Take in the Sheets

Oppenheimer (2023)

An illustration of Cillian Murphy's Oppenheimer against a red background.
illustration by Marc Aspinall

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
-T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”


I. “The Burial of the Dead”

It’s July of 2023 and I’m pulled to the screen like gravity, watching a gaunt face with piercing eyes study a dance of ripples in water, the tea leaves of consequence to come. Next, a concert of flame and flashes of swirling red-orange geometry, bulbs of detonating subatomic particles and pillars of cumulonimbus fire, blazing in his mind’s eye. I am watching “Fission,” the 8,000-foot-wide detonation of energy from the splitting of the atom, only now imagined in retrospect, a roiling thought deep behind the eyes of that same gaunt face 30 years later, about to justify his whole life. 

As he sits in a claustrophobic office for a kangaroo court with a predetermined outcome, I soon enter the mazed oceans of his mind, the organizing principles of what I see and how I see it, as one thought surfs into the next through associative semiotic and literal metaphors. Mention of a difficult time abroad sharply transitions to him as an anguished schoolboy, igniting a new round of frenzied abstractions, and I now gaze at churning cyclones of energy and light. Thoughts, images, moments: provoked and unprovoked by direct lines of inquiry, interrogated by crisply-suited and belligerent attorneys who sit as judges accountable to no one, flaying bare the fevered contradictions of the “sphinx-like guru of the atom,” a mind as inscrutable to me, to us, as to his friends—and ultimately, possibly, himself. 

But who is he? In turns, I am told, a scientist, a Jew, an artist, a noncommittal communist, a politician, a war hero and crybaby, a hopefully-naive genius who is impossible to understand, an awful father, a womanizer, a narcissist and dilettante, a great organizer of bodies and minds, Man of the Year, both perpetrator and victim. He is nothing short of the most important man who ever lived, our greatest patriot and most dangerous traitor, and the harbinger of our own destruction. 

With labels as infinitely indeterminate as the quantum equations on one of his chalkboards, these are all levels true and untrue, the stacked brick veneer that hides the skeletons in the wall—bodies, and bodies and bodies, numbers so vast and beyond easy comprehension they can only be counted between dashed, footnoted estimates. Guilt starts to haunt him like a sticky phantom, stalking him through any spotlight or polite dinner, any public speech or amiable conversation, including––especially––those by pleasant ponds, where those ripples again dance in water with that same palindromic omen of Armageddon. 

*

To history, he is known as J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the father of the atom bomb, the man who recited “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita as he set the fuse on a future of mutually assured destruction. For writer-director Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is a historical figure whose biography vibrates with the beguiling artifice of narrative and myth, a life full of the sort of detail that, were he a character in a great novel, would have the air of an author’s fanciful contrivance.

Could it be that the world’s entry to the Atomic Age broke ground in the high desert mesa of his childhood vacations, itself a metaphor for a manifest destiny forged in blood? Or how his life so perfectly maps onto a rise-and-fall narrative, rippling through decades and across multiple stages of history and war, from Hitler to McCarthy to Gorbachev, as though he were a character from Wharton or DeLillo. There’s even a bitter rivalry between political foes that Nolan compared to Mozart and Salieri, facilitating a dialectic rich in conflict and heavy in theme.

I consider how an episode early in the film with a poisoned apple seems like it could’ve been flung from the pages of a great novel, the near-occasion of murder dripping with religious metaphor and the iconography of a fairy tale, a prophetic fall from grace that demonstrates how Oppenheimer’s earliest inclinations with science are to kill. Except, that episode may never have happened; historians think Oppenheimer may have made it up, a feat of premeditated print-the-legend mythmaking, something Oppenheimer was known to do all the time, another level of narrative artifice—only of a different kind. 

Oppenheimer is Nolan’s equivalent to the Great American Novel, or alternatively, a Great American Myth. It’s as though he’s conjured up his own epic chronicling of the moral rot that corrodes humankind’s noblest aspirations of mind and spirit, if only it wasn’t so damningly true. Nolan imbues his Oppenheimer with mythic portent, as the definitive Promethean figure of U.S. history and the ideal literary protagonist. He is unknowable and contradictory but also magnetic and compelling, and Nolan catapults us into his unstable point of view with the force of a particle accelerator. It’s through this life whose facts often feel like fiction that I can learn and experience how our most gifted, rational and powerful minds—our Great Men—are the very ones who may doom us all.

II. “A Game of Chess” 

I’m now watching a beautiful close-up in the emulsion of silver and black, the face of a former shoe salesman lit in spy-movie shadows, preparing to distance himself from J. Robert Oppenheimer as he seeks a cabinet position in the United States. I am watching “Fusion,” the radical joining of one element to another element through extreme energy and pressure, here made manifest in the uneasy binding of one life to another life, igniting a chain reaction of consequence across spheres of government, history, and nuclear armament, as Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) wonders why someone would ever want to justify their whole life. 

In the full scope of Oppenheimer’s narrative mosaic, Strauss’s early scenes have the quiet alarm of a supervillain’s origin story. But first, they carry pangs of sadness and regret, as I witness a man’s ego and heart become bruised; he couldn’t make a friend. Strauss guides Oppenheimer through Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1947 to offer a professorship, a meeting of social and political opposites, as Oppenheimer’s barbed sense of humor and casual lack of savoir-faire froth into perceived insults and slights, the chemistry of resentment. 

“It’s pronounced ‘straws,’Strauss says, correcting his name to Oppenheimer before they’ve even entered the building, the first seconds of a don’t-meet-your-heroes disappointment that primes him for an even greater insult. In a moment now memed into repeated virality, Strauss walks up to Albert Einstein to greet him as he leaves Oppenheimer’s company, only for the world’s once-greatest physicist to walk past in aloof disinterest. Strauss furiously blames Oppenheimer for souring Einstein on him, but it’s only in the film’s final seconds do I learn the truth: that Einstein was thinking of something more important, lost in a vision of an imagined apocalypse. 

But if Strauss knew the truth, would the snub hurt any less? These two perceived slights by Oppenheimer and Einstein personify Don Draper’s equally memed “I don’t think about you at all” in the cold arena of American politics, where social slights and stacked misperceptions metastasized into a pitifully one-sided vendetta that shook the direction of nuclear policy in the United States for decades––Strauss supported the H-Bomb, and Oppenheimer thought it might end the world. 

Strauss sets out to smear Oppenheimer like a malignant biographer, creating a new fiction, another level of literary artifice, by staging a bogus clandestine hearing to chasten Oppenheimer as “more likely than not” a communist and spy for Russia, weaponizing his stranger-than-fiction life against him. The goal is to discredit and humiliate—to put his every indiscretion, from the salacious (multiple affairs, especially with the communist Jean Tatlock [Florence Pugh]) to the professional (withholding details of Haakon Chevalier’s [Jefferson Hall] requests for military intelligence), into a ruinous tale that would revoke his National Security Information clearance and damage his public credibility forever. Just like the episode with the possibly imagined apple, Oppenheimer’s response is to weave a narrative of his own, taking the verbal beatings in Strauss’ hearing with the fool’s hope he might be seen as a martyr, thus twisting his devastating legacy into a kinder one.

History, Oppenheimer suggests, is made up of agendas and counter-agendas, narratives and counter-narratives, fictions imposed onto a reality where truth has diminishing relevance if it ever mattered at all. Nolan’s films have always had a double-edged relationship with truth, full of noble lies and spiraling self-delusions, their characters manipulating themselves and each other as much as the reality around them. 

This thread runs from Memento (2000) to Inception (2010) to Tenet (2020), and his Dark Knight Trilogy remains the only major superhero franchise chiefly concerned with how popular myths and political narratives can corrupt or redeem a populace. But the previous Nolan film most connected to Oppenheimer’s story of competing narratives is The Prestige (2006), his Victorian drama-thriller about dueling magicians. Like spies or just politicians, The Prestige’s Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) use carefully curated personas and sophisticated campaigns of misinformation to obsessively destroy the other, damaging relationships, opportunities, and loved ones along the way. They are the ideal foils for who Strauss and Oppenheimer will become, sad and bitter adversaries who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, as the future of our country is entangled in the whims of the pettiest personal grievances.

III. “The Fire Sermon”

I’m now up in the clouds, my breath stolen, as I gaze down at sunlit mountains on the horizon across a luminous cinema screen six stories tall. Physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) just prompted J. Robert Oppenheimer: “Algebra’s like sheet music. The important thing isn’t ‘can you read music,’ it’s ‘can you hear it.’ Can you hear the music, Robert?” 

What follows is a rapturous Eisensteinian montage of sound and image, a great joining of art and science in an audio-visual symphony that awakens who Oppenheimer must become. My senses are assaulted by the subatomic eruption of red-blue particles, the glowing stained glass of towering cathedrals, waves of subatomic plasma, the buzz of packed lecture halls and the friction of chalk. And, finally, Picasso’s Woman Sitting with Crossed Arms, climaxing with a close-up of Oppenheimer’s face, in wonder. It’s one of Nolan’s greatest sequences, at once capturing the rare euphoria of what Inception’s Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) labeled “pure creation” while placing Oppenheimer’s journey towards new physics into a broader historical context––what energized his quest into the quantum realm wasn’t simply the latest papers by Max Born or Werner Heisenberg, but the power of art to nourish and transform, what Ethan Hawke would call sustenance

If Oppenheimer is Nolan’s idea of a Great American Novel, it would certainly be a modernist one, party to that great revolution of ideas. This might be why the sole text we see Oppenheimer reading is T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem “The Waste Land,” which radically fought against the convention and accepted forms of its time. And like Oppenheimer, Eliot’s masterpiece freely switches between narrators, invokes Hindu scripture, and conceives the decay and fall of civilization. It’s also a poem that, like Nolan’s use of Picasso, Eliot, and Stravinsky, uses pointed intertext as a deliberate device. Eliot invokes a deep bench of poets and authors, from Homer to Virgil to Conrad and Herman Hesse, placing “The Waste Land” in the lineage and traditions of ideas and words dating back millennia, only to rebel against them all. Oppenheimer broke traditions of his own, quantum physics trading the comfortable certainties of earlier maths for paradoxes and contradiction, where the foundation of reality itself seems less certain––apt metaphors for Oppenheimer himself. 

One of the definitive characteristics of early 20th-century modernism has always been a post-Dostoyevsky plunge into subjectivity, abandoning omniscience for an inside-out approach as a way to reckon with a world that seems increasingly fragmented and broken. This gave birth to the stream-of-consciousness jigsaws of James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf, in parallel to cubist or expressionist painting in visual art. Oppenheimer saw his work in physics as part of that same movement, protesting bringing his leftist politics into the classroom by declaring, “You embraced the revolution in physics, can’t you see it everywhere else? Picasso, Stravinsky, Freud, Marx…” Nolan reinforces this point by characterizing young Oppenheimer less as a scientist than as a struggling artist—a painter still searching for his brush, or a musician looking for his instrument.

Poetry and physics have always been closely woven together. Niels Bohr famously said, “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Woolf name-drops the atomic world in her essay “Modern Novels, a quasi-manifesto on embracing new forms of expression in the 20th century: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” It was a prescient and inspired message, prefiguring an increasing trend of scholarship to advocate for the art-science connection, interdisciplinary studies that bring the two radically different ways of seeing the world into one collaborative experience, what NPR’s Adam Frank referred to as the “deep knowing” found in both poetry and physics. 

Nolan follows cue, making Oppenheimer his most fiercely subjective and fragmented film, bridging intellectual discovery and the creative spirit into one exhilarating cinematic experience. His screenplay, written in the first person to evoke Oppenheimer’s splintered point of view, uses non-linearity more aggressively than ever before, flashing quickly between past, present, and future, dream and reality. It’s a perpetually building three-hour montage, playing 52-pick-up with Oppenheimer’s life, a perfect balance between stream-of-consciousness storytelling and the precise tidal rhythms needed for narrative film. And Ludwig Göransson’s score of nervous violin plays like a seismographic measuring the tremors of Oppenheimer’s mind, whose frightening visions of the subatomic world have the same abstract beauty of Rothko or O’Keefe, primed for gallery display. 

Nolan’s exploration of subjectivity is felt on all levels, especially how perspectives collide like particles in space. There’s the immediately obvious, like how Nolan contrasts the black and white photography of Strauss’s arc to express a rigid and morally-binary outlook against the infinite shades of Oppenheimer’s full color. Or, depending on which of the film’s two protagonists we follow, Nolan’s camera is placed and moves differently; for Oppenheimer, it’s mobile, sometimes jittery, and frequently in close quarters, but for Strauss, the camera is more stable and fixed, a visual choice for the affect of man with a more ordered life and outlook. 

And characters rarely have the conversation they think they are going to have, entering into them with inverted expectations. When Oppenheimer meets with Gary Oldman’s imperious Harry S. Truman, the president hoped for a meeting of back-slaps and easy smiles and heard “give it back to the Indians” instead. Strauss shares remorse with a visibly upset Oppenheimer that it was finally confirmed Los Alamos had a spy, while Oppenheimer is actually mourning the announcement of Truman’s H-Bomb program, a blow for the world. Whenever Oppenheimer talks to Jean Tatlock, they both leave more confused. We’re so nestled into our points of view, Oppenheimer seems to say, that we struggle to even talk about the same things, a clash of immiscible perspectives.

There’s also how Nolan uses images, sounds, and repeated dialogue like the rhymes of a poem, an old Nolan trick, gently growing in context and meaning with each subsequent use:

“You can lift the stone without being ready for the snake that’s revealed.”

“You’re happy, I’m happy.”

“Just before dawn, the storm dies.”

“Theory will get you only so far.”

“I fought Oppenheimer and the US won.”

“We’re not convicting, just denying.”

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

“Pragmatic.”

“No more fucking flowers.”

“Why get caught holding the knife yourself?”

“Who’d want to justify their whole life?”

These repeating phrases and occasionally sounds and images––ripples and rockets, the thunderous stomping of feet, Einstein’s hat blowing in the wind––begin to carry totemic power, signaling how our minds return to the same things again and again, taking us through the labyrinths of Oppenheimer’s and Strauss’s minds like we’re in two of Ariadne’s Escher-esque mazes. 

It’s ironic, then, that these modernist flourishes are also the things that helped make Oppenheimer a massive success. For all their self-reflexive meaning, they also instantly orient us. Within Oppenheimer’s unusual six-act structure where each half-hour shifts in focus, tone, and genre––origin story, campus novel, paranoia thriller, heist film, science-horror, courtroom drama––these repeated lines and visual motifs gain the film its stakes and shape, inviting me, us, into the fragmentary experience rather than keeping us outside of it. 

When I hear Bohr’s “You can lift the stone without being ready for the snake that’s revealed” for the second time, a line that refers to the dangers of unleashing unknown knowledge, it brings me back to their first meeting, tracing Oppenheimer from eager youth to a troubled adult. And “not convicting … just denying” folds Strauss’ Machiavellian plans back on himself, coming full circle. It’s also the secret to why Nolan cast so many memorable faces, lessening the cognitive load as he takes us through time and space. Nolan turns these throughlines into easily legible thematic and emotional arcs, giving accessible cohesion to Oppenheimer’s pointillist sprawl. 

IV. “Death By Water” 

As I watch the detonation of the first atom bomb in the desert cauldron of Los Alamos, I reflect on the earliest forms of life, microbes and prokaryotes, and how evolution, from then to now, brought us to the eternal existential burn of the post-nuclear age. I think of the prologue of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—ape finds tool finds weapon—a pattern iteratively repeated until Chinese gunpowder and Eli Whitney and Lockheed Martin, the industrialized systems of death. As Oppenheimer climbs the Trinity site tower, I dwell on Bohr’s urgent gospel, branding him “The man who gave them the power to destroy themselves.” There were signs. It wasn’t an accident. Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz) warned best, urging that the culmination of three centuries of physics should not be a weapon of mass destruction. If only they listened.

From the beginning, Nolan’s characters have always had a perilous and precarious relationship with technology. I look back to his 1998 debut Following, when the climactic twist revealed that the protagonist (Jeremy Theobald) was caught in a web of classic noir manipulation. His damning mistake? He used and signed a stolen credit card to afford a higher quality of living with a fancy meal and a suit, incriminating him with a murder he didn’t commit. In Nolan’s second film, Memento, Lenny (Guy Pearce) exploits his damaged long-term memory to create an eternally recurring murder mystery for himself to solve, forget, and solve again, killing untold innocents along the way. The key to his plan is a Polaroid camera, photographing misleading clues to manipulate his future self once the present facts are forgotten. 

These are small but vital examples, demonstrating how Nolan—who doesn’t own a cell phone but protests he’s not a Luddite—has always used technology as a monkey’s paw or Faustian bargain. This theme is comprehensive, appearing in every one of his films: Detective Dormer (Al Pacino) shoots and kills his snitching partner in Insomnia, unsure whether it was on purpose or accident; Bruce enters the Batsuit and Tumbler in Batman Begins, unfurling a tormented psyche; Tesla’s (David Bowie) deadly machine in The Prestige, used for suicide or applause; Fox’s post-9/11 surveillance system in The Dark Knight; Cobb’s time-warping dream-tech in Inception; Bruce’s clean energy project turned atom bomb in The Dark Knight Rises; Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) sacrifice of fatherhood to save the world in civilization’s last spaceship in Interstellar; soldiers are repeatedly trapped in machines of death in Dunkirk; future humanity’s time inversion in Tenet, a cover-to-cover parable of nuclear and climate paranoia.

Oppenheimer is the apotheosis of this thematic thread, a Hollywood epic about how one man’s drive to break the boundaries of our universe pushes him to father a device that can end us all. From caped vigilantes to the hackers of dreams, Nolan’s characters freely wager their souls as currency for access to some unholy apparatus or taboo device, exposing what they really want and what they’ll compromise to get it. Oppenheimer does this most of all, lost in trenchant self-justifications and thin moral lines that fade like sand in wind, the ultimate Nolan protagonist who renegotiates his values with the press of a devil’s button. 

Oppenheimer leaps through moral justifications like Batman flying over Gotham’s rooftops, and each new explanation is less convincing than the last. He must race to finish the atomic bomb before Hitler, he must end the war with an essentially defeated Japan, he must … do nothing at all, since he’s nothing but a theorist with no responsibility. Only, finally, he must use the bomb not to end this war, but all war. Through these shifting ethical goalposts I can see it is he who must use it, a Freudian death-drive impulse that cuts beyond policy or politics or sound military judgment, a compulsory act somehow meant to save the world. How could he be so naive? Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) once said Oppenheimer has the old schoolboy attitude that there’s something wicked in telling on a friend, revealing it might be that same boyish Americana naïveté pushing him to odious rationalization. 

Yet, when Oppenheimer exclaims “Our work will ensure a peace mankind has never seen” I don’t think of Washington or Franklin or Roosevelt, those mythically Great Men from the annals of American History, but of Alan Moore’s Ozymandias who––spoilers for the uninitiated––dropped a fake alien squid over Manhattan to cause mass casualties in the hope of heralding world peace under the threat of extraterrestrial invasion. Oppenheimer sits disturbingly close to Moore’s satirical conception of a beyond-good-and-evil übervillain, who also saw his “terrible revelation of divine power” as the means to launch a new era of globalized cooperation, built atop the irradiated ashes left in his wake. 

V. “What the Thunder Said” 

I’m now leaving the theater and walking to my car, my heart still pounding. I put the keys in the ignition but my mind is elsewhere, still back in that theater, reeling from the film’s final sight: a cosmic tableau of our planet engulfed in a tidal wave of nuclear fire. There’s a pit in my stomach. The crowd leaves in silence. My drive home is long. I traveled across state lines to see Oppenheimer on 15/70 IMAX film, a pilgrimage for the world’s best film format, and Christopher Nolan uses its square frame to capture portraits of tormented faces, faces unable to cope with what they’ve done. 

An hour earlier, the world begins to shake, but first I hear the stomp of feet, louder and louder, the subwoofers in overdrive. I feel the rumble in my chair, I see bodies in motion, a crowd in clamorous applause, “The world will remember this day,” and the tremors get worse, “It’s too soon to determine what the results of the bombing are, but I’ll bet the Japanese didn’t like it!” and I’m hit with a disembodied scream and the sound falls to a violent ambient muffle, “I just wish we’d had it in time to use against the Germans!” and the gymnasium explodes into sickly white light––fallout––with the apparition of a woman mid-decay, peeled skin ruffling in the arcs of impact; they all vanish and they all reappear, but I watch, paralyzed, as a foot can’t move, stuck, caught in the crisped corpse from an atomic explosion. Cheers and vomit follow, the ecstasy and terror of our new nuclear age. The bombs have fallen. 

Guilt is corrosive; there’s no judgment deadlier than your own. Though Oppenheimer is framed through a set of historical trials––a security clearance hearing for Oppenheimer and the cabinet position review for Strauss––the true trial runs throughout. Oppenheimer unfolds as a feature-length eschatological court, Nolan surrounding Oppenheimer and Straus with a jury of characters who will hold them accountable for what they’ve done and what they will do; yet another of level artifice. Like Nolan’s past work, some have criticized his screenplay for having one-note women, but that misses the more haunting truth, that we are so fully lodged into the tainted points-of-view of Oppenheimer and Strauss that every character who orbits them is incomplete; they are projections of a tortured subconscious, not far from Mal Cobb (Marion Cotillard) in Inception, counting the cost. I think of A Christmas Carol, A Matter of Life and Death, and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, the pantheon of nightmarish and otherworldly trials, where characters are continually confronted with their sins, unable to answer for them:

Robert, you see beyond the world we live in. There is a price to be paid for that.”

“Don’t alienate the only people in the world that understand what you do. One day you might need them.” 

“Stop being so goddamn naive.”

“Nobody knows what you believe. Do you?”

“We have to make the politicians understand – this isn’t a new weapon – it’s a new world.”

“History will judge us, Robert.”

“I don’t wish the culmination of three centuries of physics to be a weapon of mass destruction.”

“You don’t get to commit the sin, then have us all feel sorry for you that it had consequences.” 

“Just as with the atomic bomb.’ Exactly. No moral scruples in 1945, plenty in 1949.”

“Did you think that if you let them tar and feather you, then the world would forgive you?”

But Oppenheimer’s conscience was always as elusive as a black hole, the equivalent of a bottomless singularity where motivations, remorse, and dreams swirl in an endless coil, unable to be seen by anyone, including himself. Attorney Roger Robb’s (Jason Clarke) bulldog questioning came closest, forcing Oppenheimer to reckon with the pretzeled contortions of his ethical dodges and compartmentalized contrition, only for the room to ignite in the same sickly white as the gymnasium, a horrific vision of walking-ghost-phased guilt flaring into reality. 

Oppenheimer’s years after Trinity followed a tour of unsaid apologies, relentlessly opposing nuclear armament and proliferation. His effort to contain the uncontainable connects with Nolan’s common theme of escalation—“We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds.”—with a perpetuating cycle of bigger and bigger bombs. It’s an arc that mirrors Alexander Grothendieck, often cited as the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, who had a crisis of conscience and left the discipline to live a semi-reclusive life because he was horrified his work could be used as the blueprint in the military-industrial complex. He once said, “Mathematicians are the most dangerous men on the planet.” 

What do we do when our leaders march us toward Armageddon? The final hour of Oppenheimer proves Grothendieck right; I watch as the question of the survival of our species and planet become flattened out and ignored, reduced to banal bureaucracies and political infighting, or the smallest petty grudge. I watch as big evils are made casual and commonplace, while genocides are coolly justified and a cycle of infinite escalation all but assured. We were not smart enough, wise enough, responsible enough, or ethical enough to be ready for Oppenheimer’s beautiful, horrible miracle—turning the atomic bomb, that descendent of centuries of science and modernist art and human progress, into the catalyst for our extinction. Oppenheimer shows not only the lie of American Exceptionalism but all Exceptionalism—that our human programming and the curse of knowledge spurs us on to invent and build and grow—and now we live in a world infested with microplastic, rising seas, and the looming threat of A.I. and nuclear holocaust. 

Oppenheimer didn’t become a phenomenon despite its radical pessimism but because of it, offering the kind of therapeutic communal experience only cinema can provide. Many sift through Nolan’s films for neatly-bowed political messaging and didactic takeaways, but instead, they are the dreamcatchers of universal fears, shared between him, his characters, and, it seems, us, the wide audience. Millions joined in dark rooms with radiant screens to face the widening inevitability of our doom, a collective catharsis and release after decades of forsworn deterioration and entropy. We can learn, unlike Oppenheimer, not to avert our eyes. But Oppenheimer has another purpose: to do for us what the “Can you hear the music?” montage did for the young physicist, to allow the healing joy of art to stand alongside our darkest failures. 

And then I get home. There’s a crater in my chest, processing the life I lived through his eyes, and what it will mean to me. I research J. Robert Oppenheimer, and I learn that before he was the destroyer of worlds he was a poet, who saw the bliss and despair of our human project in harmonious parity: 

They, who have lost your heaven, no more forget
Than Lucifer, whose kingdom they inherit:
The night undoes the day, exacting
Suffering
And the cold and desperate triumph of regret.

But for us, who are not angels, for us
You, whom the angels inhabit, are so precious
That we learn to cherish equally
The red angel of joy, and the pale angel of misery. 

-J Robert Oppenheimer