Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Fukushima, digigraphy, 50x70 cm, 2011


Commentary on the film directed by Christopher Nolan

“No man is an island, isolated in himself; each human being is a part of the continent, a part of a whole. If a clod of land is carried by the waters to the sea, Europe will be diminished, as if it were a promontory, as if it were the manor of your friends or your own; any man's death diminishes me, because I am part of mankind. And so don't ask for whom the bell tolls; they fold for you
(John Donne, Meditations, VII).

Fictional worlds are thought out down to the last hair of their protagonists, whether they are real or not. Reality, by the way, becomes parallel for these new subjects, occupying a position that ranges from the complaints of purists to the arbitrariness of those looking for good fun at a fair price.

Absolute control; this is the fundamental rule of fiction, so far removed from the thousands of chances and coincidences of real life and the concrete past. These stories must shape the chaos of human experience.[I] Julius Robert Oppenheimer may not have read his famous quote "Now I become Death, destroyer of worlds"[ii] during a sexual encounter, but in the film, the scene works as a catalyst for ideas around this situation and the protagonist.

We wait for the phrase. We know the story and it has even become something of a cliché. Therefore, it does not matter where or when it is said. What stands out most is the way this scene synthesizes various other expectations and situations, playing with our knowledge of the situation and adding new layers. The effect was to be expected, imparting an air of familiarity to those watching.

At various times, the threat of death is accompanied by sexual desire, whether in guilt over the death of the lover who did not allow love, or in cases of adultery that should mean something deeper, but only indicate a quick attempt at pleasure. Empathy can only be transmitted from sex, irrational and potent, charged with an elemental rage, very close to the act of mass destruction.

Desperation accompanies the process, as in the scene in which, amid the pressures of the Manhattan Project's failure, Oppenheimer expresses an overwhelming desire to visit his lover. He wants to find simple feelings, a certainty during a moment of absolute uncertainty. If you get it wrong, the Earth will literally explode.

Fiction works because we choose to believe in this visit, even though it bears nothing resembling real-world chaos. In the case of the historical film, the plot becomes complicated, as we deal with events seen by many as important and untouchable. Changing history is the original sin, falling into the catastrophic consequences of anachronism. On the other hand, the role of the filmic document is to establish “[…] a relationship, a reflection, a comment and/or a critique with the already existing body of data, arguments and debates on the topic in question”.[iii]

Similar to the dialectical discourse, the film asserts itself from nebulous areas, through shadows. “In effect, from everything we have said it follows that a discourse is only clear, from the point of view of dialectics, if it is covered by certain areas of shadow. Only discourses whose primary foundations are somehow obscure (that is, affected by 'negation') are effectively clear discourses”.[iv] He doesn't expose himself much, as if he's afraid of attacks coming from the most varied flanks. Nor does it try to be neutral, after all, like the past itself, no rescue of what once was can be devoid of a relevant political charge for the present.

No case of Oppenheimer, new film by filmmaker Christopher Nolan, rationality gives meaning to the emotional, and vice versa, building a bomb that can only be detonated in the public, hypnotized by the sounds and images of the IMAX system. Technology is the means by which the filmmaker conveys his message, his ideology, so to speak, metaphorically and literally. The creator is a disturbed subject, as the tension between these two factors can only lead to contradiction.

There's a perverse voyeurism going on on these IMAX screens, with subjects praising the sound quality and re-enacting the moment. The public is taken by an unparalleled anxiety, however, it deserves to be problematized. Is it right to create entertainment out of something so hideous? Of course fiction can't just be a walk in the park, but the problematic doesn't hide in a deep shell. It is about indicating a factor, not proposing a solution or a simple boycott of the film.

The tension building serves its purpose, both dramatically and morally, by plunging the audience into the conflicts present in the period. Still, the process is not so dignified, steeped in a long American tradition of incorporating their psychological fears and phobias into the historical events they themselves caused. The Vietnam War is the classic example, a huge couch for filmmakers to place their aspirations and frustrations on.

In a movie theater, the transmission of the story ends up functioning as an amusement park, a cathartic moment for those who have not experienced the drama of reality and now can be part of the process through other means. Cinema, much more than an artistic purpose, becomes a resource to leave them on the edge of their chairs, waiting for the next chapters.

Like it or not, however noble the aspirations and political messages are, the process is perverse, violent at its core. Condemnation ends up becoming reproduction and the purpose is lost in the midst of Hollywood entertainment. The substance is there, but our senses are shaken in a distinct and continual way, interfering with how we can perceive it. Something got lost along the way.

Hate is instrumentalized and stripped of any individuality. We know who the bomb hit. Was the objective purely instrumental, a political and military maneuver that would end all wars? Crime is well addressed by the filmmaker, but the speech is very mechanical. Emotions do not surface (with the exception of fear) and consequences seem empty of deeper meaning.

We are facing the greatest terrorist attack of the XNUMXth century, direct violence against civilians and the inauguration of Cold War nuclear fears. The second half of the longest century ever would be very different without these characters. The representation of the past seeks to be ambiguous, without indicating heroes or villains (does it succeed?) The situation is a combination of suggestions, reaffirmed by the way in which the secondary characters communicate with Oppenheimer.

He appears to lack decision-making power, although he is a genius (as described by most of his colleagues and antagonists) and the leader of the Manhattan Project. Situations reach him in a different way, like fragments of a speech that he still cannot fully grasp. People tell him a lot, but he responds little. In a certain scene, for example, Edward Teller (played by Ben Safdie) claims not to understand what Oppenheimer believes and, consequently, does not fully trust his research partner.

In the third act, the scientist's purge is portrayed in an economic light, not so much concerned with moral dilemmas as with post-1945 domestic politics. The ghosts come out of the closet and the matter becomes personal: Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.) resents Oppenheimer's past comments, plotting an elaborate revenge against his sense of public humiliation. The personal enters the political arena and the actors can embody their characters, through long monologues in black and white.

Hence the standards of the courtroom genre replace aesthetic inventiveness, betting on safe cuts and angles, with the exception of the incredible dreamlike sequences. The humanization of acts and consequences ends up losing steam and is replaced by audiences and closed meetings. The world demands explanations, however, the souls of those on trial do not receive as much focus. Political positions are more important, after all, we are watching a representation of the past, not a confessional.

Still, it would be important to impart more humanism; dramatize reality, expose horror (even if it is imagined), as in the impressive moments when the world around Oppenheimer seems to tremble non-stop. The fault cannot be just political: it needs a bigger arrangement. Yes, we are facing historical crimes. Yes, we are seeing a world war context and fighting a much more nefarious enemy.

However, the process also has elementary characteristics, as it deals with the way we experience and understand the notion of human life. We are all connected by this event, however remote it may seem in space or time. Even today, we live the direct consequences of these men's decisions in closed rooms. Therefore, a slightly more humanistic approach would be fundamental. It is necessary to demonstrate how nuclear issues enter into everyday life, how they affect ordinary people.

These are questions that are not limited to an ideology, political system or controversial appointment of public office. They cannot be schematic, precisely because of their immense scope, shaking the certainties we had until then and questioning our role in a world much greater than our mere personal aspirations.

The scientist himself was a walking contradiction, seen as a left-wing psychopath and humanist depending on the change of interest of his tormentors. Some, like the reviewer quoted here, claim that this incompleteness is the high point of the book that inspired Nolan, as it would be impossible to define J. Robert Oppenheimer as this or that.[v] On the other hand, I believe that the excessive focus on incongruity is a mistake, after all, the life of a man does not present the answers to a more extensive dilemma, which permeates the period portrayed in the work.

This Prometheus works very well in theory, but ends up limited by the traps of politics and the ambition of a few men. As in most historical biographies, the big events are what matter, even if they are filmed in closed rooms, with hidden smiles in front of an avalanche of journalists.

In this sense, to return to the quotation that begins this text, the feeling of community is little explored. Men gain very singular goals and actions, immersed in a deplorable (and very real) selfishness, but humanity does not receive treatment as long as the long hours in the US Senate. There's a lot more at stake here; it's not just nations or ideologies, we're dealing with global survival.

The filmic structure should be more plural, expanding the way we look at ourselves as ordinary agents, immersed in a life we ​​don't fully understand. Things have causes, but that doesn't mean they explain everything, as in a long scientific theory for a few students looking at a blackboard. Reason must revolve around emotion, however painful and complex this may be.

Surely, there are better places and situations to explore in this ordeal, this torture. The martyr need not only be political. He must be accountable to all of us through a plural historical process. No man is an island, not even a genius who has stolen fire from the gods and given it to mortals who cannot deal with their desires for destruction.

*Guilherme Colombara Rossatto is a history major at the University of São Paulo (USP).


USA, 2023, 185 minutes
Direction and screenplay: Christopher Nolan
book adaptation The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin.
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Gary Oldman, Ben Safdie, Robert Downey Jr. ,Jack Quaid, Gustaf Skarsgard, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh.


[i] ECO, Umberto. Six walks through the woods of fiction. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1994, p. 93.

[ii] In English: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Quotation from the Bhagavad-gita, ancient song/poem, said by Oppenheimer in an interview with NBC News, in which, in turn, he recalls having thought of the phrase during the successful test of the bomb.

[iii] ROSENSTONE, Robert. History in films, films in history. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2010, p. 65.

[iv] FAUSTO, Ruy. Meaning of the dialectic: (Marx: logic and politics): volume I. Petrópolis, RJ: Voices, 2015, p. 55.

[v] Reinaldo José Lopes. Oppenheimer is a chameleon figure that goes from psychopath to humanist: Biography that inspired Christopher Nolan's film portrays a man with facets almost impossible to reconcile. Folha de São Paulo, July 19, 2023. Available here.

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