Movie Reviews

How Oppenheimer Died, & What It Means For Nolan's Movie

Christopher Nolan’s next movie, Oppenheimer, is informed by the true story of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and death after the atomic bomb, which means a great deal for Nolan’s film. The life of J. Robert Oppenheimer was tragic, with events continuously going downhill after his involvement in the Manhattan Project. While he was most famous for his participation in the creation of the atomic bomb, there is so much more to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story that Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will have to explore.

In the star-studded Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy will play J. Robert Oppenheimer, chronicling his life up to and possibly beyond the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer became involved in the Manhattan Project after being invited by a professor, and his brilliance led to his heading up the Los Alamos Laboratory. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has lots of plot to cover after Oppenheimer began to regret his involvement with the atomic bomb, and there was a tragic end to his story.

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After the first-ever successful nuclear bomb explosion during a test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer recalls that the phrase “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” enters his mind. Although this was initially a signal of triumph, with Oppenheimer being proud of his work on the Manhattan Project, things quickly took a turn for the worse after the bombing of Nagasaki. Upon hearing news of the event, Oppenheimer was horrified and soon after sent letters to the Secretary of War expressing his disapproval. Oppenheimer was so opposed to the nuclear bomb that he advocated for the total banning of nuclear weapons, even meeting with President Truman to discuss the topic.

Oppenheimer’s involvement with the deadly nuclear bomb created a monster, one he wasn’t able to stop. After his time with the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer tried returning to teaching but soon left the field of education and became director of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1947. At the same time, Oppenheimer was appointed as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, which attempted to regulate the use of atomic energy. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Oppenheimer advised the US government in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s experiments with nuclear weapons, with Oppenheimer pushing back against further nuclear development.

Oppenheimer’s influence continued to grow as he further advocated for the regulation of nuclear weapons. He expressed his fear of the immense number of casualties they would cause. Oppenheimer’s outspokenness made him an enemy of the US government, with Harry Truman (Gary Oldman in Oppenheimer‘s cast) directly going against Oppenheimer’s wishes multiple times. Oppenheimer becoming an enemy of the state and the AEC had unfortunate consequences for his future.

During the era of McCarthyism, the FBI began to suspect that J. Robert Oppenheimer was secretly a communist. Oppenheimer had expressed communist sentiments during his teaching years, and his wife and son were both open members of the Communist Party. The FBI began investigating Oppenheimer in the 1940s, discovering his ties to the party through wiretaps. Although Oppenheimer admitted that he was a member of the party in the 1930s while testifying to HUAC, in 1953, AEC chairman William Liscum Borden told FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy, leading to his reputation being destroyed.

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Although Oppenheimer was most famous for the atomic bomb, Nolan’s Oppenheimer movie will also cover the aftermath of these accusations. After Borden’s allegations, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, with theories about his Soviet associations running wild in the scientific community. Starting in April 1954, Oppenheimer went through a secret security hearing going into detail about his associations with the Communist Party. Although Oppenheimer never regained his security clearance, later investigations have found that Oppenheimer had no ties to the Soviet Union, with him officially being cleared of all accusations well after his death in December 2022.

While Oppenheimer was ultimately innocent, the controversy surrounding him caused Oppenheimer to go into semi-retirement after his security hearings. Oppenheimer did continue to give some lectures as a teacher, but he was essentially blacklisted. Oppenheimer even wound back his anti-nuclear advocacy. With his reputation tarnished, Oppenheimer moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he spent time with his family and continued his writings.

Cillian Murphy’s role in Oppenheimer will probably be an emotional one, as Oppenheimer’s true story ended in tragedy. After moving to Princeton, New Jersey, J. Robert Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965. Oppenheimer had been a chain smoker for much of his life, causing his cancer to be quite aggressive. Surgery and chemotherapy were unsuccessful, causing Oppenheimer to go into a coma on February 15, 1967, with him dying only three days later.

Although Oppenheimer did continue to lecture and write throughout his later years, he never fully recovered from the damage his reputation took due to his alleged communist ties. Near the end of his life, Oppenheimer did claw back some redemption, receiving awards from France, Britain, and the United States. However, J. Robert Oppenheimer never again had as much impact as he did while working on the Manhattan Project.

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Oppenheimer’s time after the Manhattan Project was quite dramatic, meaning Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer may put more importance on his later years. Oppenheimer lived a fairly regular life up until he joined the Manhattan Project. However, Oppenheimer’s regret, advocacy against nuclear weapons, and security hearings suggest the seeds for serious drama. This post-Manhattan Project story would function perfectly as the dramatic arc of a film, and from looking at Oppenheimer‘s cast, it seems like that’s what the film will mostly be about.

J. Robert Oppenheimer’s death also means that Nolan’s Oppenheimer will likely have a sad ending. Since Oppenheimer slowly died of cancer, there isn’t a viably tense ending or perfect conclusion to his character arc. Nolan could end the film before Oppenheimer’s death, but if not, then Oppenheimer will most likely conclude with the scientist’s life in shambles, with him falling into a coma and dying. The latter half of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life is perfect for a movie like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, but the film’s ending will be far from happy.

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