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'Oppenheimer': Great Entertainment, but Does It Capture the Sheer Devastation?

"Oppenheimer" immerses the audience in the atmosphere of the Manhattan Project, but it does not capture the unimaginable suffering of its victims.



Advertisement for the movie "Oppenheimer" in July 2023, in New York. (© Kyodo)

Christopher Nolan's film, Oppenheimer, emerged victorious at the 96th Academy Awards, winning in seven categories. The film is commendable for its use of visual and auditory effects to portray a pivotal moment in modern history — the development of the atomic bomb.

However, as a Japanese person, from a country directly impacted by the bombings, the film left me with mixed feelings — and frankly, indignation.

I watched Oppenheimer twice in theaters in August 2023. The media categorized the movie as a "war thriller," which made me uneasy. Sure enough, the atmosphere at the theater was that of a typical thriller screening. Young moviegoers were lounging comfortably and enjoying popcorn. 

The summer of 2023 marked 78 years since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I couldn't help but wonder how the survivors and their families would perceive this film.

Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Charles Roven pose with the Oscar for Best Picture for "Oppenheimer" at the 96th Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 10, 2024. (© REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

The Trinity Test

The fear of the American military and researchers that Nazi Germany would develop the atomic bomb first was palpable through the screen. With Germany's surrender in May 1945, the United States turned its attention to Japan. Efforts continued toward the completion of the weapon without stopping.

Oppenheimer does not delve into President Franklin D Roosevelt's end-of-war strategy, which hinged on Japan's unconditional surrender. Nor does it explore in depth how the subsequent Harry S Truman administration decided to use the bombs on Japan.

However, the movie immerses the viewers in the tension of the Trinity test day, reaching its climax at the moment of success, depicted by thunderous music and a blinding flash. 

The Manhattan Project staff, wearing protective goggles, react to the success with a mix of surprise and smiles. Perhaps the actors were trying to portray a sense of achievement or relief that the war would finally end. It is said that the eyes speak louder than words, but their true emotions are left to the viewer's imagination.


Beginning of the Atomic Age

In another scene, a military meeting is being held to decide which Japanese cities to target. Secretary of State Henry Stimson (James Remar) tells the committee to exclude Kyoto as he had honeymooned there. (It is widely believed that Stimson did go to Kyoto after his marriage but not for his honeymoon.) 

From the movie “Oppenheimer” (© Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

In a matter-of-fact manner, the committee proceeds to make decisions and arrangements that would determine the life or death of hundreds of thousands of people.

Later in the movie, the Los Alamos National Laboratory receives news of the Hiroshima bombing. Under the morning sky, men and women beat drums and raise joyful voices as if they were celebrating the dawn of the nuclear age. They are still blissfully unaware that their country's scientific advancement into the unknown has caused unprecedented destruction and carnage.

A Necessary Evil?

In August 2020, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist wrote an article for an American newspaper about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The headline of the article was "The Atomic Bomb Saved Millions — Including Japanese." 

Officially, the United States has consistently upheld the theory that the atomic bomb prevented higher casualties. They say it obvioated the need for an Allied invasion of mainland Japan. In the film, Truman (Gary Oldman) says the bombs helped "bring our boys [American soldiers] home."

At the moment, the US seems likely to become more involved in conflicts like those in Ukraine and Gaza. I sensed the narrative that the atomic bomb was used to protect troops probably resonated with American viewers, regardless of the director's intentions. 

From the movie “Oppenheimer” (© Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Oppenheimer's Remorse

I thought the movie fell short of conveying the tragic reality of the atomic bombs. Oppenheimer's pained expression when he is shown film slides of the damage and victims implies that they were too terrible to look at. However, the film does not depict the cities reduced to rubble or the people who endured unimaginable suffering.

Of course, Oppenheimer did learn about the reality of the atomic bombs. In fact, he voiced objections to the development of hydrogen bombs during the early years of the Cold War. 

The inventor was later accused of espionage due to his past communist sympathies. Finally, the film ends with his disillusionment and battle to redeem his reputation. 

Nevertheless, I felt that the true anguish and remorse of the "father of the atomic bomb" were blurred in the movie. 


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Hiroo Watanabe, Washington Bureau Chief of The Sankei Shimbun


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