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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’: Why This Might Be The Most Epic WWII Film Yet

Christopher Nolan Aims to Capture the Film's Literary Inspiration

In the just-released Oppenheimer poster, Universal Pictures shows a silhouette of the scientist who led the group that constructed the atomic bomb. The man is engulfed in flames, foregrounded with the tagline, “The World Forever Changes.”

What is Oppenheimer about? Director Christopher Nolan follows scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s progress as “The Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Oppenheimer led Los Alamos physicists in developing the atomic bomb — the weapon that ended the Pacific theater of WWII, launched the United States into post-war power, and forever changed the global landscape. While not a traditional war movie, this film will focus on an important aspect of WWII history.

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The movie poster for 'Oppenheimer' from Universal Pictures.
Universal Pictures

The film is based on Kal Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The book’s title refers to the legend of Prometheus. When Zeus discovered that the Titan god of fire provided these flames to humanity, the king of the Olympian gods had Prometheus captured and chained to a Caucasus Mountain promontory in punishment. An eagle — the emblem of Zeus — would eat his liver each day and each night; the organ would grow back to be consumed again the next day.

As mentioned in the September 1945 edition of Scientific Monthly, “Modern Prometheans have raided Mount Olympus again and have brought back for man the very thunderbolts of Zeus.” This heat that allowed humanity to thrive fanned blasts of fiery conflict, punctuated by nuclear bombs.

The cover to 'American Prometheus,' the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Alfred A. Knopf

Not surprisingly, the man credited for this weaponry cut a contrary, complex figure. Oppenheimer began as a leading theoretical physicist who participated and contributed to the communist party and social justice organizations while at Berkeley. This led to an FBI and Manhattan Project internal investigation throughout the advancement of the atomic bomb. Despite landing on the cover of Life and Time magazine for helping to end WWII, and leading the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission in 1947, Oppenheimer would be stripped of his title and security clearance just six years later, the result of growing tension due to his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. This was a critical fork in the road for the U.S., faced with building up a nuclear armament or ceasing development in favor of signing nuclear bans with the USSR and other national powers.

A group of physicists at the 1946 Los Alamos colloquium. J. Robert Oppenheimer sits in suit and tie in the center of the second row.
Los Alamos National Laboratory

After appearing in several Nolan-directed movies, including Inception and Dunkirk, actor Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, Batman Begins, 28 Days Later) will play the title character in Oppenheimer, portraying a man pulled apart by diametric obligations in the Oppenheimer teaser.

“(I prepped by doing) an awful lot of reading,” Murphy said to Variety earlier this year. “I’m interested in the man and what (inventing the atomic bomb) does to the individual. The mechanics of it, that’s not really for me — I don’t have the intellectual capability to understand them, but these contradictory characters are fascinating.”

Oppenheimer | Official Teaser | Christopher Nolan

In addition to political and professional pressures, it remains to be seen how much Oppenheimer’s spiritual crisis Murphy and Nolan will explore. The quantum physicist tried to justify helping to produce the bomb through the Hindi frame of Prince Arjuna accepting military obligation from the god Krishna.

In a 1965 television broadcast, Oppenheimer said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu (an avatar of Krishna) is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Universal Pictures is betting that the complexity of this character will be compelling in Nolan’s hands. This will be Nolan’s first time directing a film for the studio. Universal will continue a critical tradition for the director — a summer release. Oppenheimer has a scheduled July 21, 2023, North American theatrical release date.

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