Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a great picture. His take on the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” features the quintessential trait of a Nolan blockbuster: the ability to be brilliant and laughably heavy-handed at the same time. The screening I attended featured closed-captioning that inadvertently acted as a commentary on Nolan’s brand of bombastic filmmaking — “(ROUSING MUSIC CONTINUES)” — though the script alone did the job by flashing its themes on giant billboards. So we are treated to Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh with a Nordic accent) solemnly telling Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy with an ambivalently American one) that he is the “American Prometheus,” which happens to be the title of the book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that served as Nolan’s principal source material. Somehow, despite the occasional howler, Oppenheimer feels destined to be a classic, an engrossing meditation on human ingenuity and its destructive consequences that takes us back, for the umpteenth time, to World War II and the formation of the modern geopolitical order.
Oppenheimer hit theaters the same week as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, giving rise to the Frankensteinian phenomenon known as Barbenheimer — two eagerly anticipated films fused together that could not be more different, the latter’s hot-pink aesthetic clashing with the former’s dark mushroom cloud. It is Barbie, oddly enough, that has captured the attention of conservative lawmakers and pundits with Senator Ted Cruz calling it “Chinese communist propaganda” for depicting a map that shows China controlling contested territories in the Pacific Ocean and Ben Shapiro burning Barbie dolls for the movie’s alleged “wokeness.” Oppenheimer has thus far attracted comparatively little attention from the right despite the fact that it is sympathetic to the real-life Oppenheimer’s communist leanings and features Murphy constantly talking about his character’s “left-wing” politics.
The age-old question of whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which all told killed some 220,000 people, were necessary to end the war has largely fallen to the left, though here the discussion has been confused and sometimes wrongheaded. Mother Jones scolded Nolan for not taking a stronger side in the debate even though Murphy’s Oppenheimer concedes that the U.S. dropped the bombs on an enemy that was “essentially defeated” already. The whole point of the movie is that Oppenheimer was ultimately ostracized and accused of being a Soviet agent for warning the world about the dangers of nuclear proliferation — in case there’s any doubt, Nolan quite clearly believes that using weapons of mass destruction on people is bad. Still, there is something about the treatment of the Japanese in this film that speaks to a broader confusion about the war and to America’s blinkered perception of itself.
What kind of enemy were the Japanese anyway? The first third of the movie is propelled by the threat that the Nazis could develop the bomb first — and we know all about them. Oppenheimer, a Jew, takes the threat personally, his very vocation referred to derisively by Hitler as “Jew science” because of the number of Jews, famously including Albert Einstein, who specialized in quantum physics. The final third of the movie is preoccupied with the Soviets, who pose both a mortal threat in their own quest for the bomb and an ideological one in the form of communism. We know all about them, too, and intimately so — the movie’s framing device of a closed-door, McCarthy-inspired interrogation of Oppenheimer echoes the show trials of America’s Cold War nemesis. In the middle come the Japanese, but we get no real sense at all of the adversary who actually bore the brunt of Oppenheimer’s terrible weapon.
Nolan is not alone in having only a hazy idea of wartime Japan, which in the popular imagination is defined by kamikaze fighters and blindly loyal soldiers in the jungle continuing to fight long after the fight is over. Hollywood loves the Nazis. It loves the communists and their spies. It largely ignores the Japanese, as if they are just too strange to contemplate. While Japan was a military foe that had to be brought to its knees, it was not persecuting Jews, with whom Americans like Oppenheimer had a connection, but other, similarly alien Asians; while an American official might lie awake at night anxious about communist indoctrination of members of the Manhattan Project, he did not lose any sleep over the possibility that lefty scientists would start worshipping Emperor Hirohito. Still, the incuriosity about Japan is perplexing for many reasons, not least of which is that it was the Japanese, not the Nazis, who attacked America and brought it into the war — a fact that Nolan omits entirely while having a character brandish a newspaper that practically spins on the screen declaring, “HITLER INVADES POLAND.” It is doubly odd when you consider that, from Japan’s point of view anyway, the two countries are inextricably intertwined, bound together like brothers by historical fate.
The great coincidence of this summer movie season was not that Oppenheimer came out at the same time as Barbie but at the same time as The Boy and the Heron, the latest and possibly final film by legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki. It tells the story of a child whose mother was killed during the Allied firebombing of Tokyo, a metaphor for how America’s grim victory, epitomized by the bomb, gave birth to a new Japan, which rose from the ashes a chastened and traumatized country, as meek as its previous incarnation was militaristic. America forced Japan to adopt a pacifist constitution, and to this day, in an extraordinary arrangement, provides this largely defenseless country with a security guarantee, protecting it from its neighbors in the schoolyard of East Asian politics. Miyazaki’s movie, which will play in the United States later this year, is virtually a sequel to Oppenheimer, and the boy the bomb’s figurative son.
To understand what the Japanese were like before they were wrenched into a new national identity, you could watch Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, an equally brilliant movie that, in emphasizing the nobility of the Japanese warrior, has the feel of the Lost Cause to it; or Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, a Japanese version of Oppenheimer that tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, an engineer who invented the Imperial Army’s deadly Zero fighter jet; or, the one I find most convincing, Masaki Kobayashi’s unforgiving ten-hour epic The Human Condition, which depicts the Japanese as sadistic, deeply racist boors who, like the colonizers in the West they sought to emulate, wanted to dominate and subjugate and exploit their perceived inferiors. Was the wartime Japanese an officer and a gentleman who lived by an ancient military code? A scientist with an artist’s spirit, led astray by his government? Or an authoritarian bully? I would guess he was, in varying degrees, all three.
It is not Nolan’s job to faithfully depict the Japanese. He has made a movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer after all. But some common understanding of this faraway foil is necessary for us to comprehend this historical figure’s significance. Nolan is most concerned with the fact that Oppenheimer brought us into the nuclear age, which gave humanity the ability for the first time to destroy itself. The legacy of the bomb, however, is more specific and concrete than Oppenheimer’s final vision of a world engulfed in nuclear fire. At the very same instant that the bomb created modern Japan in a burst of light, it also gave rise to the America we know today — America as superpower. Two new nations were born from this expression of the bomb’s divine power, and the cost of this transformation, like some ghastly blood sacrifice, were those 220,000 human beings who were either incinerated or succumbed to radiation poisoning, human beings Oppenheimer said were necessary to target to show what havoc the weapon could really wreak, which is to say that the inauguration of the American century would not have happened without the Japanese.
But, of course, America does not see itself as sharing its history with anyone, let alone that it has a ghostly sibling on the other side of the world. Which is how Kai Bird, writing for the New York Times on the occasion of Oppenheimer’s release, can say with a straight face that the “real tragedy” of Oppenheimer’s life was that it discouraged scientists from standing up “in the political arena as public intellectuals.” Well, no — the tragedy is that his genius was literally weaponized against a country that may no longer have posed a threat to him or his country, against people who have been forgotten by their opponents, if they were ever known at all.