Oppenheimer, benefactor of humanity and destroyer of worlds


Oppenheimer, benefactor of humanity and destroyer of worlds

31 Aug, 2023

Neither biopic nor historical film, we have to ask ourselves what Nolan's latest effort is really about. According to the title, it's about Robert J. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, the one who is defined as "the most significant man of his time". This implies being both the one who best represents the spirit of one's age and the one who is able to radically transform it, a product of history and a producer of history. As Malavasi rightly points out, this recalls «[Nolan's] philosophical and moral attraction for the drama of men who experience the power to change the order of things – of a city, of reality, of a mind; in Oppenheimer's case, of the world, forever» [1].

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On the left, the physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967); photo credit: Ed Westcott, c. 1946. On the right, Cillian Murphy, the actor who plays him in the film "Oppenheimer" (2023) directed by Christopher Nolan.


What appears on the screen, in an interweaving of flashbacks and flashforwards, is an era (still ours, beyond the short century) in which the paradigms of traditional ethics seem stuck in a short circuit, because their criterion of universality is not it is more valid than the urgencies of a moment in which man, for the first time, can compromise the life of the entire planet.

The questions of ethics have always been conceived for that finite being which was man; how must those questions change if they are addressed to a being who can burn even the sky? Just as we arrive, through fission and fusion, at the atomic bomb, so the world, morality, man's possibilities are transformed in this unexpected passage from theory to reality.

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The film begins with an explicit reference to the myth of Prometheus. However, here there is no divine punishment, but only a show trial where the wrong questions are asked: it is the ineffective and arbitrary justice of men, where the hunt for the responsible becomes a defamation strategy to satisfy the envy of those it does not come close to the great tragic minds of humanity, who understand the ambiguity and even the horror of what was naively called "progress".

In that closed-door trial, a little private hell, the questions displace even more than the answers: the moral dilemma that is torturing Oppenheimer is never clearly formulated.

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He is asked if he would have betrayed his homeland, what his relationship with the communists really were, why (problem of consistency!) he had supported the creation of the atomic bomb but not the hydrogen one. As if moral conscience were to be based on a calculation of continuity, based on a principle that can only be repeated: isn't the H-bomb the natural next step? In this sense, Oppenheimer is a film about incommensurability, about the dilemma we are experiencing even today, where, in the age of big data, quantity becomes quality.

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The presumed continuity of science is here haunted by a thought of interruption, which with its discontinuity is able to signal the radical and irreparable leaps that man is capable of making at a certain point in history. The continuity that is called into question is that of the welding between knowledge and power; those who know more will be able to do more: but, in fact, ethics is out of the question, because here "power" means pure possibility, without any normative connotation.

But he knows it: even after the explosion, especially after, everything is an omen. In that time in color where there is no rhetorical discussion, the secret of life is at stake, that force of attraction and destruction which underlies quantum mechanics, presented by Oppenheimer as an endless game of seduction, a true imponderable chain reaction.

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It is so when he tells it to his lover, with whom he performs a sexual act while evoking Vishnu, the destroyer of the worlds of the Bhagavad Gita. As Strano reports, "It was only a matter of time before his cinema met its historical matrix head-on, confronting itself with quantum physics [...]. Oppenheimer is the culmination of this project, now more than twenty years old, the finalization of his discourse on cinema as a structure designed to make the new conditions of knowledge objectively visible and practicable". [2]

It is no coincidence that Nolan does not show us the explosion in Japan: he is interested in the experience of a situated spectator (as war was in the eyes of the soldiers of Dunkirk). The experience is that of Oppenheimer, who sees again, in the room where they celebrate it, the sound and visual repetition, which is both prophecy, of what happened there, in a place evoked as a list of sites to hit (if we exclude Kyoto , because someone has memories there, a symbol of the arbitrariness of the decisions of the American government, guilty never tried).

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Oppenheimer just wanted to end all the wars in the world. But, as Nolan has taught since his first films, time is not what we think. What for Oppenheimer was the end, even if catastrophic, but definitive, of a prehistory of humanity, is only the beginning of another barbarism, a new ruin that this time will not be stopped by any God. The images of his desire , which dominate the first part of the film, then become nightmares, to the point of overturning the erotic dimension of science, linked to discovery, intuition, a journey into the unknown, into the most radical thanatological dimension: an empty sky that catches fire and annihilates everything.

No guilty, no innocents: the trial is always a farce. So, the moral enterprise here is accomplished by the device of the cinema, which can make the invisible visible, materialize desire, but also turn it into a nightmare, in an experiment that recalls that of Los Alamos, the construction set for something it had never been seen before.




[1] L. Malavasi, L’uomo che volle farsi Dio, FilmTV n. 33/2023, p. 16.

Written by

Maria Russo
Maria Russo

Maria Russo is Researcher of Moral Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy UniSR, where she teaches Ethics of Communication and Media and Philosophies of Cinema. She has studied French existentialism, and in particular with Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom many of her publications are dedicated. He is also Visiting Fellow at the University of the West of England (Bristol, UK) and deputy editor of the journal “Studi Sartriani”.

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