Christopher Nolan’s film begins with American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer popularly known as the “father of atomic bomb” played by (Cillian Murphy) being homesick and dealing with anxiety.
The events in the film take place in a nonlinear timeline, which Nolan is known for. It alternates between Oppenheimer’s story from Cambridge to Los Alamos, his security hearing in 1954, and Lewis Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jr.) confirmation hearing in 1959.
The film takes us into the mind of one of the world’s most brilliant men, into the agony of his soul riddled with conflict. Through his film, Nolan takes us into a journey guided by the spirit of man and join the race to build the world’s first atomic bomb. A weapon of immeasurable power and destruction–to some, it was a symbol of peace; to others, it was a terrible monster.
Oppenheimer’s part in the well-known Manhattan Project created the atomic weapon in the world. Nolan has called the physicist the most influential man who at any point lived.
In his dreams, Oppenheimer visualizes molecules atoms, molecules, those interactions and energy waves. He attempts to reproduce a string that runs from the right, directly through to a definitive articulation of the huge power when it is released.
There is a dark and twisted side to Oppenheimer, it comes out clearly when he injects a poisonous chemical into an apple while studying at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University because he hates his demanding professor, Patrick Blackett. However, he stops visiting scientist Niels Bohr from eating it. Another side shows he is pretentious and loves literature.
As a scientist, Oppenheimer became disinterested easily and liked to hop across to different genres. But he didn’t simply go wherever his fancy led him. He generally bounced into popular fields — he loved being at the focal point of things.
And when he jumped into a popular new field, his sharp mind often provided some important insight. But since he’d hustled through his physics classes at Harvard, he lacked fundamental knowledge to make anything but shallow contributions sometimes.
At Cambridge University, Oppenheimer wanted to work with the legendary physicist Ernest Rutherford. But the latter was suspicious of Oppenheimer and rejected him. The rejection shocked him as he was used to getting what he wanted. Oppenheimer gets his PhD in physics from the University of Göttingen, Germany. He meets theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. He then returns to the U.S. and hopes to expand quantum physics research. He begins teaching at the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology.
He meets Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a member of the Communist Party of the U.S. at a party where he is taken by his brother Frank and his girlfriend. Oppenheimer has an on-and-off relationship with her until she dies by suicide. In one scene during an intimate moment, both take a break, and she flips through his book collection. She takes out a book (Sanskrit scripture—”Bhagavad Gita“) and asks him to read a verse. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Nolan dwells on Oppenheimer’s inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita. In the verse, Krishna/Vishnu tries to persuade Arjun to do his duty—to fight the war of Kurukshetra with his cousins the Kauravas.
He later meets his future wife Katherine Puening or Kitty (Emily Blunt), a biologist and former Communist.
Oppenheimer is recruited by U.S. Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the Manhattan Project after he assures the former that he has no communist sympathies. A Jew, Oppenheimer believes the Nazis have nuclear weapons program underway, headed by Heisenberg.
Oppenheimer assembles a scientific team to develop the atomic bomb, including Edward Teller, Isidor Issac Rabi and David Hill in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They were secretly developing the bomb with the intention to save the world despite its potential global repercussions. During the development, Bohr visits and Oppenheimer discusses with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) the possibility of such a bomb triggering a chain reaction that could destroy the entire world.
In the end, the nuclear bomb is finished, and the Trinity test is effectively carried out not long before the Potsdam Gathering.
Here again, during the testing in July 1945, the verse from the Gita plays in Oppenheimer’s mind. The eerie silence, followed by the deafening sound of the bomb and the verse playing in his mind is very powerful. It indicates that Oppenheimer and his team have at their disposal a huge weapon that can blow up and cause mass destruction.
After the testing, when he enters the hall to crowds cheering and applauding him, Nolan shows through his powerful storytelling, people tapping their feet as the roaring sound plays in Oppenheimer’s mind. The physicist is happy that he is the center of attention.
After U.S. drops bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during the World War II, ordered by President Harry Truman, he is completely agitated and shattered.
Even though Oppenheimer is on the cover of “Time” magazine, he is haunted by the immense destruction and suffering the bombs caused. He meets with Truman and urges him to curtail developing even more powerful weapons. The President perceives Oppenheimer’s distress as weakness and calls him a “crybaby”. He says that as President, he alone bears responsibility regarding the bomb’s utilisation.
Oppenheimer advocates against additional atomic bomb development, particularly the nuclear bomb, pitting him against Teller.
Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), resents Oppenheimer for publicly dismissing his concerns regarding the export of radioisotopes. He also believes the physicist spoke ill of him to Einstein at the Institute of Advanced Study.
Einstein and Oppenheimer appear to share a special bond. Though they don’t particularly like each other, Oppenheimer seeks Einstein’s opinion on the atomic bomb test.
When Oppenheimer is being accused of harbouring treasonous sympathies, outside his home in Princeton, he encounters Einstein, who doesn’t seem to understand why his fellow physicist is taking everything. He says if this is the reward the American government gives Oppenheimer after the time, he spent developing the bomb he should simply “turn his back” on America. However, Einstein doesn’t understand that for Oppenheimer, this isn’t an option.
Strauss exploits Oppenheimer’s association with communists and ex-communists like Tatlock and his brother Frank during his security hearing in 1954. The trial is intended to remove him from political influence. Oppenheimer is double-crossed with deposition given by Teller and other associates. His security clearance is revoked despite testimony from several allies. His public image is damaged, and his policy influence is neutralised.
What baffles one after watching the film is why, like his wife Kitty tells him several times, doesn’t he fight back to protect his reputation? Though it is clear to him that it was Strauss who, due to his personal grudge against him, engineered his downfall. He even shook hands with Teller after the latter testified against him. Is he a tragic character or due to his ability to forgive his enemy, he is a hopeless optimist is what plays on in the mind.
In 1959, at a Senate confirmation hearing on Strauss’s nomination as Secretary of Commerce his personal motives came to the fore as Hill testified and exposed him.