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The Guilty Superhero

The Sentimentality of Oppenheimer

September 25, 2023

by Christopher Nolan
Universal Pictures

We are now fifteen years into the superhero movie’s dominion over U.S. film production, discourse, and consumption. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, our major film productions have been almost exclusively devoted to stories of heroic individuals using superpowers to defeat grand cosmic threats. It’s no surprise that the essentially fascist notion of a superhero—an individual of unique power acting to quell threats the collective population is too weak and ignorant to defeat on its own, and exempt from all laws and norms in that pursuit by virtue of their unique power—has so taken root in the United States. After all, our atomized culture of individual striving, fearful and violent, produces a society of anxious worshippers of unchecked power, a people who do not look to one another to solve problems or make a society, but to the hoped-for benevolence of a few extraordinarily powerful individuals. It is a world primed for Great Men to save it, and U.S. entertainment conglomerates have been happy to provide us with endless fantasies of Great Men (and the very occasional Great Woman).

The runaway success of Oppenheimer—currently the highest-grossing R-rated film ever released in the United States—both undermines and reaffirms the superhero’s hold on U.S. cinema. Oppenheimer is the first film for adults to touch a chord with the broader public in a generation. In the sea of Marvel’s idiotic, bloated non-cinema, its string of adolescent self-advertisements, Oppenheimer is something else, a real film about history and politics, an attempt to say something direct and pressing about the world we’ve made and continue to make. For those of us who have yearned for the end of the superhero movie’s stranglehold on U.S. film production, Oppenheimer’s success is at least some cause for celebration. The list of promising young film artists who have wasted their talent after being recruited by Marvel is, at this point, too depressing to contemplate. And you can feel the critical establishment’s relief in Oppenheimer’s reception. This film, we’ve been told, is an electrifying journey into the heart of a man’s ambivalent and clotted heart, a masterpiece of haunting and shattering power.

But Oppenheimer is just as much of a superhero film as Iron Man or Thor or Captain America. It is not the story of the creation of nuclear weapons, or of their use, or of the society that made their creation possible. Instead, it is the story of a Great Man, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who made the atomic bomb and, in Christopher Nolan’s mind, the most important man who has ever lived. The film is the story of how he used his genius and what it cost him. In other words, it is a biopic, and it is Nolan’s loyalty to that genre that makes for a film that is uniquely American in its rejection of community and its empty focus on the unresolved feelings of a single man.

Oppenheimer is just as much of a superhero film as Iron Man or Thor or Captain America. It is not the story of the creation of nuclear weapons, or of their use, or of the society that made their creation possible. Instead, it is the story of a Great Man, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Consider the film’s structure: for nearly an hour, we follow Oppenheimer’s career before he became the director of the Manhattan Project, as he romances multiple women, flirts with the Communist Party, and brings theoretical physics to the United States. Nolan focuses this section on Oppenheimer’s inability to fit into any milieu. He’s a brilliant scientist, but his focus on theory leaves him alone in the U.S. academy. He’s vaguely leftist but unwilling to commit to communism. He’s in love with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a fiery and fiercely intelligent communist, but he also cannot commit to her and finds her radicalism threatening. Oppenheimer, Nolan says, is a man apart, and he emphasizes this point throughout by filming close-up after close-up of Cillian Murphy’s gaunt and haunted face staring into the middle distance. A genius without a home, Oppenheimer is the man without community.

When the film moves to Los Alamos, it never loses its focus on Oppenheimer. Instead of a true exploration of the ideological conflicts within the U.S. scientific community, which circle around the creation and use of the even-more-powerful hydrogen bomb, the film uses these conflicts to further its portrait of Oppenheimer as a man apart. Oppenheimer is riven by ambivalence at what he has created and by his efforts to balance his loyalty to former friends with the demands made on him by the U.S. security apparatus. So, he lies to Army intelligence to protect a friend who might be a Soviet spy; abandons Tatlock in her moment of greatest need, fearful of his association with a known communist; stands slack-jawed at the horror of the Trinity test, aware finally of the death and destruction his creation will cause; and finds himself haunted by the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and disillusioned by the U.S. state’s use of the weapons against an already defeated enemy. Once again, Oppenheimer is a man without a home, without friends, without a community.

In the film’s final hour, Nolan focuses on the political fall-out of Oppenheimer’s turn against the use of nuclear weapons, as he is abandoned by some of the scientists he worked with at Los Alamos and loses his security clearance in a fit of McCarthyite backstabbing. By this point, Oppenheimer is nearly always alone in the frame, staring with strained horror into nothing, consumed entirely by guilt and unresolved feelings about his life’s pursuit. We end with Oppenheimer staring ahead and picturing a world consumed by the weapons he helped create.

What, then, is Oppenheimer? It’s not a film about the meaning of the nuclear bomb or the political ramifications of its making: we learn almost nothing about the creation of the bomb, the use of Indigenous land for a testing site, or the political discourse that made it possible. Instead, we are shown a man of genius who achieved a great and fearful thing, a thing that destroyed him and might, someday, destroy us all.  Superhero movies have always explored the superhero’s ambivalence toward his own powers, his fear that he is doing more harm than good—the Marvel industry, for example, devoted an entire film to the consequences of Tony Stark’s choice to quit his Iron Man suit out of guilt and self-hatred. Oppenheimer takes this trope and makes it the focus of the entire film. Oppenheimer is the man who brought us the sacred fire of death and his lot is to suffer for his greatness as lesser men fight to use his creation for deeds far darker than anything he contemplated.

Can a movie like Oppenheimer, a disguised superhero picture, devoted almost exclusively to the feelings of a single man, tell us anything about the world that made the bomb? To some extent, yes: Oppenheimer is admirably forthright about the evil of the U.S. state, perhaps more forthright than any mainstream blockbuster release has ever been. The film is at pains to show that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary to win the Second World War and was instead a political decision made by political actors to achieve political ends. The war over Oppenheimer’s security clearance is presented with no less anger, as Nolan shows us a set of grasping, ambitious assholes determined to destroy Oppenheimer to settle old scores and free the field for the use of hydrogen bombs against Soviet targets.

Ultimately, however, Oppenheimer has little interest in the politics of its time. The film is curiously post-Soviet and has no sense of communism as an actual threat to capitalism. Instead, it is treated as a youthful dalliance that otherwise sane people reject as they age. And while the film has no illusions about U.S. bloodlust or willingness to use the bomb for its own ends, the movie’s primary focus is on the hypocrisy of the U.S. state’s treatment of Oppenheimer. The government builds him up and tears him down and never tries to understand his ambivalence and guilt.

Ultimately, Oppenheimer has little interest in the politics of its time.

With his subject narrowed to the psychology of a single man, Nolan turns Oppenheimer into a stand-in for what he feels is the social tragedy of the nuclear bomb—that we did not use the bomb to defeat the Nazis but to massacre innocent people and win the Cold War. Oppenheimer’s tragedy is that he always knew that what he was doing was wrong, yet he never stopped. He built the bomb and watched it drop on the heads of children and become a pawn his government could use to keep the Indigenous leftists in Central America from interfering with U.S. corporate profits.

To Nolan’s credit, he makes us feel Oppenheimer’s guilt and horror—the film is repulsed and sickened by the use of nuclear weapons. But the relentless focus on Oppenheimer turns a fundamentally social and political story into a tale of individual moral choice and the repercussions following therefrom. In its turn away from questions about structures and systems, and toward the naked individual lost in the wanderings of his own remorse, Nolan has sentimentalized the story. We feel Oppenheimer’s horror, but that’s all we feel. We do not see the suffering of the Japanese or gain any greater understanding of why U.S. capitalists chose this weapon as the ever-present threat backing up their destruction of worker-led movements across the world. Compared with this mass of suffering, with this destruction of lives, Oppenheimer’s guilt barely merits consideration.

Without a broader focus on the bomb and its political repercussions, Oppenheimer becomes a film about Nolan’s favorite theme: the costs of the feverish pursuit of knowledge. This very old-fashioned theme, taken from H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley, runs through all of Nolan’s work. It is the central theme of Memento, where a man fights his physical limitations in a relentless quest to put together the shards of a broken narrative, and of The Prestige, a film about the destructive, obsessive pursuit of the knowledge necessary to become great. In Oppenheimer, Nolan has finally found an event important enough to deserve his lofty theme—after all, in the words of Matt Damon’s General Leslie Groves, “This is the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world!”

What’s depressing about Oppenheimer, then, is that, out of the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world, Nolan could find nothing more interesting and insightful to say than that a Great Man suffered for doing it. But we knew that already. All of us can imagine the horror we would feel if we made a weapon that incinerated thousands. And while one of the glories of cinema is its ability to make us feel what it’s like to be another person, the story of the potential end of the world deserves something more than the sadness of a single man, alone with his guilt, aghast at what he has wrought. Because he is not the victim of what he has done, and those who will suffer do not care about his pain. In our cinema of superheroes, however, we have forgotten who matters and whose stories deserve to be told. One day, hopefully soon, our cinema can be about something other than the regrets of powerful men. Oppenheimer shows that we aren’t ready yet.

What’s depressing about Oppenheimer is that, out of the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world, Nolan could find nothing more interesting and insightful to say than that a Great Man suffered for doing it.



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