Movie Reviews

Why Oppenheimer Was Called The American Prometheus


  • Oppenheimer creatively parallels the story of the physicist with the Greek titan Prometheus, exploring the moral dilemmas of scientific progress.
  • Christopher Nolan immerses audiences in Oppenheimer’s genius and downfall, showcasing gripping performances and visuals in the Oscar-winning film.
  • The strained relationship between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss adds depth to the narrative, echoing the themes of punishment and moral consequences.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is loosely based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus and even subtly highlights why the notable physicist was given that title. The Oscar-winning film Oppenheimer made waves at the global box office not only because of the Barbenheimer pop-culture phenomenon but also because of its gripping portrayal of the atomic bomb’s development and aftermath during World War II. While Oppenheimer takes a fair share of creative liberties with its portrayal of historical events, the film features some incredible performances and memorable visuals.

Even from a narrative standpoint, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer does an incredible job of immersing audiences into the titular figure’s genius as he develops the infamous atomic bomb before eventually falling from grace. However, instead of merely walking through the major milestones in Oppenheimer’s journey as a physicist, the film dives deep into the complex motivations and moral dilemmas he faces before and after developing the bomb. Interestingly, the film also parallels his story with Prometheus’ tale, explaining why J. Robert Oppenheimer was also known as the American Prometheus.


Why Did Lewis Strauss Hate Oppenheimer? Atomic Feud Explained

Though Oppenheimer centers on the atomic bomb, an important piece of the movie is the strained relationship between Lewis Strauss and Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Was Considered The Modern-Day Version Of The Greek Titan Prometheus

Prometheus’ Tale, Like Oppenheimer’s, Is A Parable For The Price Of Development

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who, in his quest to help humanity, defied Zeus by stealing fire from Mount Rushmore and gifting it to humans. Since fire became one of the most crucial tools for speeding up humanity’s development, it has served as a symbol of both knowledge and civilization. Prometheus, however, faced the dire consequences of his actions when Zeus got him chained on Mount Caucasus, where an eagle slowly fed on his liver. Since Prometheus was immortal, his liver would regenerate every night, forcing him to endure eternal torture.

In Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which was the inspiration behind Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the authors compare the titular physicist with the Greek titan. The book highlights how, just like the rebellious Prometheus gave mankind fire, Oppenheimer presented humanity with the atomic bomb. However, when he attempted to warn the world about the potential dangers of his invention, the authorities, like Zeus, were infuriated and retaliated by punishing him. Here’s an excerpt from the book comparing Oppenheimer with Prometheus:

“Oppenheimer’s warnings were ignored—and ultimately, he was silenced. Like that rebellious Greek god Prometheus—who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it upon humankind, Oppenheimer gave us atomic fire. But then, when he tried to control it, when he sought to make us aware of its terrible dangers, the powers-that-be, like Zeus, rose up in anger to punish him.”

How The American Prometheus Name Connects To Oppenheimer’s Opening Quote

Christopher Nolan’s Perfectly Parallels Oppenheimer’s Story With Prometheus’

Like the book, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer also attempts to draw parallels between Prometheus’ tale and Oppenheimer’s journey. The movie begins with the quote, “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” This perfectly sums up Oppenheimer’s story in the movie. Like Prometheus brings fire, Oppenheimer presents humanity with the atomic bomb, marking the inception of a new era of scientific developments. However, his quest for progress and enlightenment comes with a hefty price, eventually leading to his own downfall.

Christopher Nolan’s


highlights how, like Prometheus, the Cillian Murphy character also endures life-long punishment when he struggles to grapple with the guilt of his actions and the consequences of his legal dispute.

Not only does Oppenheimer find himself in the US government’s crosshairs but also struggles to come to terms with his guilt for creating a weapon of mass destruction. His attempts to spread awareness surrounding the weapon’s dangers lead to a clash between him and Lewis Strauss, tainting his reputation and resulting in the revocation of his security clearance. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer highlights how, like Prometheus, the Cillian Murphy character also endures life-long punishment when he struggles to grapple with the guilt of his actions and the consequences of his legal dispute.

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