Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.
— Opening caption of Oppenheimer
Recently I asked a friend if he’d seen ‘Barbenheimer’, this summer’s Frankenstein’s monster of a movie event. He responded no, he had not. Neither film particularly interested him. Especially not Oppenheimer, which was frankly too depressing for him to handle at this moment. I understood. I admitted that some days I can barely even stand to go online, let alone watch an apocalyptic IMAX film.
I introduce the following analysis of Oppenheimer in this way because, although I’m convinced it is a very good film, maybe even a truly great one, I also think it reflects all too well today’s pervasive sense of encompassing doom and ceaseless tragedy. Not to fault its achievements, but the film is a powerful deliverer of The Bad News. As usual for writer-director Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is exceedingly well-crafted and thought provoking, a film eminently worth seeing. And that’s because it confronts us with uncomfortable truths. The film envisions a brilliant scientist who must navigate Cold War America, embroiled in tensions and conflicts intensely relevant to our own moment—one characterised by strange intersections between science and politics, technology and myth, and dissensus regarding how to be a responsible human upon this planet. More so, Oppenheimer is a moving portrayal of an individual wrestling with guilt over his singular contribution to our situation, a people pivoting towards self-destruction—what theologian Jacques Ellul strikingly called the world’s ‘will-to-suicide’1—and depicts his attempt to turn and chart a wiser course for humanity’s scientific and technological pursuits. The following is my exploration of how the film tells this story with reference to its biblical, mythological and theological undercurrents.
Oppenheimer is the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who studied quantum mechanics in Europe with some of the best minds of his generation before returning to America to lead development on the nuclear bomb with the Manhattan Project. The film shows Oppenheimer’s team successfully making an atomic weapon, the ‘culmination of three centuries of modern science’.2 But not only that. For here in this American desert, Oppenheimer’s team also may have built something like a god. Mythic and religious allusion seem required to appreciate the magnitude of the event: Oppenheimer, real life Dr Frankenstein and ‘modern Prometheus’3 who steals the fire of the gods to create an uncontrollable monster called ‘Trinity’—Oppenheimer’s name for the first nuclear bomb tested at Los Alamos. In language evoking the Jewish and Christian God of the Old Testament, Oppenheimer describes ‘Trinity’ as a ‘pillar of fire’ in the desert (cf. Exodus 13:21), a ‘revelation of divine power’, which Oppenheimer also famously identified with the Hindu god Vishnu: ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Though meant to end the Second World War, the Bomb may spell the end of the world itself.
Among the most interesting theologically-loaded aspects of the film is how it portrays Oppenheimer’s conflict over his work in a manner that repeatedly incorporates his Jewish background. Oppenheimer regards the urgency and necessity of his work in view of how his people are being murdered by Hitler. He also observes that, because of Hitler’s antisemitism—Hitler views as ‘Jewish’ the science of quantum mechanics, upon which the bomb’s creation relies—then the Americans have a leg up on the Nazis. Further, as I’ll explore, Oppenheimer arguably invites readings of its story in relation to the book of Genesis and even (obliquely) to the figure of King David.
Regarding Oppenheimer’s biblical references, perhaps most striking are its implicit allusions to Genesis, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a snake to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, precipitating creation’s fall into death and mis-relation with God. We see this in the early scenes of a young Oppenheimer who, embarrassed in front of class by his professor,4 decides on a murderous whim to inject potassium cyanide into his professor’s apple. The next day Oppenheimer regrets his vengeful action. He rushes to the classroom and finds quantum physicist Niels Bohr speaking with his professor, poisoned apple in Bohr’s hand. As Oppenheimer keeps an eye on the fruit, of which one eats and ‘will certainly die’,5 Bohr encourages Oppenheimer to study in Germany so as to go beyond theory to experimentation, enjoining him to ‘lift the stone’ even if it means the risk of finding ‘a snake underneath’. Bohr then moves to bite the apple and Oppenheimer knocks it out of his grasp.
The moment seems to invite symbolic reading. In one sense, it evokes the classic notion of scientific progress as an inherently risky bite of ‘the fruit of knowledge’. Oppenheimer’s pursuit of scientific knowledge and experimentation will very much prove to be, as Bohr suggests, a ‘lifting of the stone’, under which is a figurative ‘snake’—the nuclear bomb. In turn, the bomb holds the ambiguous promise of what philosopher Jacques Derrida termed a pharmakon—that which functions ambiguously as both cure and poison.6 Indeed, the atomic bomb is perhaps the twentieth century’s ultimate pharmakon: as both deadly ‘snake’ and ‘fruit of knowledge’, the bomb promises to cure the world of the War, even as it may also irrevocably poison us by creating the possibility of the most deadly war imaginable.
Here we come to the heart of the film’s complexities. Regarding what is at stake on a human level, consider Oppenheimer’s non-linear, two-stranded narrative structure—that of ‘Fission’ and ‘Fusion’. ‘Fission’ chronicles events leading to the atom bomb and Oppenheimer’s subsequent 1954 ‘kangaroo court’ hearing. ‘Fusion’ details events contemporaneous to the 1959 Senate confirmation hearings for Lewis Strauss. Oppenheimer establishes early on that these two stories parallel one other by indicating that each will focus upon a man forced to ‘justify [his] life’ in a hearing. Although ultimately Strauss is revealed a villain, his behind-the-scenes manipulations ensuring that Oppenheimer is disgraced, an intriguing similarity between the two men emerges. The film suggests that Strauss’s motivation to destroy Oppenheimer arises when the latter embarrasses him in public on one occasion; this parallels Oppenheimer’s attempt to kill his professor by poisoning his apple, likewise due to being embarrassed in public. We see that both men act out of a sense of petty vindictiveness. This similarity, however, highlights a stark difference. The difference is that Oppenheimer, unlike Strauss, changes his ways immediately. Oppenheimer takes back what he did, rather than persisting in his grudge like Strauss. In biblical language, one could say that Oppenheimer turns from or repents of his destructive action when he throws out the apple he’d poisoned, while Strauss does not. And implied in the film’s narrative structure is that Oppenheimer is vindicated, whereas justice catches up with Strauss, who is denied confirmation.
However, the tragic grandeur of the story is that Oppenheimer was to discover—as had Albert Einstein—that he’d helped set in motion a chain of events which could not be undone. He’d effectively engineered a ‘poisoned apple’ that could not be so easily thrown aside; this ‘Adam’ bit the atom in two, we might say. In this sense, Oppenheimer is the story of a man struggling to live with what he’s done, unable to bear his own guilt. Though motivated by the terrible exigencies of the Second World War, Oppenheimer knows he has ‘blood on his hands’. No matter that he did not himself drop the bomb, nor decide to drop two bombs—which President Truman makes abundantly clear to the ‘crybaby’—Oppenheimer refuses to relinquish personal blame and responsibility. And this, too, seems part of his living out the Prometheus myth. For as his wife Kitty says, chastising him for ‘playing the martyr’ at his hearing, it is as though Oppenheimer’s passivity before his interrogators is an acknowledgment of guilt, and perhaps a need to be punished like Prometheus—not for being a Communist traitor, but rather for stealing ‘divine fire’, his far greater crime.
Another layer of guilt Oppenheimer bears is that regarding his affair with Jean Tatlock. Oppenheimer feels responsible for Tatlock’s suicide and sorry for himself, given how he abandoned her. But Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty will have none of it. As she tells him sternly, ‘You don’t get to commit sin and then ask all of us to feel sorry for you when there are consequences’. Kitty’s line resonates forwards and backwards through the film, raising a multitude of questions about how we handle our ‘sin’, both as individuals and collectively as societies, and what it means to take responsibility.
On one level, Oppenheimer and Strauss model two paths—that of owning one’s guilt and trying to make amends like Oppenheimer, or persisting in vengeance like Strauss. Yet on another level, Oppenheimer discovers a disturbing question: What do we do when the consequences of our action far outstrip any possibility of setting things right? What if our sin is so great as to have destroyed another person, as with Tatlock, or hundreds of thousands as in the dropping of nuclear bombs? Or, even worse, furthering a chain of events leading to the destruction of life on an unimaginably vast scale? What do we do when we realise there is literally hell to pay? When we find there is no way to un-poison or un-eat our Apple? Might we find some Zeus to chain us to a rock for eternity, to give us what we deserve?
Such questions seem to hit Oppenheimer all at once in one of the most powerful scenes. Oppenheimer enters a crowded gymnasium, packed with patriotic Americans. The crowd stomps their feet excitedly in adulation for Oppenheimer, their hero who’s helped win the War. Clever editing links the crowd’s feet stomping to the nuclear blast, conveying Oppenheimer’s mental and emotional state as he understands the price paid for the Allied victory. It also suggests the convertibility between the energy of the crowd and that of the bomb—two interwoven explosions. Oppenheimer envisions the bomb’s blinding light flashing over the gathered Americans as he delivers a message cautioning against nuclear proliferation—a message unpopular at this triumphant yet profoundly fearful moment. For what is desired is not to throw out our precious poisoned apples, but to poison bigger and badder apples, to protect ourselves against the bad guys, Them. The unpopular truth is that we—like the petty vindictive Strauss and Oppenheimer—are in fact the bad guys, whether to greater or lesser degrees. We are all capable of grievous sin…including War-winning superhero U.S.A., or well-intentioned brilliant scientists like Oppenheimer or maybe (just maybe) even the multinational corporations and governments that employ the Oppenheimers of today and tomorrow.
As Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty suggests, there are consequences for sin we commit.7 Nevertheless, I think the film implies that, like Oppenheimer, we can turn. That we can change. And even if we can’t throw away the apples we’ve poisoned, we can—or we should at least try to—cease pursuing scientific knowledge and technological power and economic gain in a manner totally unhinged from wisdom. Oppenheimer is refreshingly clear eyed about the peril of persisting stubbornly in error, of the deadly consequences that ensue from refusing to have what that patriarchal sinner and fellow murderous adulterer King David called a ‘contrite heart’.8 Oppenheimer seems to ask us: Shall we Earthlings of the third millennium be an unrepentant Strauss, who eventually must fall? Or will we be a contrite David-like Oppenheimer, who will be vindicated in the end? And yet more—going beyond Oppenheimer’s direct implications—might we the people follow in the ways of another humble ‘King of the Jews’9 in David’s lineage, that King which the Hebrew prophet Isaiah proclaimed would be totally innocent yet ‘wounded for our transgressions’, whose ‘punishment…made us whole’?10 Might there be such a One who can bear even a Prometheus-level sin, who’s able to destroy worlds-destroying Death itself?11 Might we turn and be healed by this King’s wounds instead of trying to bear our guilt on our own broken backs? Might we then ‘walk humbly’ with this King, ‘do[ing] justice’?12 Might our lives be justified then?