As Ruchir Sharma points out in one of the short articles this week, the Hollywood movie Oppenheimer raked in more at the box office than the Bollywood movie released the same weekend – Rocky aur Ranii Kii Prem Kahaani. This might seem like not saying much given Bollywood’s dismal streak off late but “Rocky aur…” is supposed to be one of the better ones with a star cast and a big production house behind it. Oppenheimer has done well globally at the box office despite going head to head in terms of release with another high profile film – Barbie. More than the commercial success, the movie has triggered a debate about the ethical dilemmas faced by Oppenheimer in making the atomic bomb. Christopher Nolan, the iconoclastic movie director, best known for movies such as Interstellar and Inception, shares his thought process behind the movie and its characters in this interview with the New York Times.
For those who haven’t seen the movie (you must), here’s the context:
“The film follows the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the cerebral, charismatic and tortured physicist (played by Cillian Murphy, the star of “Peaky Blinders”) who was tapped to lead the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., to build the atomic bomb during World War II.
The subsequent bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war against Japan in 1945 (Germany had already surrendered) and Oppenheimer was hailed as a hero. But only a few years later, in 1954, his security clearance was revoked in an infamous hearing of advisers to the Atomic Energy Commission that declared him a security threat based on leftist ties at the University of California, Berkeley — among other things, a girlfriend and his brother, Frank, were both Communist Party members — and his opposition to building an even bigger bomb, the “Super” or hydrogen bomb espoused by his colleague Edward Teller.
That was the end of Oppenheimer’s career in government circles and of his ability to influence the future of atomic energy in the Cold War. As a result he became a martyr to the scientific community. Many physicists, including Albert Einstein, were disappointed that the United States had dropped the bomb without warning on an enemy that was already defeated, while Oppenheimer hoped that the advent of the bomb would make war unthinkable and lead to international controls on such weapons. Once the Russians had the bomb, however, that dream had no chance with hard-liners like the president at the time, Harry S. Truman, who called Oppenheimer a “crybaby.””
Nolan says Oppenheimer is the most important person who has ever lived:
“Because if my worst fears are true, he’ll be the man who destroyed the world. Who’s more important than that?
… because he is the person who facilitated and achieved atomic weapons and indeed the hydrogen bomb, because he let Teller work on it. So, he is the individual who was able to marshal the forces effectively.
… It absolutely changed the world in a way that no one else has changed the world. You talk about the advent of the printing press or something. He gave the world the power to destroy itself. No one has done that before.
That’s a pessimistic view if his invention actually ended the world. If it didn’t, he’s still the most important man because the bomb would’ve stopped war forever. We haven’t had a world war since 1945 based on the threat of mutual assured destruction.
So there are two ways of looking at this contribution. And we don’t know which one is right. A lot of what he said about arms control and the way in which events would unfold has proven to be absolutely true. A lot of it has also seemed hopelessly naïve. This is a story that doesn’t have an ending yet.”
The movie is a casting coup of sorts with some brilliant actors playing very short but impactful roles – such as Gary Oldman playing President Truman. The interviewer and Nolan’s funny dialogue discussing Truman’s scene:
“Interviewer: I went to the book to fact-check the movie and was surprised to read that Truman really did call him a crybaby.
Nolan: Doesn’t seem very presidential, does it?
Interviewer: Given recent history it sounds very presidential to me. That was an enormous dramatic point in the film for me because it just made it so completely clear how badly Oppenheimer had misled himself.
Nolan: That’s a good way of putting it. There are different accounts of that meeting, but these are things that Truman recollected.
I feel it’s only fair to present things the way he saw ’em. Because in that moment, you’re looking for a huge shift in perception about the reality of Oppenheimer’s situation. Those two men come into that room with completely different expectations about what that meeting is. And I think that was a massive moment of disillusion, a huge turning point [for Oppenheimer] in his approach to trying to deal with the consequences of what he’d been involved with.”
In the interview, Nolan goes deep on his interpretation of Oppenheimer’s personality:
“Interviewer: Do you think he was trying to have it both ways, like, we want to build this fantastic gadget, but then we want to be stopped from using it. It’s kind of like a serial killer saying catch me before I kill again.
Nolan: Or like a tech-company scientist saying, regulate me, please.
I think there is a very high degree of self-consciousness, self-awareness, particularly the way he presents himself to the world. And I think he had an incredible strategic mind. He could be accused of naïveté in a lot of ways, but it’s the sort of naïveté, the mistakes he made were the sort of mistakes that only the most brilliant strategic people could make, because they think they’re smarter than everybody else. They don’t necessarily read the room exactly as they should.
The film certainly tries to embrace the iconic nature of who the man was but also understand that it’s self-creative and self-conscious.”
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