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Oppenheimer: "I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds"
Reflections after watching Nolan's Oppenheimer. (MANY SPOILERS)
Reflection after watching Oppenheimer, with many spoilers.
This isn't a film review, nor is it polished. These are merely some personal reflections, most of which written just after seeing the film. Putting up an informal film reflection was inspired by Joshua Gibbs’ on The Barbie Movie.
Oppenheimer in italics is the film, Oppenheimer without is the man.
Eugene Vodolazkin commented on his book Laurus that 'sometimes to critique the present you write about what we have lost, namely in those events in the past that seem foreign.’ In his case it was holy fools, healings, and pre-modern otherness. Oppenheimer seemed to me one of these films: we see the world before the bomb. A world so different we have to imaginatively enter into through Oppenheimer’s perspective (the chief perspective Nolan provides): after the bomb, the dread of the Cold War—made a media spectacle in the Cuban Missile Crisis—settled in the public mind that at the push of a button the whole world could end. Because of men. Before this, no human wielded the power to destroy so many with so little. It became a dialogue of progress. The “war to end all wars" in the name of progress, which only begat a “war to address the aftermath of the war to end all wars,” by which the nature of progress changed. What we see in the film is the liminal space between the before and the after, made more poignant though the use of color, of Nolan-characteristic multi-narrative timelines. Oppenheimer portrays a dreamlike, prophetic quality throughout, weaving it into “mystery,” “courtroom drama,” and “espionage procedural.”
I'm a fan of Nolan films, so I was less interested in the topic as much as seeing a shot-on-film work by him, yet he made the topic more complex and interesting than I was expecting and as much as I was hoping. It is not just a history biopic or 'science sure is cool' movie. It is a bleak movie. It is a powerful, weighty, fallen depiction of power.
What I first noted was the compelling representation of an era where Science and celebrity were at a highpoint—namely, for progress. If World War I collapsed the eschatology of a good portion of the church: that humans and good progress is really possible, then World War II removed what doubt there might be about what scientific monstrosity remained. Both in Germany, where primitive "Big Data" of IBM-contracted machines sorted for genocide, in Japan with operations like Unit 731, and in the US with horrors that broke the world through the introduction of the Atomic age. We as viewers are hardly in the dark about how the movie ends, yet I was most curious about what Nolan would make about the journey. That it calls upon Prometheus shows we are watching the building of myth: we often know the end, but the epic is the process throughout.
The film opens with Oppenheimer "homesick, emotionally immature, troubled by visions of a hidden universe." In reaction to being prohibited from attending a Niels Bohr lecture, he poisons an apple: he injects poison into the center of his professor's apple; we learn later that he liked this professor. Flashes of this hidden universe surround these flashbacks—Nolan said that the color sequences are intended to show Oppenheimer's perspective. As Oppenheimer is waking—you know those curious dreams that happen as one is entering back into life—he has a vision of a campfire in New Mexico, with a horse eating his apple. Given the framing, we have a vision of a man feeding the world a poisoned apple. Suddenly, he races to stop what he has set in motion. In this case he does1. This is a succinct foreshadowing of what Oppenheimer builds through the bomb, even the injecting of cyanide into the center appears like the structure of the detonation device revealed later with Trinity (codename for the first test detonation).
I noted that as he returns to America to build his successful career, he settles into what seems a recurring issue in academia: infidelity. I knew a professor—now dead—who was deeply involved California academia in the 1950s and many decades after. After his career was over, I learned that he was a notorious womanizer, serial adulterer, and yet his memorial was nothing but praise his legacy in his achievements and the honor of the institution. These curiosities have been evident in many fields of academia, including theology, as in the case of the abuses Yoder, libertinism of Tillich, Bart’s keeping of a long-term mistress, and so on. These themes suggest what is observed by one of the people in the film: knowledge does not correlate to wisdom or morality.
We see while he was at Berkeley—the same institution that the professor I knew later had residency—Oppenheimer supports American Communist party events, bringing both into the classroom and blurring professional and personal. He is a full, known participant, but refuses to "join the party." He wishes to be a part of a movement to change society but seems averse to taking risk. Despite intellectual brilliance, he is not stable in wisdom, ethics, or his impulses.
Oppenheimer meets Jean Tatlock, a Communist Party member, they hit it off quickly, and, well, fornicate. In the middle of intercourse she stops, goes to a bookshelf, takes a Sanskrit book off the shelf, and resumes intercourse as he reads from it "I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." This again, points to the poisoned apple.
"Ideology got Joe killed"
As he moves from her to a married Kitty Harrison, with whom Oppenheimer begins an affair that results in pregnancy, she divorces and they marry. As we learn of her marital history, Harrison explains of one of her previous lovers. Joe believed in a cause, enough to go and do. He fights in the Spanish Civil War and at this she says: "Ideology got Joe killed." Earnest, unwavering beliefs will kill you. War will kill you. We are left asking why continue? The survival of self appears by necessity to be morally ambiguous. Be an individual, but don’t be pinned down; don’t be bound by others.
These are ways of representing the theme of Oppenheimer's approach to moral dilemma: to pursue in pure instinct, realize—or experience—the consequences of it, and try to reverse course. If you strongly choose any belief, it may kill you. As Oppenheimer is interrogated and his life is scrutinized, under suspicion of being a Communist sympathizer and security liability: one person says to him "Nobody knows what you believe." Another, says I have never understood him, and would not trust someone I don't understand against a government that I do. As he is introduced to a colleague, Julius Robert Oppenheimer is introduced as J Robert Oppenheimer, and someone remarks, as Oppenheimer always represented, “J stands for nothing.”
Oppenheimer's ethics develop as a result of his sin. As Oppenheimer ages, and the world has changed, he develops ethical qualms with the development of the H-Bomb, which becomes a flag in the appeal to keep US security clearance.
"You don't get to commit sin and have us feel sorry for you."
In examination he must put to record, with his wife present, one of his (numerous) extramarital affairs. In a flashback sequence when he first tells her, Kitty reprimands "you don't get to commit sin and have us feel sorry for you." Profound! Kitty summarizes the modern pathology well: we emancipated individuals (which is to say slave to humanness—Flesh—and not to Christlikeness, Spirit) do what we want, and when it goes wrong, we want people to feel sorry for us. In this individualistic frame, the consequences of sin then is to invite comforting sympathy for trauma we experienced, saying little of those—including ourselves—whom we have wronged. This encourages more sin. The way out of a such a vicious cycle of misery is repentance, and amendment of life. Forgiveness, ideally from those whom we have wronged, but most of all turning to Christ for reconciliation and absolution. Oppenheimer has no moral outlook: it is impractical to be again with Jean, and yet we learn he continues affairs with spouses of his colleagues.
What Oppenheimer seems to have learned in his long journey through genius, success, and fame, is that eventually he will be surpassed, and when he is obsolete, he will be celebrated with medals as a symbol of science recognizing his obsolescence.
The Fall: "I am become Death.”
While watching Oppenheimer, I could not avoid interpreting him as a sort of “third Adam.” Answering a question What does fallenness look like after the fall, and after Christ? Can we fall farther?
While the dominant myth at work is Prometheus—the book upon which the film is based is titled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer—there are echoes of Oppenheimer's activity as a sort of Corrupting force against the rules of the world: he attempts to poison an apple, which evokes both a forbidden fruit and a bringer of death, all against the 'established order' of the classroom and mainstream sciences. Later, he shows a predilection towards adultery: again, one who collapses, corrupts created order established in the Garden. To this, his conversation with his mistress (Tatlock) takes place while both are naked and, for their part, unashamed in what they have done. Going further: he subverts the order of the university, joining with revolutionary groups—not mere New Deal Socialists, but Communist Party members—some of whom, we learn later, are open to treason during a time of war.
As the bomb continues in development, it is hard to forget that much of what makes Oppenheimer relevant to the project is his interest in gravity and collapsing stars:
"And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. (Revelation 12:1-4)
Oppenheimer is not "Promethean Fire" but a bildungsroman about Oppenheimer, fallen man, becoming Death, Destroyer of worlds, one who draws the Stars down with him:
"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent," he told NBC in a 1965 documentary.
"I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu [a principal Hindu deity] is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I have become death, the destroyer of the worlds'. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."2
Nolan's J. R. Oppenheimer is personification of Man under the weight of Original Sin: doing that which is out of alignment with God, methodologically shattering an already broken world. Not just Oppenheimer; many of people as portrayed seem crushed under the weight of the broken world. Some examples:
Kitty, who becomes pregnant with Oppenheimer's child while married to Harrison, neglects her child, and escapes the world through heavy drinking.
Strauss, who orchestrates a massive abuse of power, manipulating many to secure both revenge and satisfy his self-absorption. There is a key moment where Strauss discloses his resentment towards Oppenheimer apparently turning Einstein against him, when an associate quips: maybe it had nothing to do with you. The viewer learns that it, in fact is far grimmer than a slight against Strauss and confirms Strauss' nature.
Tatlock, who lives in a conflicted misery, mental issues, and depending on interpretation may have committed suicide.
And Oppenheimer is the visionary prophet—Nolan intersperses visions of atoms, particles, fire, throughout the film—of the spirit of this age. Yet, if he had not, Progress would call someone else who would. We are presented with a broken world, but that is not enough. This is a world where the triumph of progress—the God of modern man—is to break the natural order even more in the name of gaining power.
Children and the value of life.
Finally, I noted the role of Children in this film. Children are after thoughts: Oppenheimer, with Kitty's extreme drinking problem (understated in the film), the hand off their first child "for a while," to Chevalier, who Oppenheimer eventually ruins by naming his Communist connects, as he acknowledges that they are "selfish awful people."
Chevalier replies that "Selfish, awful people don't know they are selfish and awful." We are invited, like Chevalier, to sympathize with Oppenheimer. But his behaviour, given later parts of his life falls flat: he sins, and seeks for people to be sorry for him.
Curiously, Chevalier the Communist is a foil to Oppenheimer's destructive path, endured by those with whom he comes in contact: many broken marriages through his womanizing, infidelity, suicides, and the causalties of Japan (as the film is told from Oppenheimer's perspective, almost no real consequences are shown for the blood that is on his hands from Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Chevalier, by contrast appears to have an open heart: he has a committed marriage, clear ethical model (it is clear what he believes, irrespective of whether the viewer agrees), and is willing to take in a child neglected by the broken lives of the Oppenheimers. Not yet Become Death, he is well on his way.
Children are a contrast to the Nuclear Promethean fire. This is seen at points by the notable absence of anyone doing much parenting: children are not seen, despite passage of years. Yet, General Groves remarks at the exponential rate of pregnancy—an explosion!—at Los Alamos. I think this is not just a point of narrative humor but shows a contrast of nature versus man's attempt to destroy it. On the one hand, Los Alamos is a city built for the unnatural, weaponized splitting of atoms, and the other the natural splitting of cells forming new live in Los Alamos. Oppenheimer, humanist prophet makes a quip that "birth control is a little out of my jurisdiction”. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the next revolution, after that of reigning fire down from heaven is that of the sexual revolution. As a cultural movement, it challenges Kitty's reprimand: “You don't get to commit sin and have us feel sorry for you.” Yes, we can is Progress’ response.
On the Trinity
When codenaming the Gizmo's (the Atom bomb) first use case, Oppenheimer codenames the detonation test Trinity after he says under his breath "Batter my heart, three person’d God," a line from John Donne (I have added my own emphasis given context of his quotation),
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
In actuality he is caught and sent to therapy. In the film that he went to therapy following this event is known, but it isn't stated that he was caught or that therapy was correlated to his actions.