We already know that Christopher Nolan is a masterful film-maker, of science fiction (Interstellar) and modern history (Dunkirk), writes Mark Rowe, reviewing the film about Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the making of the first atomic bombs in 1945.
If Oppenheimer ever seems confusing, the fact is it’s not the fault of the film-making, but maybe of your ability to keep up. We begin with Oppenheimer the young, learning, brilliant scientist, which serves to introduce other characters. While the film does not tell the story in a linear manner, it has two halves; the invention and building of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos in the wilds of New Mexico; and after the Second World War. The two climaxes are, in date order, first the first, test atomic explosion; and the closed hearing for the renewal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. One sounds so much more cinematic than the other, and the explosion is indeed powerfully shown, silence and Oppenheimer’s laboured breathing making the noise and fire all the more staggering.
Yet what other Hollywood film would turn on the lead character’s vetting? Security in terms of counter-espionage and spying supply drama to many stories; but personnel security is the most easily-overlooked branch of security management. The vetting serves to set out the story neatly – because it’s quite a feat to tell 20 or so years of atomic physics and chemistry inside three hours (the film is based on the book American Prometheus).
Oppenheimer supported left-wing causes; his wife had been a card-carrying member of the US Communist Party in the 1930s, and is confronted with the document at the hearing. We can reflect on how much, if at all, vetters can allow for rehabilitation; if Mrs Oppenheimer was a Communist 18 years before, does that make her a risk now; does that affect her husband’s reliability; can the three men at the other end of the room who have to decide on Oppenheimer take Mrs Oppenheimer on trust when she disowns her past?
As it’s cinema, we see that Oppenheimer does pass the test, when a Communist academic, Chevalier, hints at Berkeley (a notoriously left-wing campus) that Oppenheimer could pass secrets on. “That would be treason,” Oppenheimer replies, and Chevalier backs off. We also see Mrs Oppenheimer regularly drinking, and in the hearing room when her handbag falls to the floor, a flask of drink spills out. On reflection, does such a human weakness raise a security risk? It’s a judgement, and indeed the vote is 2-1 to deny Oppenheimer clearance.
You might look to science for a contrast, for certainty; yet during the Los Alamos period, mathematics throws up the possibility (‘near zero’) that making an atomic explosion might set fire to the earth’s atmosphere, and who knows, maybe destroy everything on the planet. Groves, the Army officer who recruited Oppenheimer in the first place to build the project, is appalled.
For such a long film, it pays to stay alert for fleeting, telling details: the dismissive remark by President Truman as Oppenheimer leaves the president’s office after an unsatisfactory, brief meeting; the politician who gave the order for the dropping of the two bombs (Oppenheimer has to remind Truman that there was Nagasaki besides Hiroshima) has contempt for the scientist who says he has blood on his hands (Truman offers his white handkerchief).
Even more fleeting when Groves first meets Oppenheimer, Groves (then a colonel) hands his coat to a lieutenant-colonel. It looks as if Groves is a bully towards the lower-ranked officer; except that we see that lieutenant-colonel later behind a desk, a cog in the national security world, who helped to bring down Oppenheimer. On reflection, might Groves have only been laying down a marker, that he was in charge? Because at that crucial security clearance hearing, Groves has to give evidence as deferential as the rest. In a telling exchange, Groves has to admit that according to the 1950s rules, he would not give Oppenheimer security clearance. It’s damning. Then Groves (played by Matt Damon) adds that he didn’t have those rules to go by in wartime, when the need to recruit scientists who could do the job was imperative – and if he had, he wouldn’t have recruited any of the scientists. We can reflect that Groves, by trade a military engineer, was having to navigate and make judgements, the same as the scientists building a weapon that would kill thousands; and all along Groves was trying to keep a moral compass that allowed him to shake hands with Oppenheimer after giving evidence. Vetting, then, is profoundly human; we all do it, all the time; and it does not make for simple yes or no votes that politicians live by.
We also get to see physical security at Los Alamos; when the scientist Edward Teller tells Oppenheimer that he wants to leave, Teller walks to the gate, but the guards won’t raise the barrier; we see that all the scientists are, in effect, behind barbed wire until they’ve done the job, because they must not be allowed to return to campuses in case they gossip and secrets leak. The scientists, even Oppenheimer, wear round identity badges. Nowadays, wearing ID is so normal, we make children do it at school to socialise them; in the 1940s, it was highly unusual, almost as unusual as an atomic explosion.
The film’s most remarkable image of all, in its way, is not the atomic roar and mushroom cloud – they’ve become part of culture – but the two military green trucks that carried the two atom bombs, bound for Japan, without escort, that set off on the dusty road out of the camp. In a world that did not yet know there was such a thing as an atom bomb, the crates had no need for guards.