Nolan’s Oppenheimer Shows Us the Grandeur and the Horror of Modernity

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an evocative exploration of the contrasting dimensions of modernity. The film probes the potential horrors cast by advancing technology alongside the exhilarating heights of human achievement.

Ground level view of a surface test of a nuclear device. (Getty Images)

In 1913, on the eve of World War I, the French poet and socialist Charles Péguy wrote: “The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last 30 years.”

In the space of those three decades or so, Thomas Edison had lit up the night with his incandescent filament light bulb where, previously, expensive candles, whale oil, or gas had only pricked at the darkness. Through the sound recording of the phonograph, Edison also delivered what the late Australian art critic Robert Hughes in his sweeping documentary history of modernism in art, The Shock of the New, called “the most radical extension of cultural memory since the printed book.” The Lumière brothers had given us the movie camera; Guglielmo Marconi the wireless telegraph or, as we know it, the radio; Étienne Lenoir and Nicolaus Otto the internal combustion engine; and Rudolf Diesel his eponymous version of that device. Marie Curie had discovered radioactivity; Louis Pasteur’s pasteurization had led to the discovery of viruses and Robert Koch’s proofs of the germ theory of disease; Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch’s process for synthetic production of ammonia in essence made “Brot aus Luft” — food out of the air, which would go on to feed billions. And the Wright Brothers had made real the miracle of which our species had been dreaming since the myths of Daedalus and Icarus: human flight.

In this incredibly brief period, the telephone, the first battery, the first plastics, the vacuum cleaner, refrigeration, the tractor, the fountain pen and ballpoint pen, even toilet paper and the bra, and so many other inventions and discoveries arrived that radically enhanced the human condition — or at least the condition of a certain number of humans. Péguy’s awe at what had occurred in a mere three decades echoes Karl Marx’s own marveling at what capitalism had unleashed already by 1848. It is sometimes forgotten of late, but the Communist Manifesto did not just critique this economic system. The pamphlet also issued a paean to its revolutionary capacity more laudatory than even the hosannas of a Friedmanite or Objectivist:

[The bourgeoisie] has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

In his series, Hughes made the convincing argument that this incredible, unprecedented increase in the rate of progress delivered a widespread sense of a new order of things — “a change in man’s view of himself and the world” — that drove the emergence of modern art. It was not just new technologies such as photography and cinema that produced whole new art forms; painters, sculptors, architects, composers, choreographers, and writers strove to produce new techniques and styles that attempted both to describe this acceleration and to match it.

Péguy, however, would quickly confront modernity’s Janus face. In this same period of great science and great innovation, Alfred Nobel had also devised military explosives, the detonator, and the blasting cap. 1904 saw the birth of the machine gun and 1912 the tank. It was not just mass production of fertilizer that had been liberated by the artificial nitrates of the Haber-Bosch process, but that of munitions as well. As a lieutenant in the French infantry, Péguy would be shot in the forehead barely a month into the Great War.

While the horrors of World War One would push some into a counter-Enlightenment retreat from the “dark, satanic mills” of industrial capitalism, others — including a great many artists and scientists — became only further convinced by the war and its conclusion with the Russian Revolution that what Marxists called the forces of production were straining at the fetters imposed upon them by outmoded relations of production. The industrial might of modernity could be tasked with mass destruction, or it could be put in service of a new world of unbounded freedom. This is the moment when Lenin famously defined communism as “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” By the end of the next decade, the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression had only added to the widespread conviction that capitalism was on its last legs.

Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have ever since then recounted in so many works the bohemian, libertine artists who were simultaneously political radicals or sympathetic to such radicalism, and vice versa: the socialists and trade unionists who simultaneously were modernist poets, playwrights, and composers, or who saw their grand political hopes expressed in the new art.

But lost in this cliché about the inhabitants of Bohemia are all the scientists and engineers at this time who were radicals too, and no less smitten with the new art. Not all artists were radicals, and neither were all scientists. But any history of early twentieth-century science comes riddled with socialists, their fellow travelers, and those who at one point or another had sympathized with such ideas: mathematician (and philosopher) Bertrand Russell, chemist Linus Pauling, crystallography pioneer J. D. Bernal, evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, the physicists Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac, Max Born, David Bohm, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and so many more. There is hardly a biography of the great scientists of this time that comes without an index dripping with references to socialism, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), or other aspects of the left-wing demimonde.

Today, the separation between science and art, between STEM and the humanities, is perhaps even wider than when the emerging chasm between these two cultures was first derided by the physicist and novelist C. P. Snow in 1959. A great many, from liberals to radical leftists, now have an abiding suspicion of technology and repeatedly warn of the alleged hubris of science. The mad scientist trope of cinema, literature, and music is ubiquitous.

So it seems strange that was once a heroic period, when there was a unity of the sciences, the arts, and progressive politics, each viewed by those involved as an essential part of the same project: human liberation.

We need to be reminded of the exhilaration, of that sense of collective, cross-disciplinary purpose, that so many in this period felt prior to the disillusionment with modernity that would later, understandably, set in during and just after World War II. Our understanding of the extent of the Nazis’ industrially produced genocide showed us a historically unique evil, one that could not at such scale have happened prior to modernity. Our reckoning with the truth of Stalin’s Soviet Union produced the conclusion that utopianism inevitably leads to exterminationism.

These terrors of modernity are now merely just the ethico-historical background for almost all of us. Those who lived through the entirety of that journey have now almost all died. Today, we recognize the peril and ignore it at the same time. Very few ask whether the liberatory promise of modernity can be recovered and kept.

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Modernity Incarnate

Into this muddle arrives Christopher Nolan’s stunning film, Oppenheimer, adapted from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus. There is perhaps no other figure in the history of the twentieth century who better represents that unity of modernism, and that arc from modernist exhilaration to disillusionment, than Julius Robert Oppenheimer: poet, communist fellow traveler, and father of the atomic bomb. His attempts to transcend the paradox of modernity by pushing for the internationalization of peaceful development of nuclear energy and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons left him one of the most renowned victims of McCarthyism and all but professionally destroyed.

The film opens with Oppenheimer’s student days at Cambridge in the 1920s. In a brilliant montage, we see our protagonist in a museum staring at Picasso’s Woman Sitting with Crossed Arms, then listening to Igor Stravinsky and reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The young Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, finds himself “tormented by visions of a hidden universe” as a result of the profoundly destabilizing new science that upends the classical physics of Newton and Einstein (whose own relativity was already destabilizing enough) and leaves the very determinism of the universe unsettled.

Instead of a clunky exposition trying to explain the quantum realm to mass audiences, Nolan delivers some of his most visually experimental filmmaking yet — expressing Oppenheimer’s intellectual vertigo with raindrop ripples in puddles, vibrations of light, and exploding, dying stars. The rest of the first act then takes us through scenes exploring Oppenheimer’s early research; his efforts to unionize his colleagues; dinner parties and salons with liberals, socialists, Communists, and other “premature anti-fascists” devoted to fundraising to defend the beleaguered Spanish Republic; and the indifference of many of these progressives to the sexual mores of the time. Picasso, Eliot, Stravinsky, Bohr, Marx — or more accurately, art, literature, music, science, socialism — are all the same radical, revolutionary thing for this crowd.

This is not just some reading spuriously imposed upon Nolan’s latest blockbuster. In a recent interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the director explains his attraction to the subject in exactly these terms:

You’re dealing with people who were engaged in a revolutionary reappraisal of the laws of the universe, just as Picasso and other artists were engaged in a revolutionary reappraisal of aesthetic art, of visual representation, just as Stravinsky, you know, was there writing all his music, and indeed, Marx, the communists —that is to say, moving on from Marx, the communist 1920s, the Russian Revolution. I mean, you’re literally rewriting all aspects of the rules whereby we live, physics being the most radical of any of those.

“It’s kind of an amazing time,” Nolan continues. “And then, of course, as you start to research and look at the drama of his story and where it then went, where this revolutionary fervor actually wound up — that’s when so many revolutions wound up in a pretty awful place.”

Einstein’s Mass–Energy Equivalence Revolution

As mind-bending as quantum mechanics is, it isn’t as if relativity is a walk in the park either. Einstein published the two postulates of his special theory of relativity in 1905. From these, together with other physical laws, follows E = mc2, his famous equivalence of mass and energy.

It’s a remarkable idea, that mass and energy are the same thing. The equation intimidates, but it’s not that complicated. Its ramifications however are colossal. It states that the energy contained in an object is equal to its mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second, times itself). This results in a gargantuan number even for a tiny amount of mass. For example, a one-kilogram textbook (roughly 2.2 pounds) would give you in principle just shy of 25 billion kilowatt-hours of energy.

At first, however, there was little effort at producing any application of the concept. There couldn’t be. Other physicists certainly accepted the mass­–energy equivalence, but no one had anything other than the barest of hints of how to tap this immense energy “frozen” in matter. Since Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie’s work in the late 1890s on radium and uranium, metals that mysteriously produced radiation for months on end without any seeming loss of mass, it was certainly known that atomic decay occurred, but this was a random, passive process. It did not seem possible to control such energy.

Nevertheless, the consequences of such staggering energy density were immediately obvious: an energy source that, if it were somehow made accessible, would easily outstrip the energy density of coal, oil or gas. Or it could be used in a bomb of devastating power.

But by the late 1920s, while Einstein, Niels Bohr, and other theoreticians were furiously debating the meaning of quantum mechanics, experimental physicists had taken the atomic ball and run with it. US physicist Murray Gell-Mann would much later describe quantum mechanics as “that mysterious, confusing discipline which none of us really understands, but which we know how to use.” Problem after problem at the atomic level was being solved by the experimentalists, and they were rapidly moving on to the nucleus, with James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron and Enrico Fermi’s work exploring the impact of neutrons on the nucleus.

It would be didactic in the extreme for Nolan to attempt to provide the entire history. His is a drama, not a documentary. Nevertheless, there are three key aspects of the scientific experience in general and of this period in particular that Nolan somehow manages to dramatize, taking densely scientific source material and getting across at least something of its mood to a primarily nonscientific mass audience.

The first is the sheer tempo of discovery of the times, the feeling of unlocking great mysteries. Einstein would later write how the period was like being a little child who wanders into a vast library filled with books written in dozens of languages: “The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend but only dimly suspects.”

The second is the friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) rivalry between the theorists and the experimentalists. The great experimentalist Ernest Rutherford said of theorists that “they play games with their symbols, but we turn out the real facts of Nature.” Too often, say the experimentalists, the theorists claim the glory of discovery, when it is the former who carry out the verification. In the film, this rivalry is expressed both in the friendship and banter between Nolan’s theorist Oppenheimer and the experimentalist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett).

This tension between the theorists and the experimentalists produces a key plot development: a student of Oppenheimer’s, the experimentalist Luis Alvarez (Alex Wolff), excitedly runs into class describing how he’s just read in the newspaper that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Nazi Germany have achieved the fission of uranium nuclei — Leo Szilard and Fermi’s dream. In the film, Oppenheimer the theorist heads straight to the blackboard and through a series of calculations shows Alvarez that theory demonstrates this is completely impossible.

So Alvarez returns to the lab and successfully repeats Hahn and Strassmann’s experiment. Within minutes, Oppenheimer is convinced. It’s a moment of light humor where the “practical-minded” experimentalists show up the “daydreaming” theorists, but also seamlessly sets off the second act of the film’s race against the clock — the development of an atomic bomb before the Nazis.

Big Science

It has been little commented on in the coverage of Nolan’s film, but the director also manages to dramatize in a show-don’t-tell fashion the story of how science was radically reorganized over this period from an activity that had occurred exclusively in small laboratories and classrooms — with some labs not much bigger than large cupboards, and carried out by teams of perhaps two, three, maybe six or seven people at most — to an endeavor where projects straddled continents, and later the world.

The contemporary nuclear fusion engineer and popular Substack writer Andrew Cote notes that Ernest Lawrence’s cyclotron particle accelerator constructed from 1929 to 1930 could sit comfortably in your hand, while the second at Berkeley fit in the then-largest physics building in America and still only stretched out to a mere twenty-seven inches. Today, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) outside Geneva, Switzerland, the largest particle accelerator in the world, comprises a ring of superconducting magnets twenty-seven kilometers (16.7 miles) long. Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the LHC is home to more than ten thousand scientists and collaborates with hundreds of universities and laboratories based in over one hundred countries.

He calls this “civilization-scale science” while historians of science call it “Big Science,” a development that was first driven by the Manhattan Project. At its peak, the Manhattan Project directly employed almost 130,000 people while over 600,000 people in total were involved, and funding reached 1% of federal spending, or 0.4% of GDP. (The Apollo Program two decades later hit 2.2% of federal outlays.)

Today, the United States is home to seventeen national laboratories, each of which, as Cote notes, is the size of a small city and home to thousands of scientists and engineers investigating the bleeding edge of understanding. “Without national labs you don’t get things like the internet, read-write laser storage, genomic sequencing, the standard model of physics, supercomputers, new alloys used in space missions and automobiles, next-generation battery cathodes. The intellectual legacy is colossal.”

None of this would have been possible without the blueprint drafted by Oppenheimer, who led the team at Los Alamos, and by the engineer-soldier Brigadier General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who directed the Manhattan Project as a whole (including other sites at Oak Ridge and Hanford). Again, Nolan manages to turn a potentially dry tale of the technology of organization, of building a vast new public enterprise, of recruitment of scientists, into a political thriller. Damon, as Groves, is absolutely correct that the Manhattan Project is, in fact, “the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world!”

By setting out in the first act the unity of the three realms of modernity — the new art, the new politics, the new science and technology — Nolan makes it easier for contemporary audiences to understand how a conservative military man like Groves could be at ease not just with a communist fellow traveler like Oppenheimer, but also recruit dozens of other scientists who were not mere fellow travelers but known to be card-carrying CPUSA members. Socialism was in the very air of the modern world. You couldn’t recruit the best minds in radical physics without also recruiting some radicals.

Nolan also shows how the inverse of this political conundrum was feasible — how so many left-wingers could put themselves at the service of the creation of a weapon of mass destruction that would be wielded by the US state. Alongside the protagonist’s professional friendship with Groves, the heart of the film is found in the friendship of two New York Jews, Oppenheimer and the Polish American Nobel-winning physicist Isidor Rabi (David Krumholz). When Oppie tries to recruit Rabi to Los Alamos, Rabi declines, saying: “You drop a bomb, and it falls on the just and the unjust. I don’t wish the culmination of three centuries of physics to be a weapon of mass destruction.”

For Oppenheimer, the overriding, immediate concern is that Hitler is exterminating their people and toppling democracies across Europe. Nevertheless, he doesn’t entirely disagree with his friend’s position. “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon, but I know the Nazis can’t,” he concludes.

The film does not so much argue that Oppenheimer is the one who is correct here — the one who made “the hard but necessary choice”; rather, the film accepts that both positions, despite being mutually exclusive, can be true. Nolan is, perhaps, saying there is no easy answer in this impossible situation. But only perhaps. Nolan’s view of his subject at this point in the film remains largely inscrutable.

But there is certainly no endorsement of the bombings either. Following the announcement that the two bombardments were successful, we see both the euphoria and the nausea of the Los Alamos scientists. Oppenheimer struts confidently, proud of what he has achieved, but he is also aghast. We do not see any images of the 225,000 people — mostly civilians —who were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, Oppenheimer sees the flesh of one of his colleagues blistering away in an imagined blast. These antipodes of emotion are felt simultaneously, modernity’s grandeur and horror simultaneously captured in Cillian Murphy’s skeletal visage.

But even if in the film it’s the radicals who appear to have the first misgivings, it would be a mistake to think that it was the political right that approved of the bombing and only the Left who opposed it. The newspaper of the CPUSA, the Daily Worker, declared after the bombing that the Allies were lucky to have found struck “before the enemy can devise countermeasures.” The paper went on: “So let us not greet our atomic device with a shudder, but with the elation and admiration which the genius of man deserves.” Perhaps, one might counter, such calculation is to be expected from Stalinists. Yet the non-Stalinist but still progressive magazines The Nation and the New Republic felt little differently. Nation editor Freda Kirchwey wrote at the time: “The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success.”

Few escaped the twentieth century with their honor intact, although it’s noteworthy that it was the more religious side of the liberal-left who was the first to mark their disquiet at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As historian Paul Boller noted, it was in fact the social gospel–oriented Catholic weekly Commonweal and its protestant counterpart Christian Century that straight out of the gate argued that the bombings had destroyed the nation’s moral position in the world.


However hard a call the development of the atom bomb may have been, many of those involved in its creation rapidly turned their attention to halting nuclear proliferation after the war. Oppenheimer was far from the only one — his friend Rabi for example was radicalized, in his way, by Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and ever after worked to prevent nuclear proliferation. At the end of the latter’s life in 1988, Rabi was still actively campaigning, this time against Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program.

But it was Oppenheimer who suffered perhaps the greatest fall from grace a decade after the war had ended, during the McCarthyite witch hunts, when he was stripped of his national security clearance. As a result, he was removed from the senior government committees where he had been relentlessly lobbying for nuclear arms control and the internationalization of atomic science and technology.

The third act of the film focuses on this period, and Oppenheimer’s battles, grand and petty, with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr. in his best dramatic performance since 1992’s Chaplin), the man who had invited him to become director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and who sat alongside Oppenheimer on the General Advisory Committee of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — the civilian agency that had been created after the war to manage nuclear energy and weapons.

In 1946, Oppenheimer had pushed for the United States to abandon its monopoly on nuclear weapons, reveal all that it knew about the subject to the Soviet Union, and pass control of nuclear weapons as well as nuclear science and its peaceful applications over to an international atomic development authority, which would control all fissile material. Truman accepted the plan, but the USSR distrusted Washington and viewed the framework, which would have included inspections of Soviet uranium resources, as a way for the United States to hold on to its nuclear monopoly.

Despite this defeat, Oppenheimer continued to argue for international arms control and in particular against the development of the hydrogen bomb — a combined nuclear fission and fusion weapon about a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. Oppenheimer lost once again, but the US Air Force would not forgive him.

Nolan avoids these wider forces involved in his downfall and instead narrows his focus to tell the story through the bitter personal animus of Strauss and the scientific ambitions of Hungarian physicist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), who as far back as Los Alamos had spent devoted much of his time to the development of a fusion weapon. Nolan here shows his writerly interest not just in the impossible questions of history but in how pivotal moments in that very history can be ignited by the foibles of personal ambition and even neurotic scientific obsession — in other words, it’s the historical materialism of grand economic and political forces, nevertheless riddled with the quirks of real humans.

What an odd development, then, that some critics consider Nolan to be a conservative director, the “Last Tory,” when the central figure of his magnum opus is a communist fellow traveler and victim of McCarthyism, who spends not a small part of the film engaged in union organizing, whose conscience was for the rest of his life tormented by the weight of responsibility for what his mind had wrought, and who to the end of his days campaigned for the abolition of nuclear weapons. A strange Tory indeed who offscreen walks the picket lines of striking writers.

But as dramatically compelling as the fall of Oppenheimer is, this third act of the story is still only a stand-in for what the film is much more broadly about: the failure of modernity — to this day — to solve its own paradox.

In 2023, the world remains threatened by 12,500 nuclear warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The postwar welfare state in the West, which all progressives want to see extended to the entire world and refurbished at home, has largely been powered by fossil fuels, but this now also threatens our species’s flourishing and, at the extremities of projections, our very existence. After decades of relatively slow-moving technological advance, we now appear to be entering an epoch as transformative — via technologies such as artificial intelligence, gene editing, and synthetic biology — as Péguy’s decades, technologies that hold tremendous opportunity for human liberation but are also not without grave challenge.

Can we solve the puzzle of modernity this time?

There is a hint once again in Nolan’s film. The original promise made by the unity of the three realms of modernity in the early years of the twentieth century, of unbounded liberation from domination — whether by other humans or by the rest of nature — has not been betrayed so much as left unfulfilled. What Oppie and Rabi and the rest of the postwar antiproliferation progressives were striving for — an internationalist egalitarianism absent the dogmas and false certainties of the CPUSA, where all the world benefited from nuclear energy but nuclear weapons were banned — remains the goal.

The project must still be to strip modernity’s grandeurs of its horrors, to accomplish even more wonders that far surpass those Marx said had far surpassed Egypt’s pyramids, and to make them available to all, rather than to imagine some possible retreat from modernity to the even greater horrors that preceded it.

Let the artists and the scientists and the radicals, with unshakable confidence in the promise of modernity, march arm in arm once more.