Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee – all scientists whose work in their field has had such an impact on humanity that they have become household names, even though some people may have virtually no comprehension of the work they have done. J Robert Oppenheimer should perhaps be on that list, too, but for many, he probably isn’t.
There’s no doubt the man left an indelible mark on humanity. On the one hand, as lead scientist on the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bomb, his work ended the Second World War, potentially ushering in a century without world wars.
On the other hand, his work killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and ushered in 50 years of cold war, an arms race and the global fear of mutual self-destruction. Even today, barely a day goes by without some mention of the threat of nuclear arms being used.
Oppenheimer sought to distance himself from the invention of the bomb and it's not difficult to see why. After witnessing the destructive power of his own creation, he became a passionate opponent of nuclear weapons. This, combined with his left-leaning politics and his friendships with known communists, made him an ideal victim for the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s.
In 1954, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked by the US government. He was removed from all government-sponsored nuclear research, blacklisted from teaching or speaking at US universities, and spent many of his later years living in the Caribbean, albeit still regularly speaking in Europe and Japan against nuclear weapons. He died in 1967 and the security clearance decision was only finally revoked in December 2022.
For writer and director Nolan, 52, it was a story that needed to be told.
“When I started writing the script, I had a conversation with one of my teenage sons when I told him the story. He actually said to me, ‘I don't know if anyone cares about that at the moment,’ to which my response was, ‘Well, that may be a reason to tell it,’” Nolan tells The National.
“The sad irony, the awful thing, is that two years later he's not asking that question any more. No one's asking that question, and I think that's symptomatic of our relationship with nuclear weapons,” he says.
“The fear I grew up with when I was a teenager in the '80s, in the UK, at the peak of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was something that, well, when I was 12 or 13, myself and my friends, we were convinced at some point we were all going to die.”
That fear is not unique to Nolan’s generation, and he has some well-known friends who have lived through the same fears at a different time.
“I've had conversations with, for example, Steven Spielberg, whose generation grew up in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and had exactly the same sensitivities,” he reveals. “Our fear as a society of this issue tends to ebb and flow, almost as if we can't worry about one thing for too long and we have to always take a break and worry about a different thing, like climate change.
“But the underlying truth that sits heavy on the film is that the threat of nuclear weapons never goes away. Whether we're choosing to worry about it or not, it never will. That haunts the film, and haunts me and I think a lot of people.”
Lead actor Cillian Murphy, 47, who plays the film’s titular physicist, agrees that it’s a timely moment for Oppenheimer’s story to be told.
“The reactions that we're getting from people that have seen the movie kind of prove that,” Murphy tells The National. “It speaks to what's happening in the world, geopolitically, very clearly, we can all see that. And then I think it's provoking people in many other ways. People are talking to us about AI, people are talking to us about climate change. I had somebody come up to me and say, ‘What does this movie say about whistleblowers?’ It’s really interesting that they had taken that point of view on it.”
For Murphy, the fact that the film has raised such a broad range of questions among audiences is a sign that it is doing precisely what great art should.
“It asks you a load of questions, poses these big, ethical, paradoxical, moral questions and the audience then has to absorb them, engage with them and wrestle with them, and see what they think,” he says. “Yes, I think it is the right time for this movie, for sure.”
For the film’s director, there’s a second, somewhat more prosaic, reason why the time was right to tell Oppenheimer’s story. Nolan reveals that he has long been fascinated by the tale, but only recently felt fully equipped to tackle the subject.
“I think I'm doing better than the US government because it’s taken them 76 years or whatever it is to get around to quashing that [security clearance] decision,” he says, with a laugh, in a notable moment of levity for someone renowned for the serious subjects his films tackle.
“I've been interested in Oppenheimer for a long time. Tenet [his 2020 film] has a very specific reference to the moment in the Manhattan Project, when Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists realised they couldn't eliminate the possibility of a chain reaction that would destroy the world, and they went ahead and pushed the button anyway.”
Thankfully, having hinted at his fascination in Tenet, the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, found its way into Nolan’s library, and the final piece of the puzzle was in place. “I felt that I had a source material to give me confidence to take on such a complicated historical subject,” he says.
“This is a book that won the Pulitzer Prize. It took 25 years of research for them to write it, so it's very, very authoritative and comprehensive. The adaptation was complicated because it's a huge book with a lot of information, but that was the springboard, standing on their shoulders, feeling confident with that authoritative source. That really freed me up to start adapting and start using my imagination to try and produce not a documentary, but my interpretation of Oppenheimer’s life.”
Given the fact that Nolan’s source material runs to a weighty 721 pages, we should perhaps be impressed that the director kept his on-screen interpretation down to a “mere” 180 minutes. But don’t let that epic runtime scare you – this is three hours of your life that you’ll be very pleased you chose to invest in Oppenheimer and co.