Oppenheimer is being received as a relic of a bygone era, but it holds important lessons for us today.

by Hanieh Jodat and Sam Rosenthal

Christopher Nolan’s new biographical thriller film, Oppenheimer, chronicles the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” In Nolan’s typical Hollywood-for-thinking-people style, the film strikes an ambiguous tone, neither triumphal nor admonishing of Oppenheimer and his team’s dubious accomplishment. As we follow Oppenheimer’s life and professional trajectory, we’re presented with the image of a person living through an era of uncertainty. Oppenheimer himself is depicted as conflicted, maybe even tormented, by his pivotal role in creating and developing this weapon of mass murder, while his own government finds Oppenheimer alternately to be an object of worship and suspicion, culminating in his investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

What the film fails to explicitly portray, however, is the profound global effect that Oppenheimer’s personal saga and his work with the Manhattan Project – the secret U.S.-funded research and development program during the Second World War which led to the successful creation of the atomic bomb – still have on the world today. As Danish physicist Neils Henrik David Bohr (played by Kenneth Branagh) warns Oppenheimer in the film, “The power you are about to reveal will forever outlive [World War II], and the world is not prepared.” Even to this day, one can make a strong argument that humanity is still not prepared for the power that Oppenheimer and his team unleashed on the world. Oppenheimer has been largely received as a historical document, and it is, but seen through another lens, it could almost serve as a public service announcement, reminding us of the very real and imminent threat that nuclear weapons still pose.

Manhattan project, development of nuclear weapons, history of science of the 20th century. Art collage with a nuclear explosion

The arrival of Oppenheimer, during a time of heightened global tensions among the most powerful nuclear powers in the world, brings a feeling of profound portent. In January of this year, the “Doomsday Clock,” which is managed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, was moved to 90 seconds until midnight, serving as a haunting reminder of the immediate risk of a human-made nuclear catastrophe. This is the closest the clock has been to midnight since its inception in 1947. A cursory look at geopolitical history from 1947 through the present reveals several moments of intense tension between nuclear powers: the first hydrogen bomb test, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the proliferation of nuclear weapons into India and Pakistan. That the Bulletin believes the nuclear risk today exceeds that of these earlier historical moments should fill us all with a deep sense of dread.

Our epoch, too, is marked by a worrisome decline in diplomatic dialogue and cooperation between nuclear powers. In Oppenheimer’s time, there were just one, then two, nuclear powers, bound together by the paradoxical, but compelling, logic of mutually assured destruction. Today, combined, China, Israel, North Korea, Russia, France, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. own roughly 12,500 nuclear weapons, many of which are far more powerful than “Little Boy,” the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. An additional six bases in five NATO countries host U.S. nuclear weapons, increasing the physical dispersion of these weapons of mass destruction and death. Recently, Russia’s Vladimir Putin announced he had deployed Russian nukes to neighboring Belarus; this comes after he earlier raised the specter of using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine War. There should be little doubt that the use of a nuclear weapon on the European continent would trigger a full-scale nuclear war and a near-certain global apocalypse.

So, when we go to see Oppenheimer this summer, we can view it for what it is — a Hollywoodified summation of one of the most consequential scientific breakthroughs in world history — but we should also remember that the world that Oppenheimer created remains our reality today. The threat of nuclear weapons is far from a relic of a bygone era, and it remains a contemporary concern. So, long after the theater lights fade, and we are no longer immersed in the theatrics, we should think about the grave implications of this reality — and collectively work to avert the haunting specter of a nuclear calamity.