July 25, 2023


Oppenheimer's Nihilism: Where Is Christopher Nolan? (Jesse Russell, 7/25/23, Voegelin View)

It is also a film, like much of Nolan's other work, that subtly celebrates liberal democratic America as being essentially superior to its political competitors (Nazism and Communism). [...]

There are two key pieces of dialogue in the film that provide a map to understanding its intellectual structure. The first is when Oppenheimer explains that the weakness of the Nazis against which they are competing is their anti-Semitic prejudice. Adolf Hitler infamously denounced quantum physics as "Jewish science," hamstringing the German science effort. America, in contrast, is a (relatively) more free and meritocratic society in which people of a host of cultures and ethnicities can excel. 
This philosophy has undergirded much of Nolan's implicit political philosophy in his films. In the Batman Nolanverse, a host of characters such as Batman Begins' Ra's al Ghul, The Dark Knight's Joker, and The Dark Knight Rises' Bane have all challenged the dominate Anglo-American order (represented by Gotham); however, Gotham's heroes always (albeit sometimes reluctantly) fight to protect that order and eventually triumph. Similarly, in Oppenheimer, despite the flaws of the American military and political establishment, the United States of America is better than the threatening alternatives of Soviet Communism and German Nazism even if this is somewhat passé in contemporary intellectual circles, especially online and in elite universities. America is imperfect, yes, but is still good and better than the rest.

The second key piece of dialogue in the film occurs when Murphy's Oppenheimer explains to a woman the nothingness that lies at the heart of existence according to certain strands of theoretical physics. This nothingness is present in all of Nolan's films, but, in Oppenheimer, as in Dunkirk, it eats away at too much of the film. Nihilism is now at the forefront of the film. No figure represents nihilism more than Oppenheimer himself. On one level Nolan celebrates Oppenheimer as a dashing and brilliant intellectual who (like Nolan himself) achieved fame and fortune in the United States. In the film, Oppenheimer pushes the Trinity Project to success, rides horses across through the New Mexico desert with a beautiful woman, reads T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and savors other elements of European High Modernism (showing him as a cultured man saving the best of western culture), stands up to Nazism, sweeps multiple women off their feet, clashes with the American military establishment, raises a family, mourns the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ultimately becomes an advocate for world peace and arms control. Nolan's Oppenheimer is a loyal friend and advocate for workers rights, while, in Nolan's reading, remaining loyal to America and avoiding the pitfalls of communism. Nolan's Oppenheimer is the nihilist superman, a man driven to success in an ultimately empty universe of nothingness by sheer force of will.

Yet at the same time Nolan's Robert Oppenheimer is a selfish academic whose womanizing has catastrophic consequences on family and friends (Oppenheimer has some of Nolan's most graphic sex scenes that may offend some viewers). He is further tormented by ambition and guilt and spends much of his time detached from those around him. We finally do not know, by the end of the film, how much guilt the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan should be laid at the feet of Oppenheimer and how much others are to blame. However, Nolan's nihilism that seeps through much of the film causes us to question why, according to Nolan's moral framework, we should care either way about Oppenheimer's triumphs or his serious moral failings?

 It's always seemed like the whole point was that liberalism triumphed over Oppenheimer. 

Posted by at July 25, 2023 12:00 AM