Oppenheimer: The man who lit the neverending fuse  

Two days ahead of the Trinity Test, when the first Atom Bomb was detonated, let's try to make sense of the fever-pitch hype around Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and its historical significance. 
Cillian Murphy plays J Robert Oppenheimer in the movie directed by Christopher Nolan.
Cillian Murphy plays J Robert Oppenheimer in the movie directed by Christopher Nolan.

Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock seemingly once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” When the first nuclear bomb was detonated, the world stood aghast at the sheer power that was unleashed. However, like the aforementioned quote, there is true terror in the moments leading up to the bang. Decades of scientific progress that culminated into one detonation, the implication of its success, the questions it raises, and the power it represents, is perhaps why director Christopher Nolan calls J Robert Oppenheimer…

The most important person who ever lived

Right before the start of World War II, in the December of 1938, two German scientists by the name of Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann figured out a way to split an atom (Uranium) into more particles, thereby discovering nuclear fission. After the initial wave of disbelief and exhilaration travelled across the scientific community and eventually subsided, a few of the brightest minds figured out that this discovery could be harnessed to create a terrifying bomb. Physicist J Robert Oppenheimer was one among them. And the US government, which had its watchful eyes on the rise of the Nazis, was also interested in this bomb.

Mentored by JJ Thomson, who discovered the electrons, Oppenheimer was hailed as one of the greatest scientific minds by his contemporaries. Coupled with the fact that advancements in nuclear fission began coming from German scientists, the anxiety to outrun the Nazi forces to the atomic bomb was reaching a fever pitch in the US. With all hands pointing to Oppenheimer as being the most competent man for the job, the humongous task of bringing A-list scientists together to build an atomic bomb fell into the hands of one man.

The world ending push of a button

While the scientists gathered to imagine how the bomb could be designed, they had to face an inadvertent possibility that nuclear fission could trigger an uncontrollable chain reaction that could go on to ignite the atmosphere and end all life on Earth. Faced with that terrifying possibility, and in a desperate attempt to win the race against the Nazis, the scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory still go ahead to push the button.

Nolan’s upcoming film promises to give us a peering look into how the events of the war pushed the scientists into a corner that made them believe they had no choice but to take that gamble. The sense of foreboding threat that pervades this story is perhaps why the early reactions are talking about how the film feels more like a horror.

The blinding light of a billion stars

One of the primary jobs of Oppenheimer, as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, is to assemble some of the brightest minds in the scientific community for the project. Ever since the star-studded cast list for the film has been announced, it is hard not to wonder if Christopher Nolan has been tacitly emulating Oppenheimer, by rallying together some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. With Nolan’s long-time collaborator Cillian Murphy stepping up to lead the film in the titular role, Matt Damon plays army general Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project. Robert Downey Jr plays Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, a man with a strong ideological conviction who sees Oppenheimer’s post-bomb-creation guilt as a sign of weakness and a national security threat. The film also brings to life a number of rockstar scientists who travelled along with the story including Albert Einstein— who warned the US government about the calamity that the Nazis could unleash if they built the bomb first, Niels Bohr—who had the wisdom and knowledge to predict a post-war nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, celebrity scientist Richard Feynman and the 'architect of the nuclear age' Enrico Fermi.

And the bomb goes off…

According to the filmmaker, he had apparently abstained from using CGI and had recreated the atomic explosion practically. While large-scale explosions have been known to be captured on film using pyro-technique wizardry, lensing techniques, and sophisticated miniatures, an average audience still cannot fathom the level of artistry that must have gone to craft the nuclear fission and atomic explosion practically. The director even went ahead with the unenviable task (according to industry technicians) of shooting the entire breadth of the film with a huge IMAX camera. Why go through such a cumbersome task? Is it just to dazzle us with spectacle? Is it truly the most important chapter in human history that demands such devoted filmmaking? With around 12,500 nuclear warheads currently spread across the world, with our increasing dependence on nuclear energy, maybe that moment when humanity learned to wield the power of the gods does need a closer look. 

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The New Indian Express