Oppenheimer (2023) Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan. Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon, Florence Pugh. (3 hours). Rated R
We are an atom bomb family. My father-in-law, William E. Boyes was hired to join the Manhattan Project as an engineer at the end of WW II. He rode the train from Colorado Springs to Lamy, New Mexico, the closest train station to Los Alamos, only to be told that he would actually be working in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Santa Fe railroad never stopped in Santa Fe, for some reason. He became one of the original hires at Sandia Laboratory. His job was to open a file cabinet drawer that had all of Robert Oppenheimer’s project notes and transcribe them into an official, and needless to say, top secret, document for submission to the US government. Because the Manhattan Project was over, he did not meet many of the scientists depicted in Nolan’s film, although he did know Edward Teller, and did not much care for him.
One of his favorite stories was how, while most of his team was blasting Bikini Atoll to smithereens, he was selected to take a briefcase full of atomic weapon plans to Bell Labs in New Jersey to brief them on the research on which they would soon be collaborating with Sandia. It took a long time to fly cross country in 1949. He puddle-jumped from airfield to airfield, until he arrived late at night at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The airport was closed, and there were no cabs. He was told to leave. So, he spent the night dozing on a park bench outside the airport doors with the nation’s nuclear secrets clenched between his knees. In the morning, he called his contact who told him dryly, next time, call me and I will come and pick you, and Americas top secret atom bomb plans, up, whenever you arrive.
My husband is obsessed with his father’s atomic research. It’s a big part of the reason he became a Viet Nam pacifist (his dad thought his life’s work was wasted if we didn’t nuke Viet Nam). Bill was a passionate Cold Warrior. He eventually became a quality control engineer on the casings, trigger devices and safety precautions on nuclear weapons (although he also was a quality control engineer for a couple of years on the moon shot, as well). He was proud of his life’s work. He did not share the philosophical qualms of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Bill’s dedication to the bomb created a rift in the family dynamic that never healed.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer centers on the tension between the intellectual pursuit of the theoretical physics that would create nuclear weapons, and the qualms about the use of such powerful destructive tools. During World War II, fascism was the enemy, and all efforts to obliterate it justified. After WW II, the fear of fascism was abandoned, and replaced by a fear of communism, which would eventually entrap many Americans, including Oppenheimer. There is no room for thoughtfulness, nuance and equivocation, when up against the government kangaroo court, which would eventually strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance. These are issues that continue to reverberate, as creeping fascism, of which there seemingly has always been an undercurrent in American politics, seeks control of official policy. Oppenheimer’s thoughtfulness and regret, his ambiguity about the tremendous accomplishment of his career seems as relevant as ever.