I have a passing interest in physics, having taken a pass on physics in college. I cut so many classes it would take Schrodinger to determine if I was in the class or out – or both. (that’s a physics joke for certain friends.)
If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you’re about to meet all of the names that were routinely dropped by the science nerds on the show. Of course, everyone knows Einstein, but here we get to meet Oppenheimer, Bohr, Heisenberg, Fermi, Teller, Feynman, and others.
A little terminology you’ll encounter during the film, and a side note that Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel PEACE prize fame, invented TNT. A kiloton of TNT is one thousand tons (two million pounds) of dynamite. One stick weighs less than half of a pound, so try to visualize four million sticks of dynamite! A megaton is one MILLION tons (two billion pounds.) It’s hard to even imagine what that would look like.
Christopher Nolan directs this fascinating look at the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, commonly called the father of the atomic bomb, the scientist who directed the Manhattan Project. The famous endeavor was headquartered in Los Alamos, New Mexico but divided into four compartmented, super-secret locations, one of which could have killed my mother, but I’ll get to that.
Oppenheimer is one of those dark, complicated individuals, so brilliant and sure of his expertise that he becomes something of a rock star in a very competitive scientific community. He likes to blow things up, like relationships, and that’s where the focus of the movie dwells for a long time, since we all know how it ends. BOOM.
Nolan, who loves dark personalities like the one he created for Batman in The Dark Night, clearly enjoyed peeling away the layers of “Oppy,” as the main character came to be known.
Oppenheimer realizes the potential for a nuclear chain reaction early in the film and says to a fellow scientist, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? A bomb!”
That one was for the audience, along with other out-loud thoughts to help us understand. In a lecture to physics students he states that light can be both a wave and a particle, new thinking at the time. He was on the forefront of quantum theory.
Cillian Murphy, familiar from other villainous roles, is perfectly cast as the fedora-wearing leading man. Emily Blunt is solid as always, as his wife. But Matt Daman as Temporary Brigadier General Leslie Groves, was a casting mistake. He’s too likeable and has done far too much comic work to be taken seriously, though a slight hint of humor is appropriate in a few scenes when he’s trying to understand the true nature of the project he’s leading, and the possibility that it could destroy the world.
Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Lewis Strauss, a Cabinet member wannabe who will stop at nothing to be appointed. We’ve certainly become familiar with bullying lawyers and Congressional committees, but it’s interesting to see it play out in the 1940s. Antisemitism, communism, McCarthyism – there were a lot of “isms” back in the good old days.
But back to my personal interest in what Oppenheimer accomplished.
My mother seemed almost Forrest Gump-like in her encounters with historical figures. I’m grateful that she told me these stories. For a young woman to leave a sheltered suburban life in 1940 to work in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago speaks volumes about her intellect and courage. She became a secretary in the Music Department on the south end of the campus.
A scene in Oppenheimer takes place in an unused football stadium at the University. Mom was working about a half mile away while the first controlled nuclear fission reaction in history took place. It was one compartment of the Manhattan Project, named for the New York location of the Army component of the eventual 130,000-person endeavor.
Have you heard of Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois? Well, Enrico Fermi was down the street from Mom, directing the insertion and removal of shielding lead rods from a self-sustaining prototype reactor, being careful not to set off a nuclear explosion or meltdown that would have predated Chernobyl by 46 years. They worked under cover of the name The Metallurgical Laboratory, now an historical landmark. They succeeded with their test on December 2, 1942, avoiding a blast that would have vaporized my mother and much of the south side of Chicago. A meltdown might have created an unlivable mess for thousands of years, encompassing most of the city and suburbs. If you consider the “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl with a radius of 19 miles, the Willis Tower is only eight miles away. And by the time of Chernobyl they supposedly knew what they were doing. In 1942 this was entirely new and barely understood.
When the resulting nuclear bomb was eventually detonated in New Mexico, scientists expressed a very real concern that the chain reaction they were about to unleash might ignite Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, a terrifying new weapon entered Mankind’s arsenal, causing Oppenheimer to regret his work and state, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Still, it was that or allow the Germans to develop the bomb first, use it against our allies and change history in a very detrimental way.
Or was it? The Germans had already been defeated, yet work on the bomb continued. We then dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, and a second on Nagasaki, populated and industrial areas respectively, to see what would happen. Japan was not given time to surrender after the first bomb before Hell was revisited upon the Earth three days later.
President Truman is cast in a new light here, portrayed by Gary Oldman, and the lust for power on the world stage we see on the evening news is proven not to be a modern tendency. It’s as old as mankind.
You can go to the concession stand or the bathroom at just about any point during this film and not feel the need to catch up, but it’s definitely worth seeing.
Oppenheimer (2023) runs 3 hours and is rated R.
If you like fiction and you're in the mood for over 50 short stories, please consider buying "Natural Selections," at Amazon.com.
Or if you'd prefer seventy non-fiction stories inspired by a town in Illinois, please consider buying Park Ridge Memories also on Amazon. Click on the image below.