Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Nuclear Insights from "Oppenheimer"

After viewing the film Oppenheimer, the Belfer Center's Mariana Budjeryn, Matthew Bunn, John P. Holdren, Matthew J. Parent, Calder Walton, Sylvia Mishra, and Julie George offered their thoughts on the movie's relevance in today's world. 

MARIANA BUDJERYN — Senior Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom; author of  Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine

“Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer tells a story of the director of the Manhattan Project and his fellow scientists who endeavored to harness the power of the atom and deliver for the United States a wonderous new weapon before Nazi Germany built one. Driven by genuine scientific curiosity as well as hubris, concern for human lives as well as vengeance, loyalty as well as betrayal, these men achieved the impossible. The creation proved as controversial as its creators, and ushered in a world in which human self-annihilation remains an ever-present possibility.

Since J. Robert Oppenheimer delivered the bomb, enabling the United States to use it in war, nuclear weapons grew in number and explosive power, spread to more states, and worked themselves into the very fabric of these states’ national security as well as international power structures. Today, the possessor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, Russia, has gone rogue and is waging an illegal and cruel war in Europe, while shielding its aggression behind nuclear threats. The risk of another nuclear bomb going off is higher today than it has been in decades. The film, therefore, could not be timelier and should encourage other serious examinations of nuclear dilemmas in popular culture. It is only a shame that Marty Sherwin, the brilliant historian on whose Pulitzer-winning book American Prometheus, co-authored with Kai Bird, the film is based, did not live to see it.”

MATTHEW BUNN — James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom

“Christopher Nolan’s stunning film, Oppenheimer, highlights the moral quandaries posed by the fearsome destructive power of nuclear weapons.  Even as they brought nuclear bombs into being – initially racing to make sure the Nazis did not get there first – Los Alamos lab director J. Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists struggled with what it would mean to live in a world where a single bomb could turn an entire city into a smoking, radioactive ruin.  As Oppenheimer remarked, if such weapons became the regular tools of war, people would come to ‘curse the name of Los Alamos.’  Unfortunately, while it has been 78 years since nuclear weapons were detonated in war, the ideas for peaceful international control of nuclear technology that Oppenheimer and others put forward never worked out.  Instead, the nuclear-armed states built exactly the world the scientists feared, one bristling with thousands of thermonuclear weapons, most many times the size of the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, with Russian President Vladimir Putin spewing nuclear threats over the Ukraine war like an octopus squirts ink, China drastically expanding its nuclear forces, North Korea on a missile-testing spree (including with nuclear missiles that can reach the entire United States), India and Pakistan continuing their nuclear buildups, and Iran right at the edge of a nuclear weapons capability, the nuclear horizon is darker than it has been in decades. The danger of nuclear war remains very real.  While four-fifths of the world’s nuclear weapons have been dismantled, the dilemmas of resting security on weapons arsenals that could destroy much of the civilization humanity has built over centuries remain.  The public needs to understand the nuclear dangers we face and push for action to reduce the risks – and to find, someday, a safe alternative to relying on the devastating threat of nuclear weapons for security.”

JOHN P. HOLDREN — Teresa and John Heinz Research Professor of Environmental Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Co-Chair, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center; Science Advisor to President Barack Obama (20092017)

“Oppenheimer is a terrific film for many reasons, not least because it will remind the many people who will see it around the world about realities of nuclear weapons that too many have forgotten: the immense destructive power of these weapons (even those much smaller than most of the thousands of them deployed today); the certainty that what one nation achieves in nuclear-weapon technology will be matched by others; and the existential threat to civilization posed by the nuclear-weapon buildups that are inevitable absent effective international restraints.

I was still a graduate student when Oppenheimer died in 1967, and I never met him.  But I did have the privilege of interacting closely with a number of other Manhattan Project giants, including Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and George Kistiakowsky (featured in the film) and Glenn Seaborg, Joseph Rotblat, and Harrison Brown (not featured, but I wish they had been). With the exception of Teller, all of these scientists were tormented by the dangers their work in the Manhattan Project had unleashed upon the world, as was Oppenheimer; and they all devoted large efforts, for the rest of their lives, to campaigning for nuclear arms control. 

It must be hoped that the new film will re-invigorate public pressure on political leaders worldwide to see what its protagonist had already seen in 1945: competition in nuclear weaponry is folly; it must be prevented by international agreement and corresponding controls if catastrophe is to be averted.”  

MATTHEW J. PARENT — Impact and Outreach Coordinator, Project on Managing the Atom

“Oppenheimer comes at a time when nuclear dangers appear to be increasing in a number of geopolitical circumstances across the globe. Christopher Nolan reintroduces foundational nuclear issues—packaged in narratives about the relationships of the people developing the first nuclear weapons—to  a new global audience. The scale of the movie, its commitment to displaying the destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and its willingness to bring the audience into complex conversations about the consequences of applying new scientific breakthroughs to human conflict are all important additions to the body of nuclear films. While some may argue that a commitment to storytelling obscures some of the reality of the film’s topic, a major cinematic release like Oppenheimer provides a cultural touchstone from which a new generation can engage with and debate the politics of nuclear weapons.”

CALDER WALTON — Assistant Director, Intelligence Project and Applied History Project; Author, Spies: The Hundred Year Intelligence War between East and West

Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer is outstanding. It’s an immersive biopic, the likes of which you will be hard to find elsewhere. The acting, cinematography, and seat-thundering sound, all combine to take audiences into the mind and moral decisions of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the team of brilliant scientists at Los Alamos, who built the world’s first atomic bomb.

If there were any doubt, this film shows that Nolan is one of the most talented film-makers alive. He is also, I suspect, an historian at heart. Many of his films are about how the past folds into the present. They depict parallel timelines, which come together, or branch apart, skipping forward or reversing. He used that technique superbly in Dunkirk, another historical immersive journey. (His films Tenet and Interstellar dealt with time travel itself). Nolan is also evidently fascinated by the darkest possible sides of mankind. Who can forget that in The Dark Knight, we ultimately discover that the Joker doesn’t even have an end goal with the violence he’s unleashing? It’s violence for violence sake.

Oppenheimer combines many of these themes: good and evil, morality and ethics, death and destruction, and science that changes both history and reality. It’s an epic film, whose subjects live with us today.”

SYLVIA MISHRA — Incoming Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom; currently Senior Associate for Nuclear Policy, Institute for Security & Technology

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a powerful creative volcano. The movie’s contextualization of history is only matched with the haunting background score and an indelible cinematography with images of microscopic dust particles, fluorescent light, spinning atoms, and nuclear fire. Through Oppenheimer, it seems that pop culture has reclaimed its special duty to showcase the urgency and dangers of nuclear risks. The creation of the bomb was depicted as scientific genius through the sinews of the movie, though it also took the responsibility in equal measure to amplify the need for arms control.

The timing of the movie is particularly relevant as nuclear dangers mount at an alarming rate - the Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock is at 90 seconds to midnight. Often the theoretical knowledge of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons remains limited to a small group of experts.

The nuclear policy community needs to leverage this opportunity to spotlight the threat of nuclear use to the wider public so that global citizens urge respective governments to take urgent measures to mitigate nuclear risks. This is also an opportune time to strengthen the norm against nuclear testing and bolster the taboo of nuclear use.”

Oppenheimer hopefully will implore us to become more knowledgeable about the magnitude of devastation that nuclear weapons can unleash. The movie has already stirred a debate whether it is a missed opportunity to showcase the plight of front-line communities to radiation exposure and the overall impact of nuclear weapons testing on indigenous communities and their displacement from ancestral lands. Despite the pedagogical limits and some factual inadequacies on the radiation fallout and the impact on uranium workers, the movie offers the public a starting point to distill the larger socio-political message of nuclear weapons - A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 

JULIE GEORGE — Incoming Postdoctoral Fellow, International Security Program;  currently Predoctoral Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation and Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute, Stanford University

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the film to watch for several reasons — it leaves moviegoers with a sense of awe and fascination, dread and misery, and a sense of how did we get here and what’s next? Oppenheimer covers three decades (1920s–1950s) with great attention to historical context, political dynamics within Northern California, Washington D.C., and Los Alamos, and the sophisticated technical efforts to create the atomic bomb under an ambitious timeline. J. Robert Oppenheimer, along with his esteemed and driven colleagues of the Manhattan Project, sought to do the “unthinkable” — they succeeded. Indeed, the new age of atomic energy and weapons invited domestic and international attention and continues to do so today.

With this cinematic piece, it would be wise for us to consider how nuclear weapons have intersected the nexus of science and international politics. From the powerful scenes of the Trinity Test to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the film illustrates the sheer power and scale of nuclear weapons with long-lasting effects on numerous communities. Beyond the nuclear policy community, the general public should also take a vested interest in the impact and political implications of nuclear weapons and other dangerous technologies. The spread of nuclear weapons worldwide is particularly noteworthy — so the question is: how will we, as an international community, respond?

Technology never likes to stand still. It is always moving forward, but that is precisely the key point here. Rather than focusing on technologies and predicting the future with speculation, we should think about technologies over time in its history, especially nuclear weapons. It seems that Oppenheimer would have encouraged such consideration, evidenced by his efforts to engage with the policy community to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons and arms-racing dynamics. Therefore, we have the critical opportunity to hit pause for a moment, look into the past, and see what insights and lessons we can elicit from the must-watch Oppenheimer.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Budjeryn, Mariana, Matthew Bunn, Julie George, John P. Holdren, Sylvia Mishra, Matthew Parent and Calder Walton.“Nuclear Insights from "Oppenheimer".” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 24, 2023.

The Authors

John P. Holdren