Say what you will about inflation, I think it’s really cool that this weekend two movies opened to over $80 million each for the first time in history. I think the Barbenheimer phenomenon was really fun, and I’ve enjoyed continuing to read about it as this week begins. Some people are calling Oppenheimer Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece… I’d call it his best movie in a while. It’s really good. It’s another in a long line of his movies that probably don’t pass the Bechdel test, so we’re all lucky Barbie came out on the same day. Mainly I want to talk about Oppenheimer‘s divisive third act, so spoiler warning for everything that follows.
It’s repeated twice in the movie and it was in the trailer, so you probably remember Oppy saying that the chance of an atomic bomb destroying the world is “near zero.” What he doesn’t explicitly say but the third act shows us he believes is that after the Trinity test, that probability hasn’t gone down to zero. In fact, it keeps going up.
There’s a scene around the middle of Oppenheimer where its clear that the scientists are close to having built the first atomic bombs and so a meeting is called to determine a target for them. Oppy meets with military and government officials and they go over a list of Japanese cities they could destroy. Three things stood out to me about this: 1) They don’t hide that dropping the bombs is about sending a message to Russia as much as it is about ending the war with Japan and 2) The choice of city is borderline arbitrary because 3) Oppy explains that there is no military target in existence large enough to justify the use of an atomic weapon. The Manhattan Project has created the first weapon of mass destruction. They can’t just hit their enemies, there has to be collateral damage. Unlike every other instrument of war ever developed, weapons of mass destruction are not aimed at people or things, they’re aimed at civilizations.
Despite comparisons to Einstein, Oppy isn’t presented as a “special” person. He’s put in a unique position of power and earns a colossal reputation, that’s for sure. But Oppenheimer shows us that he was mostly a smart guy who was in the right place at the right time to be useful to his country. Oppy’s role in the Manhattan Project is presented as largely administrative: he set an example for the other scientists and came up with the damn thing, but he wasn’t the one who designed the components that make up the bomb. And we’re constantly reminded that Germany and Russia are racing toward the same goal. Oppy’s breakthroughs aren’t about his unique genius. They’re about his team’s commitment to making sure the “good guys” win.
Any delusions Oppy had about his own importance as dashed after Trinity. Truman deigns not to coordinate with Russia. Oppy is left in the dark about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite his protestations that the atomic bombs were already more destructive than could ever be necessary, the military moves ahead with development of the hydrogen bomb — which is several magnitudes more powerful — without him. And then we built an arsenal of thousands of them. Oppy naively dreamed that the bomb would change war forever, and sadly he was right: it made it so every war could potentially bring about doomsday.
Oppy is the American Prometheus, a man who brought a gift to the world and is therefore doomed to eternal torture. He was naive enough to believe he could save the world. Every cause he ever contributed to blows up in his face: the American Communist Party, the Manhattan Project, the Atomic Energy Commission, he’s hurt by all of them. Everything except for his greatest sin: the bomb. Oppy is put on (not) trial and found guilty associating with communists and cheating on his wife and possibly helping spies and pissing off people in power. His crime against humanity? He’s given awards for that. He’s made a celebrity for that. He’s “forgiven” for that.
And that’s what’s so tragic about the movie’s final hour. With the mission complete, everything goes off the rails. The people that understand the power they unlocked will be kept away from controlling it, and the people that control it can’t be bothered to understand it. What could be scarier than realizing scientists are ignored and the fate of the world is in the hands of politicians? Politicians with personal agendas (see: Strauss). Oppy was a just a guy. Not a mad genius, not a Communist sleeper agent, just a scientist. And when he finally realized what he was meddling with and how powerless he was, the only move left to him was to become a martyr. Even that didn’t work. So he’s left living out the rest of his days as the only one who understands he’s doomed us all. What could be a worse fate than that?