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How Do We Feel About Oppenheimer?

By Gabby Kaderli, Contributor

Christopher Nolan, the renowned Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind iconic movies like "Inception", “Interstellar”, and "The Dark Knight," has once again delivered an enthralling film — this time a biopic — with "Oppenheimer." The film, which premiered on July 21, 2023, alongside Greta Gerwig's "Barbie," achieved a record-breaking opening weekend, grossing $80.5 million worldwide. This achievement was a historic moment in cinema, as both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" became the first two films to reach $100 million and $80 million, respectively, on the same weekend.

"Oppenheimer" is based on the 2005 biography "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, delving deep into the life of the infamous physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his pivotal role in The Manhattan Project during World War II. Cillian Murphy portrays Dr. Oppenheimer – also known as the "Father of the Atomic Bomb" – with Robert Downey Jr. as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss and Matt Damon playing Lieutenant General Leslie Groves of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The film features several other prominent names and faces, enriching the compelling narrative.

Walking into the theater with minimal knowledge of the movie's premise, I confess to knowing only that it was about the creation of the atomic bomb. I wish I could blame my seventh-grade social studies teacher for my limited knowledge there, but I believe it to be a lapse in my own memory rather than Mr. Hildebrand’s. However, after watching "Oppenheimer," I found myself significantly enlightened and more knowledgeable about The Manhattan Project and Dr. Oppenheimer's life. The movie, though historical fiction, adeptly weaves ethical and moral dilemmas throughout the overt plot, prompting the audience to subconsciously question their own beliefs and judgments.

One notable aspect is the unexpected appearance of Albert Einstein in the film, where he can be seen providing his highly regarded opinion on the creation of the atomic bomb. While the movie effectively emphasizes Oppenheimer's need for guidance and portrays his uncertainties throughout the project, these specific conversations between Einstein and Oppenheimer never actually took place. While the two contemporaries were colleagues, not much, other than some photographs, were proof of their involvement.

Nolan took creative liberties with this way to emphasize the impossible decision to give man the capability to set the world on fire, so to speak. So with that being said, the movie, despite being based on Oppenheimer’s biography, is still historical fiction and should be regarded as so.

Upon leaving the theater, my initial impressions of Oppenheimer were clouded by the fact that, objectively, he was not the most honorable person, considering his involvement in The Manhattan Project and his questionable actions in his personal life. I immediately judged him for exercising infidelity in his marriage, being a neglectful father and displaying other egotistical character traits. I found myself debating whether it was justifiable to feel sympathy for Oppenheimer throughout the movie. However, it was hard to ignore that in the moment, sitting in that small theater chair, the tears I shed for him as his life fell apart were genuine, suggesting some form of sympathy for him and his supposed remorse.

However, it was a peculiar emotional battle within me, as I couldn't ignore the fact that this same man created a bomb responsible for the deaths of approximately 200,000 people, or the fact that he never truly denied that he wouldn’t do it all again if it came down to it. Christopher Nolan's film masterfully raises profound questions, leaving viewers like me examining the complexities of human behavior and the human condition.

The film made me appreciate the science and research – although polarizing – through the captivating depiction of his brilliant mind. Watching the comprehensive, maddening narrative, I scribbled through my notes app contemplating whether we have the responsibility to utilize our capabilities, whether we want to or not, if it is for the betterment of the world. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath as a way to signify their commitment to healing as opposed to harming. And so, would it be considered unethical for such an individual with the proper capabilities to refuse to practice? Similarly, for scientists and theorists like Oppenheimer, if splitting the atom opened a new world of exploration, is it immoral for a researcher to refuse to study it? I’m not sure, but questions like these filled my thoughts following the film.

Nolan’s film ignites philosophical conversations that force us to question our place in the world and our responsibilities as individuals with unique talents. And in my opinion, a movie that does so is worthy of more than just a watch — perhaps even deserving of an Academy Award Nomination.

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