the government suspicious of him. 

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) holds a hearing about Oppenheimer. Senior AEC member Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) attacks Oppenheimer, claiming the scientist spoke negatively about him to Einstein. Oppenheimer loses his reputation and security clearance.

Yet ultimately, the government apologizes to Oppenheimer, with President Lyndon B. Johnson giving him a scientific award. We learn Oppenheimer spoke with Einstein, not about Strauss, but about the long-term impact of atomic weapons. 

Historical License and Hidden Meanings

Like many biopics, Oppenheimer takes some creative liberties. While the film is based on true events, certain elements have been combined or condensed for dramatic effect. Likewise, bold metaphors and hidden meanings add depth and flavor to this blockbuster. Let’s check out a few examples.

The Relationship Between Einstein and Oppenheimer

Einstein appears infrequently in the film, but in real life, he and Oppenheimer were friends. Still, the two great scientists didn’t always see eye to eye. Oppenheimer even called Einstein “stubborn” in a 1965 speech. Einstein also wasn’t allowed to join the Manhattan Project due to his connections to Germany, which is ironic, as he was against the atomic bomb anyway.

Oppenheimer’s Communist Ties

A key part of Oppenheimer is the scientist’s relationship with Communism. He dated Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a Communist Party member, for several years. She couldn’t get Oppenheimer to join the Party, although he had some Communist sympathies. His brother Frank was also a Party member.

The movie depicts Oppenheimer as having an affair with Tatlock while he worked on the Manhattan Project. He denied it later, but there is also evidence suggesting he did it.

Likening Oppenheimer to Prometheus

The opening caption is powerful: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.”

Kai Bird, the author of American Prometheus (the 2005 biography on which Oppenheimer is based), beautifully explains the metaphor: “Like that rebellious Greek god Prometheus—who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it upon humankind, Oppenheimer gave us atomic fire. But then, when he tried to control it, when he sought to make us aware of its terrible dangers, the powers-that-be, like Zeus, rose up in anger to punish him.”

Patterns of Betrayal

War and spy movies often hinge on acts of treachery and betrayal. This is a recurring thread in Oppenheimer on personal and professional levels.

While Oppenheimer has an affair with Tatlock, fellow researcher Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham) hands over atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer’s post-war loss of his security clearance constitutes a betrayal by the U.S. government. And Oppenheimer is tortured by his sense of having betrayed the human race by opening the door to nuclear war – a highly topical subject.

Color and Black-and-White Scenes

Why did Christopher Nolan film some scenes in color and others in black-and-white? In general, color scenes are from Oppenheimer’s perspective, while the black-and-white ones represent his foe Lewis Strauss. Another theory is that black-and-white scenes depict objective recollections of history and serve as a setting upon which to contrast Oppenheimer’s unique, emotional and complicated view of the world. Nolan, however, clarified a deeper hidden meaning in his production notes, as some color scenes feature “evocative, surreal imagery that symbolically [express Oppenheimer’s] interior world.”

Although the film is rooted in history, this dramatic retelling of the enigmatic scientist will inherently be interpreted differently from viewer to viewer. With creative camera work and evocative writing around this multi-dimensional topic, Oppenheimer rewards the viewer who takes the time to rewatch with a critical eye to fully uncover the wealth of hidden meanings.

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