An article by: Editorial board

Director Christopher Nolan carried out an immense film project where he managed to capture and show the torment of the physicist who headed the Manhattan Project. However, the film doesn't show what the bomb actually was: a fireball, hot as the sun, destroying everything.

In Japan, where the film has not yet been released, they are already emphasizing the fact that the victims were ignored.

This is not a movie about the atomic bomb. This is an ambitious film about an American hero. The original title, identical to the title of the book that inspired it, honestly states: we are faced with an “American Prometheus.” Naturally, in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, a Hollywood mega-production, everything is focused on the biography of the brilliant physicist, director of the Manhattan Project. But the fire of Prometheus pushed the people of that time to a huge leap in the development of civilization. Can we say the same about the atomic bomb? This question, frankly speaking, is barely touched upon in the film. Without detracting from the beauty of the film and the great actors who give life to it, the following topic is proposed as the central one: was the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer a patriot?

In fact, the controversy that arose, for example, in Japan, where the film has not yet been released in theaters (but it will be) emphasizes that the victims of the bomb, men and women of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were ignored. At best, they are stylized as a few flashes of memory and remorse that emerge in the mind of the physicist. It is no coincidence that Emily Zemler wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the film “never shows, for example, the bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or their consequences for both cities. The number of victims is mentioned in passing just once. Moreover, except for one sentence, there is no mention of the impact of atomic testing on the native Americans in New Mexico who are known as the “downwinders” – those who suffered from the atomic wind. While critics acknowledge Nolan’s fidelity to Oppenheimer’s viewpoint, they point to the contrasting lack of depiction of the Japanese deaths as one of the film’s most significant flaws.

A very harsh criticism, but certainly justified. The question, as always, is to understand what cultural consequences a work of art of this magnitude can have. A Los Angeles Times article notes that many Americans have a vague understanding of the atomic bomb. Here they “see this,” and it provides a unique opportunity to understand and form an opinion. In fact, it seems that the choice of the atomic bomb is somehow legitimized, accepted as a necessary evil, even if there are disturbing passages in the film that can make those interested think twice.

Where do we drop the bomb? “Not on Kyoto, I went there with my wife on our honeymoon…”

The film tells the story of a meeting with the military that sets up the Japanese targets: cities on which the bomb could be dropped. And the American general says a phrase like, “Not on Kyoto, I went there with my wife on our honeymoon…” The cruelty of a chance in a war is instantly revealed: over here – yes, over there – no. As a result of the bomb explosion, 100 thousand civilians were instantly killed, including 8,500 children who had just arrived at school… The film hardly discusses the decision to strike the civilian population, much less on such scale. Why wasn’t a military target chosen? Was this ever discussed before August 6, 1945?

An atomic explosion “is a fireball hotter than the sun,” says Carol Turner, co-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK (her website is here). However, according to Turner, Nolan’s version of the explosion is an “unearthly, artistic, and carefully crafted look at the face of the explosion’s only victim. This is very far from the reality of what is happening.” (Turner invites you to watch the YouTube tutorial “What if we nuke a city?” It can be found here). Thus, the criticism is aimed not at the film’s artistic choices, but rather at its failure to convey the reality of the facts. The experiment in the New Mexico desert is central to the film’s narrative, yet – and this is another reason for observing – there is no mention of the dire consequences for the American Indians who came from this area and were not warned of the possible (and back then partially unknown) consequences. Emily Zemler in the Los Angeles Times adds again, “In New Mexico, testing at the Trinity Site has left a devastating mark on the local community. The consequences, including widespread cancer and related deaths, have not yet been fully recognized by the US government. The absence of Native Americans in “Oppenheimer” that includes a long episode, where scientists at Los Alamos conduct the Trinity Test, caused puzzled reactions.

The viewer ultimately identifies with the physicist’s honest defense of his actions.

Much of the cinematic narrative centers on the harrowing ordeal that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had to go through during the years of McCarthyism. Here the story fatally becomes “subjective,” and the viewer ends up empathizing with the dedicated defense of his work by the scientist who led the Manhattan Project. The trauma of the atomic bomb and guilt are suppressed by unfair accusations in an administrative investigation that looks like political persecution several years after the scientific and military “success” that the Los Alamos undertaking was.

Recently (see here), one of the Italian pacifist leaders, Francesco Vignarca, stated that “the film definitely lacks the real consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, other than Oppenheimer’s nightmares. Not only the consequences for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities hit by the atomic bombs, but also, for example, for the places in the United States where the Trinity test was conducted, which were not so deserted.” And yet Vignarca added, “I really appreciate that the film raises so many issues: it’s already very interesting and useful.”

The question for us remains: was the dropping of the atomic bomb a victory for America or the beginning of humanity’s defeat?

For those who really want to remember what happened, to complete their thoughts about the film, there is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (here) and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (here) that can be found on the Internet.

Giornalisti e Redattori di Pluralia

Editorial board