The reactions to the movie ‘Oppenheimer’ have been revealing. Some viewers have used the epithet ‘great’ to describe it, others have called it ‘boring’ and ‘too long’.
I came away from the theatre with a lasting feeling of perplexity at the pains to which the makers went to conduct an image makeover of Robert Oppenheimer. I was also left awe-struck and not in a good way at the level of denial the West remains in about its role in raining disaster (quite literally) upon Japan before the end of the Second World War.
Director Christopher Nolan has created cinematic brilliance, without a doubt. The raison d’etre behind the creation of the atomic bomb; the people who helped make it possible; the depiction of the dummy test in an American desert; even a love-making scene involving Oppenheimer — it makes for good cinema. The sound effects are well-executed and the camera work is exquisite.
All this, however, fails to conceal the glaring fact that Oppenheimer was the ‘father’ of the atomic bomb, which was dropped on two Japanese cities — Hiroshima and Nagasaki — on August 6 and 9, 1945 respectively, that resulted in the deaths of 140,000 civilians in Hiroshima and a further 74,000 in Nagasaki. Many of the survivors would continue to feel the terrible side effects from the radiation for decades afterwards. These would include leukemia, cancer and other terrible diseases.
Being from the Central Indian town of Bhopal, which was witness to the devastating leak of the methyl isocyanate gas on December 3, 1984, I can say I have some idea of the debilitating effects of poisons, lethal gases and the concomitant after-effects which are felt for decades thereafter. Resultantly, I am also familiar with the repudiation that those responsible for such a disaster resort to, to escape moral responsibility and culpable liability.
And this is my main grouse with the film ‘Oppenheimer’. In its run time of around 3 hours, the film fails to let viewers into the psyche of the main lead and fails to answer such questions as — how could Oppenheimer, a German Jew himself, having seen his community suffer Nazi persecution in concentration camps, on the streets, deep inside the safety of their homes, first agree to and then deliver such a crippling blow to civilians of another country?
Did he pause to wonder, at any stage of the development of the bomb, what immediate and long-term effect the devastation he helped so intimately sire, would have on the people of Japan? The movie fails in depicting this properly, if at all.
There is a scene in which Oppenheimer is shown conferring with Albert Einstein, another in which he is left devastated by the suicide of his once-fiance and yet another where he appears to rue the use ‘his’ bomb has been put to by ‘politicians’. If the purpose of any of these, or all three scenes, collectively, was to bring out the humanity and innate turmoil of the progenitor of the atomic bomb and show him as a victim of his own creation, the film fails to achieve it.
The lasting impression I have and continue to have, a couple of weeks later, is that the West created a Frankenstein’s monster in the shape of the atomic bomb and that is a burden it will have to bear for eternity. If it intended to end world wars and dissuade ‘belligerent’ nations from building their own bombs — it failed miserably.
We now have more nuclear and atomic bombs in the arsenal of the world’s most unstable nations than ever before and it is now 90 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. If only Oppenheimer had studied the ancient texts carefully, even while engaged in coitus — we would have been living in a different era and Christopher Nolan would have then made a monumental movie with lasting appeal and resonance.
The entire exercise seems aimed at trying to assuage the guilt that Western nations feel or are made to feel, about the comprehensively enervating spectacle of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima-Nagasaki. If the movie ‘Oppenheimer’ was an attempt to jettison some of that culpability, it has failed, just as miserably as its eponymous genius failed to put his brilliance to use in ending and not perpetuating violence, war, suffering and destruction.