Oppenheimer (2023) and the Moral Odyssey | A Movie Review
Christopher Nolan's biopic, Oppenheimer (2023), is about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). He is a man who was both brilliant and flawed. He was the chief scientist behind the development of the atomic bomb. Shifting between the present and the past, Nolan tells us a haunting and thrilling story of a man on trial.
A Morality Tale
Oppenheimer serves as a morality tale. We follow Robert's massive ambition, from pushing the boundaries of physics to overseeing the development and assembly of the bomb, and the consequences. Not far into the process, people started wondering if it was wise to develop a bomb with such immense power. What if it fell into the wrong hands?
Robert's conscience eventually catches up with him, but by this time, it was too late. Germany had already acquired the technology, and now the fear was that Hitler would detonate it first. The film reminds us that conscience is a real thing; you may try to erase it, but you cannot get rid of the image of God.
When the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Oppenheimer couldn't deny his role. He had helped develop this technology and had accelerated it towards its destructive end. However, the film also helps us understand that Oppenheimer wasn't the only individual responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a fascinating scene, President Truman berates Oppenheimer for insinuating that he was responsible. He, the President, was the one who made the call, and he was proud of it.
But when the Russians gained the technology, the political tides shifted. Oppenheimer went from being a celebrated scientist to an alleged communist. Much of the film follows his interrogation.
Anxiety and Dread
Oppenheimer exudes a tone of anxiety and dread, fitting our cultural mood quite well. The bomb is a symbol of science, technology, and progress as Oppenheimer and his team think they’re pursuing great advancements for mankind. The film reminds us, though, that science and technology have limits; they answer what we can do, but they never answer what we should do. Eventually, the film leads us from science to ethics, awakening our consciences as an audience.
A few months ago, I rewatched Christopher Nolan's film Tenet (2020). My second viewing was far more rewarding! In Tenet, the stakes were nuclear and world-shattering, too. A villain had discovered a machine that allowed him to manipulate time. After receiving a terminal diagnosis, he planned to restart the world. But one thing that stood out to me were all the references to Oppenheimer and his work. Clearly, Nolan has been thinking about the ethics of science and technology – and his 2023 movie – for a long time.
I left Oppenheimer wondering what the bomb symbolized for Nolan. What worldwide catastrophe does he see causing angst and despair? Artificial intelligence? Global warming? Renewed nuclear fears with North Korea and Russia? Nolan doesn't provide a clear answer in the film, but he does cause us to think about the nature of scientific progress. When it comes to new technology, we must not only ask "can we?" but also "should we?"
Christians have a Role
As Christians, we can rally behind many of the questions and themes that Nolan presents to us here. Only 11 chapters into the Bible, we see technology and progress run unhindered. Remember the Tower of Babel? These ancient people wanted to reach the heavens; they wanted to be gods. But God knew how this would end, so he foiled their attempt – truly an act of grace.
With the rapid prominence of AI, I'm reminded that Christians must be present in the marketplace of ideas. It's the Christian God who provides order to the cosmos, sustaining it so we even have things like scientific laws. Science may tell us what is taking place in the world, but it cannot tell us why it is taking place or what it means. But God can tell us, and Christians have the privilege to help others interpret the world around us. This doesn't mean we must always say, "stop!" Technology can be used for good or ill. But it does mean we must be present.
Nolan provides us with the opportunity to judge Oppenheimer. A genius, certainly, but also a broken man. One area we see this is in his messy relationships with women. Oppenheimer eventually marries Kitty (Emily Blunt), but only after they have an affair. When they met, she was married. And when she got pregnant, a friend warns Oppenheimer to consider how others will see him in light of this. Will he be considered a man of integrity?
Once again, Oppenheimer is on trial. And even after he marries Kitty, Oppenheimer could not remain faithful to her. Again and again, he returns to his former lover. Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan leads us right into the bedroom, exposing us to gratuitous scenes of sex and nudity. This level of sexuality is new for Nolan, and it saddens me. The scenes alone earn this film its R-rating, and it's certainly not for children. He could have easily left this out of the movie, while presenting an honest portrayal of this man.
Cap Stewart in his Gospel Coalition article "Immature Defenses of Mature Sexual Content in Movies" outlines five ways that Christians downplay the pornographic-like material in movies. Cap concludes that artists can engage with mature content "without being exhibitionist or prurient." I agree. Scripture deals with sexual immorality, but it never glamorizes it. Instead, God sheds light on its destructive nature. Cap mentions films like Room (2015) and Spotlight (2015) that cover themes of sexual abuse, and while difficult to watch, bring truth to the surface.
In conclusion, Oppenheimer is a solid film. The acting is excellent, and the writing is strong. Nolan gives us a lot to think about as Christians.
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and Director of Fine Arts at Regents School of Austin, a K-12 classical Christian school in Austin, Texas.