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The Student News Site of Buckingham Browne & Nichols School

The Vanguard

The Student News Site of Buckingham Browne & Nichols School

The Vanguard

Oppenheimer: the man who destroyed the world

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Julius Oppenheimer is just as troubled as one might expect a scientist developing an atomic bomb to be. A scene in the second half of his eponymous biopic where he tests the bomb brings his moral quandries to a head.

This test of the bomb is the test of Oppenheimer’s career. If it fails, Oppenheimer and his team will lose their jobs, two years’ worth of Uranium, and the competition against their German counterparts. But the consequences if the test succeeds may be scarier. A most insidious fact has haunted Oppenheimer for years: the bomb could turn the atmosphere to fire and destroy the entire world.

The bomb does explode, winning primitive awe from the scientists. And though the test doesn’t annihilate the world, it leaves the scientists with a devastating realization: they have just given humanity the tool to do so.

The splitting of an atom—a process Oppenheimer has utilized to build his atomic bomb—is mirrored in the events that unravel throughout his life. Just as an atom is split by a human action, but quickly moves beyond human control, Oppenheimer’s affair with a Communist Party associate Jean Tatlock, his brief membership in the Communist Party, and his disagreement with fellow scientist Edward Teller over the creation of the hydrogen bomb all spiral into uncontrollable events with disastrous consequences. Despondent after Oppenheimer’s rejection of her, Tatlock dies by suicide; Oppenheimer’s ties to the Communist Party allow the U.S. government to prosecute him; Teller testifies against Oppenheimer during the latter’s hearing.

Thus, Director Christopher Nolan links together Oppenheimer’s personal and professional lives by

demonstrating the relevance of scientific principles in Oppenheimer’s personal life.

In other words, Oppenheimer is just as complicated as the bomb he erects. While there are tests of the scientific kind in this film–physicists are constantly performing experiments to prove their theories–there are also those of the meta kind: is Oppenheimer a hero or a villain? Nolan tests the audience’s perception of this complex man.

It is possible to view Oppenheimer, the genius physicist, as a man who won plentiful admiration for ending the most catastrophic war in the world’s history. It is also possible to view Oppenheimer as a Communist traitor who propped up the Soviet Union and kickstarted the development of nuclear weaponry. But which interpretation better fits Oppenheimer?

The film does not shy away from his flaws. He cheats on his wife, attempts to poison his professor, and betrays a Communist Party associate to the U.S. government. But he is also a genius physicist fighting to, as he believes, save the world. Even without the film’s agenda to portray him positively, a viewer would likely still feel sympathetic to him.

Oppenheimer clearly objects to the use of the atomic bomb, despite spearheading its creation. While he admits to having many flaws and presents himself as guilty of having Communist ties, as the film progresses, it shows Oppenheimer to be a firm supporter of disarmament. Oppenheimer constantly stresses that he isn’t making the bomb because he wants to destroy other nations, but because he wants to prevent hostile nations such as Germany from developing it first. After the war ends, he staunchly opposes the creation of more powerful nuclear weaponry.

Knowing that the Cold War followed Oppenheimer’s public crucifixion makes his warning even more poignant. Had the U.S. government heeded his advice and not detonated the atomic bombs, perhaps the Soviet Union would not have felt it necessary to construct its own. Perhaps neither nation would have developed a hydrogen bomb.

Would the arms race still have happened had Oppenheimer not been ridiculed and silenced by the government? It seems fair to say it was the U.S. government officials who shut him down and his rivals who persecuted him that were actually the ones responsible for the arms race.

Unlike many other movie biopics, which focus on the struggles a single person faced throughout their lifetime, Oppenheimer covers a topical issue. While the Cold War may have ended long ago, tensions around the world have only been increasing in recent years. With the possibility of a 21st century Cold War between global superpowers, Russia, China, and the U.S., looming on the horizon, this movie is perfectly poised to draw attention to the destructive power these weapons hold. If we aren’t careful, Oppenheimer will become the one thing he never wanted to be: the man who destroyed the world.

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About the Contributor
Beckett Dubovik
Beckett Dubovik, Projects Editor
Hi! I’m Beckett the Projects editor for Volume 53 of the Vanguard! Designing the Current Topics and Double Truck spreads are only one of my favorite things to do. I also enjoy running, swimming, feeding my gerbils, and writing in my free time!

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