Nadine Sander-Green, Faculty of Science
July 31, 2023
‘Oppenheimer’ beautiful in its ambiguity
This summer, our love for the cinema is having a comeback. The release of Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day revived something inside of us that yearns for compelling stories, beautiful visuals, and of course, popcorn.
Christopher Nolan’s movie, which follows theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer as he develops the world’s first nuclear weapons, made over $80 million over opening weekend. Sure, it’s not quite as much as Barbie, but for a three-hour historical film chronicling a dark and complex topic, it’s an incredible achievement.
Prof. Jason Donev, PhD, a leading expert in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary on nuclear energy, went to see the movie within days of it opening in theaters. Although Dr. Donev admits he’s not a film critic, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Oppenheimer as a character and nuclear energy in the mid -20th century. If anyone on campus should be critiquing Nolan’s art, it’s Donev.
His response to the movie?
“I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reasonable way that with a single movie, you could be more complete and more historically accurate while still maintaining any sort of audience following what’s going on,” he says.
Finding Oppenheimer’s motivation
It can be disorienting walking out of the theater after seeing Oppenheimer. What exactly were Oppenheimer’s motivations as he developed the world’s first nuclear weapons?
That, according to Donev, is exactly the point of the film. In fact, the ambiguity is what makes it great art. Donev compares Oppenheimer’s situation to that of Hamlet: they were both put in incredibly difficult situations and they had to find a way out.
“The power of Hamlet was not that he was indecisive, but that he was real, and he was put in a situation that was so arduously difficult for him to try and navigate,” says Donev. “The same goes with Oppenheimer. He struggles to find certainty in the decisions he’s making because he understands the consequences and almost no one else does.”
The beauty of the film, Donev believes, lies in the fact that Nolan decided to not hyperfocus on the history or the science behind the making of the atomic bomb, but instead the complex humanity of Oppenheimer himself.
Nolan used Nobel-prize winning physicist Kip Thorne as a scientific consultant on the film, who also happened to study under Oppenheimer at Princeton. According to Donev, the movie was careful with their science and for the most part, represented it accurately.
One of his — very few — complaints about the movie is a scene where physicists reproduce nuclear fission results within minutes, which is impossible. Donev would have also liked to see more women physicists represented in the movie. Prof. Lise Meitner, for example, was an Austrian-Swedish physicist and had an instrumental role in the discovery of nuclear fission, yet she wasn’t mentioned in the movie like male historical figures Niels Bohr and Einstein were.
But overall, his complaints are minor, especially compared to the emotional and immersive masterpiece Nolan created. In fact, Donev thought it was the right artistic choice to focus on the person Oppenheimer was instead of the nitty-gritty of how a nuclear bomb is made.
“I don’t think the point of the movie is you’re supposed to walk out understanding how nuclear physics works, but how a physicist worked,” he says.
The burden he carried
Donev knows the true power of the film lies in the way Nolan represented Oppenheimer: as a real man.
“Physicists often ignore the fact that we are people,” he explains, unironically.
“The one thing I loved more than anything else about this movie is that it made it abundantly clear that he was a man. He was a great man in a terribly difficult situation. One of the reasons I’m glad they didn’t include too much of the nuclear physics is it would have obfuscated Oppenheimer's humanity.”
Donev felt like after the movie, he wasn’t qualified to judge Oppenheimer’s decisions. He had witnessed the road he travelled. He had seen and felt what Oppenheimer saw and felt.
“Unless I was placed in those circumstances, I could never judge the choices that he made. I can now relate to him. And I can, as one human to another human being, look at his trials and tribulations and say, I see the burdens that he carried. I see the loads that crushed his spirit.”
Donev admits he walked out of the theater in tears, thinking about not only what kind of man Oppenheimer was, but also what kind of man he himself is.
Melinda Sue Gordon, Universal Pictures