Oppenheimer, Nuclear Deterrence, and the Importance of Context

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an extraordinary philosophical experience that will be thoroughly analysed for decades to come.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer

“We ate sweet potatoes to combat starvation. Because there wasn’t much of anything else.” said my late grandfather, when asked about his time during the Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945. My grandfather, a man of few words, experienced World War II filled with harrowing moments that many of us have only read about in history books. After the war, he started a carpentry business. Although times were tough, he ensured that a portion of his earnings finds its way back to China – that the money would be in the hands of relatives who were living through the horrifying reality in the aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War. 

Cillian Murphy and Benny Safdie in Oppenheimer (2023)

Context is important. Without my grandfather’s account of World War II, I’d never have attempted to comprehend the destructive nature of war, let alone understand it. Regardless of how stories convey their messages, context represents an important framework that allows people to connect with information on an emotional level. And more than anything else, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is all about providing the necessary context required for us to understand the fascinating and tragic aspects of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The Agony of Atomic Brilliance

With visually stunning imagery of landscapes that are in stark contrast to incredible sequences of explosion montages, Oppenheimer portrays historical moments with a captivating cinematic language – while its sound rattles the senses of its audience. Taking a more abstract approach to the storytelling of his latest film, Nolan evokes memorable and terrifying practical effects of explosions, fire, and abstract visuals fused with impeccable sound design to immerse the audience.

Josh Peck, Gustaf Skarsgård, Devon Bostick, Emily Blunt, and Christopher Denham in Oppenheimer (2023)

Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan’s biographical epic delves deep into the psyche of a brilliant scientist behind a world-changing invention that would forever threaten the future of humanity. Like Prometheus, the Greek deity to whom many have drawn comparisons, Oppenheimer suffered for his works and consequently faced punishment for his unparalleled brilliance. Over the course of its justifiably hefty runtime, there’s a palpable sense of dread that manifests itself as relentless anxiety before giving in to the horrors of nuclear damnation.

Distrust Goes Both Ways

The regional tensions of today, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as Russia’s war on Ukraine, have heightened the risk of nuclear weapons use higher than at any time since the Cold War. Although more than eight decades have passed since the end of World War II, we still face the same ethical dilemmas Oppenheimer faced, struggling to reckon with the implications set by the potential usage of nuclear weapons. The fear of nuclear warfare creeps into the viewing experience of Oppenheimer, which made it more depressing by its lead character’s naive belief that nuclear deterrence will “ensure a peace humanity has never seen”.  

Matt Damon and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (2023)

Deterrence has been defined in multiple ways, but at its core, it means inducing caution in others by threats of destruction – in this case, through the usage of nuclear weapons. Despite fears of nuclear annihilation, the only country that has been on the receiving end of such weapons of destruction is Japan. Oppenheimer’s brilliance led to the terrible revelation of nuclear annihilation that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s hard to understate how much the tragedy scarred the collective psyche of Japan, but it’s also difficult to justify the type of savagery seen in our homelands during World War II. 

Why Context Matters

In 1942, Singapore surrendered in an attempt to prevent further loss of life. An estimated 100,000 people in Singapore became prisoners, with approximately 9,000 of them tragically losing their lives while building the Burma-Thailand railway. The estimated deaths of those under Japanese control in Singapore range from the Japanese estimate of 5,000 to that of the Chinese of 50,000. Whatever the exact figure, it’s undeniable that thousands lost their lives under Japanese occupation. 

In Oppenheimer, Nolan tastefully deters from the potentially gratuitous depiction of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Instead, he chooses to focus on his personal reaction to Oppenheimer as well as his disapproval of future nuclear development. On a narrative level, Oppenheimer did not directly witness the bombings, hence justifying the film’s omission of them. Simultaneously, the viewers will have to fill in the blanks with their own imagination and ideology. Were the bombings necessary to ensure the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army? Or were they the genesis of a world that’s constantly on the brink of nuclear catastrophe? Oppenheimer encourages us to accept the idea that context influences our perception, and perception shapes our reality.

Matt Damon, Cillian Murphy, Dane DeHaan, and Olli Haaskivi in Oppenheimer (2023)

The greatest achievement that a storyteller can accomplish is to be able to embed stories and ideas into the minds of their audience, and Nolan’s latest film succeeds in delivering a motion picture that’ll be thoroughly analysed for decades to come. The historical intrigue, masterful performances, and cinematic prowess renders Oppenheimer as one of the best biographical films ever made. Through Oppenheimer, Nolan expertly dissects the intellectual life and legacy of one of the most consequential scientific minds of all time.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (2023)