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The Ionian

The Student News Site of Iona University

The Ionian

‘Oppenheimer’ tackles the enigmatic life of the American Prometheus

Photo from indiewire.com
Christopher Nolan explodes back into the box office with a summer blockbuster.

It’s no secret that director Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Oppenheimer,” has accomplished astonishing records at the box office, such as recently becoming the highest grossing biopic, surpassing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”


The most notable aspect of “Oppenheimer” is the nonlinear chronology that symbolically peels back, layer by layer, the life and legacy of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed by Cillian Murphy. However, as with all historical films, “Oppenheimer” has its fair share of historical inaccuracies and accuracies with each layer.


The film bases much of its facts about Oppenheimer’s life on the biography “American Prometheus,” by historians Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Although Bird notes in a USA Todayarticle that “There are no major historical bloopers” in the film, there are elements of historical dramatization present. Atomic historian Alex Wellerstein, in a Business Insider article, notes that Oppenheimer did not consult Einstein about Teller’s calculations for the hydrogen bomb. Rather, Oppenheimer went to Arthur H. Compton to discuss the calculations. This difference between film and history highlights the difficulty of introducing and developing the wide array of scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project.


Beyond the atomic bomb, “Oppenheimer” tackles a deeply turbulent personal life exposed by political intrigue. The tumultuous love life of Oppenheimer gradually unfolds before the audience, and becomes an instrument used against him in his Atomic Energy Commission security clearance hearing. Oppenheimer’ s brief relationship with Jean Tatlock, portrayed by Florence Pugh , a communist party member, is weaponized in the post- World War II McCarthy era to discredit Oppenheimer’s authority on atomic policy making. This hearing is largely accurate, as the prosecutor Roger Robb , portrayed by Jason Clarke , used harsh prosecutorial tactics in the hearing, such as depriving Oppenheimer’s testimony of access to evidence that the AEC board members had prior access to.


Despite Nolan’s attention to historical accuracy, the film’s most controversial scene is entirely fictional. When Oppenheimer first has intercourse with Tatlock, she asks Oppenheimer to read a verse from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita. The verse Oppenheimer reads is his famous line he says regarding the creation of the atomic bomb: “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” This scene has drawn criticism from the Indian government. India’s information commissioner, Uday Mahurkar, calls the scene a “scathing attack on Hinduism.” Although this scene may have tried to reconcile the historical legacy of Oppenheimer and the humanity of Oppenheimer, it came off as out of place in an otherwise historical biopic.


Although “Oppenheimer” does have some inaccuracies, it is a film that does take its history seriously. The world has received a glimpse into the life of the man who gave mankind the power to destroy themselves, and see that we must reckon with the destructive legacy of Los Alamos.

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Adrian Vazquez
Adrian Vazquez, Assistant News Editor

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