Book to film: On Oppenheimer and American Prometheus
A look at how Christopher Nolan’s film builds on Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s scholarly biography of the famed physicist
A mysterious rumble grows insistently rhythmic every now and again in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Mysterious because we can hear the sound, but we don’t know where it is coming from. Is it a steam locomotive starting up and shaking the earth violently beneath? Or soldiers marching off to war perhaps? Neither, as it turns out. The source of the auditory motif is revealed two hours into the three-hour film about the eponymous theoretical physicist who was given the undesirable but not undeserving moniker, “the father of the atomic bomb.”
If we don’t see the carnage in Hiroshima, it’s because obviously Oppenheimer wasn’t there. All he can do is imagine the aftermath based on what he knows and what he has seen. Guilt distorts his perception as he recasts the Trinity experience with the crowd, picturing them being blinded by the light and stunned into silence. Cheers turn into screams. A young woman’s face peels off. A charred body is crushed underfoot. The entire crowd vaporises, leaving behind a cloud of radioactive dust. As Oppenheimer is overcome with these visions of horror, the oppressive rumble starts to prick his conscience. Smiling on the surface while dreading inwardly, he is a man at war with himself. Positioning him in the centre of the frame gives the scene a heightened sense of urgency, as the catastrophic capacity of his creation becomes forbiddingly clear for the first time. The nightmare sequence is heavy with regret of a man opening his eyes to what his triumph means for mankind.
Quantum mechanics suggests matter can behave like a wave at one moment, and like a particle at another. In the same schizophrenic spirit, Oppenheimer emerges with all his paradoxes intact: A scientist who developed a weapon of mass destruction to save lives and then campaigned against using it; a patriot heralded as an American hero and a traitor accused of being a Soviet spy; a physicist well-versed in theories but practically inept in the lab; a man whose politics too were chiefly theoretical yet found himself investigated for strong Communist sympathies; a student of science at Harvard, Cambridge and Göttingen who enjoyed reading the Bhagavad Gita, The Brothers Karamazov and The Waste Land.
In American Prometheus, Bird and Sherwin recount an instance of fellow theoretical physicist Paul Dirac being amazed by Oppenheimer’s ability to write poetry as well as study physics. “In physics, we try to tell people in such a way that they understand something that nobody knew before. In the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite,” Dirac said. “How can you do both?” Nolan attempts to do no less. Oppenheimer, like Interstellar, is a work of intellectual curiosity aspiring for poetic transcendence. Throughout his career, the British director has been fascinated by temporal shifts and quantum mechanics while remaining a firm believer in the transportive power of old-fashioned film stock.
The threat of Nazi Germany developing the A-bomb first was sufficient moral justification for Oppenheimer to spearhead the Manhattan project. The threat of Japan, which was “essentially defeated”, did not warrant the use of an A-bomb, much less two. The book reveals the bomb was dropped on Japan to force unconditional surrender and not share the victory with the Soviet Union, thereby establishing American supremacy. Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) says something to the same effect in the film, “We intend to demonstrate it in the most unambiguous terms. Twice. Once to show the weapon’s power, and a second to show that we can keep doing this until they surrender.” In a subsequent discussion on which Japanese city the US should drop the bomb, the Secretary of War Henry Stimson (James Remar) orders Kyoto be stricken off the list due to its cultural importance. Then, he makes an off-hand comment about spending his honeymoon there. This scene doesn’t appear in the book, but Nolan builds on a historical detail (Kyoto was in fact Stimson’s honeymoon destination even if that may not have been a reason for crossing the city off the list) to illustrate the arbitrary nature of the reasons and decisions that ushered in the nuclear age.
Where the book fares better than the film is in showing how subatomic physics evolved from theoretical conjecture to practical application, from a weapon to save the world to a weapon of apocalyptic one-upmanship. At the same time, it also traces the evolution of communism from an idea associated with the labour movement to America’s mortal enemy crystallising dogmatic hatred and nothing less. As the Red Scare created a climate of fear and panic across the US, the loyalty of scientists were called into question, oaths were imposed, and the sharing of scientific information blocked.
Oppenheimer, however, wished to share atomic knowledge with the world to neutralise the threat it posed. At the same time, he opposed the development of the much more lethal hydrogen bomb in response to the Soviet Union’s first A-bomb test in 1949. This put him in the crosshairs of Strauss, a businessman appointed by Truman to chair the AEC, and Teller, an unwavering nuclear apologist in favour of developing the H-bomb. Not to mention Truman, who had no desire to allow the Soviet Union to catch up in the arms race. When Oppenheimer called for nuclear non-proliferation because he felt he had blood on his hands, the then-US president dismissed him as “a cry-baby scientist.”
Oppenheimer opens with a bite-sized summary of the Greek myth of Prometheus before it dives into the life of his atomic-age analogue. Prometheus stole fire from the Olympian gods to empower mankind. Zeus, furious, chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to feast on his liver. Since Prometheus was immortal, his flesh would grow back every night, only for the eagle to tear at it again the next day in an endless cycle. Oppenheimer endured a not too different fate: His fiery gift to mankind brought him endless suffering. As a character in the film tells the physicist, “You see beyond the world we live in. There is a price to be paid for that.”
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.