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Oppenheimer and the Roots of Tragedy

Christopher Nolan is the foremost cinematic proponent of the Great Man Theory of history.

(By Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

What causes tragedy? Common wisdom dictates choices. Choices have consequences. Nemesis follows Hubris. The ancients, however, argued that fate is a much stronger determinant.

Sometimes humans do not have a choice. The great war was destined in Mahabharata. Paris was cursed, regardless of his particular choice among three of those who had power over his fate. Penelope was doomed to sit and wait for Odysseus in the prime of her youth, purely because her fate was entwined with that of a hero whose choices would have epoch-defining consequences. Those who truly have power over your fate are often not merciful. 


Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a cinematic tragedy of a scale that we have not seen in a while, and will perhaps not again in a long time. 

Oppenheimer is based on the book American Prometheus; the Promethean theme of attempting to imitate the gods at a formidable and unrecognized cost is eloquently showcased throughout the movie. It traces the backstory of the “father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, and presents his personal haunting at the time of his supreme triumph, and the seeds of subsequent tragedy. 

The book depicts our protagonist as borderline neurotic and somewhat sexually awkward in his formative years, although his womanizing was notorious even by the standards of those days. The movie avoids most of that for the sake of plot. The cerebral Oppenheimer finds himself out of place at stuffy Cambridge, the ever-present ritualistic social conformity of a dying empire that might be familiar to comparativists and historians. But he is in Europe, so he meets Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Already a rising star and a legend in his own mind, Oppenheimer wants to bring the “new science” back to the new world—to help man conquer nature and unleash the power of the gods. 

Back in America, his research is punctuated by his tormenting affair with a young communist and psychiatrist, Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh. Tatlock, haunted by her own demons, took her own life at the height of the Second World War and the Manhattan Project. “You think the rules don’t apply to the Golden Boy?” a broken and depressed Tatlock asks Oppenheimer a year before her demise after he says he needs to be disconnected from her, due to his duty to the nation (and to his wife and family). 

“You drop in and out of my life,” she says. “That’s power.” History often forgets the muses of great men. Lord Nelson died a hero. Emma Hamilton died a heavily indebted alcoholic, drinking laudanum. There is never a blue plaque for every inspiration. 


The story follows Oppenheimer’s recruitment by Leslie Groves—a laconic Matt Damon—to lead an all-star secretive project. Hitler was already ahead in pursuit of the ultimate weapon, but Hitler and Heisenberg had one significant disadvantage. European conformity coupled with Aryan supremacy and antisemitism led to the continent’s greatest brains moving to America. Oppenheimer, Fermi, Feynman, and Teller design the “gadget” under the fathomless and hyperventilating score by Ludwig Göransson. Oppenheimer named the project “Trinity,” an allusion to both three-headed Brahma and to the memory of the then-deceased Jean Tatlock, who introduced Oppenheimer to the 16th-century metaphysical poems of John Donne. 

Nolan is the foremost cinematic proponent of the Great Man Theory of history, a master depictor of tortured souls who are better than their fellow men, the agonists of history, heroes who are doomed to suffer for a higher calling.

“The bigger the star, the more violent its demise,” says Oppenheimer, played in by a gaunt Cillian Murphy with a bemused and stoic half-smile in his greatest performance to date. Fate eventually caught up with Oppenheimer. Despite not acting on behalf of any hostile foreign state, his Platonic “global government” sympathies and communist associates—including his formerly card-carrying wife, Kitty—made him an enemy of the state. 

The result was a show-trial, and the demise of the age of larger-than-life great men and the dawn of the age of bureaucracy. In Socratic irony, Lewis Strauss (a superlative Robert Downey Junior) sets the trap to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance. “Amateurs chase the sun and get burned. Power stays in the shadows,” he muses. An ethos that has only gotten more powerful in our unaccountable imperial bureaucracy. 

Interestingly, another great man of history was close to Oppenheimer during those days. George Kennan, who similarly suffered a fall from grace, watching his theory of “containment” completely co-opted by the mindless swarm bureaucracy, became close to Oppenheimer. Kennan and Oppenheimer exchanged letters and were colleagues at Princeton; they shared similar realist aims of co-existence and global equilibrium. 

In one of the most interesting quotes, Edward Teller tells Oppenheimer, “You see beyond the world we live in. There is a price to pay for that.” 

Oppenheimer was by no means a moral force or a saint. But modern history is rarely made by ascetics. It is made by tortured, haunted, detached, amoral men, who are often the cause of untold suffering to their loved ones. They are despised by simpletons but pave the path to painful progress of the species. There is always a price to pay. 

Greatness is inevitably entwined with tragedy.  


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