One of the most traumatic incidents of the 20th century was the dropping of two nuclear bombs on two cities in Japan: Fat Man on 6 August 1945 over Hiroshima and Little Boy on 9 August over Nagasaki. The number of deaths resulting from this exceeded 200,000; the injuries were countless.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer zeroes in on the theoretical physicist and director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory J Robert Oppenheimer who together with his team invented the two atomic bombs. Oppenheimer was screened recently around the world, and in Cairo the film commanded a full house in almost every screening. The majority of the audience was in the 18-30 age bracket. Whether it was the Dark Knight trilogy that gained the filmmaker a huge following with local viewers who felt he elevated the comics superhero to a noir aesthetic or sci-fi mindbenders like box-office hits like Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) or Tenet (2020). Another factor in the popularity of Oppenheimer could be its star, Cillian Murphy, who gained recognition for his role as Thomas Shelby in the gangster family epic series Peaky Blinders (2013-2020). Although Nolan’s film Dunkirk (2017) is much closer in subject to his new film, it is unlikely to be a significant factor in the popularity of Oppenheimer.
Nolan adapted the script from the 2005 biography The American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherman. He refers to his main character in a statement that appears on the screen at the beginning of the film as Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the Olympian gods and gave it to humankind. The film follows Oppenheimer while he undertakes his postgraduate studies in Germany, giving the audience hints about his extraordinary intelligence and his passion for the new theory of quantum mechanics, which he is among the earliest scientists to teach at American universities. Nolan uses closeups to convey his protagonist’s deepest feelings – the agony he and his team feel when they manage to create that weapon of mass destruction especially.
One of the most significant layers of the drama is the conflict between Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who was a member of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946. Nolan uses the hearing of the committee to approve Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 as a frame for the scientist’s biography without showing the man behind the “interrogation” at first. The film jumps between time periods in order to clarify the connection between the main character and the US Communist Party, especially since both Oppenheimer’s wife and his brother were members. This part shows how the US government slipped into paranoia a few years after World War II ended, during the McCarthy era which many intellectuals consider a shameful period in US history. Nolan explains Oppenheimer’s involvement in the atomic project first as the drive to end the war in Europe by defeating the Nazis, then as a result of being told that the Pacific war would not end until the Japanese surrendered. At the end he figures out that American decision makers wanted to use this new weapon as part of their insane arms race against the Soviets.
In an important scene, Oppenheimer meets with president Harry Truman (Gary Oldman), who wants to honour him for his efforts. In the meeting Oppenheimer says, “I believe there is blood on my hands”, and Truman offers him his handkerchief before saying, “you think anyone in Hiroshima or Nagasaki gives a shit who built the bomb? You didn’t drop the bomb, I did.” When Oppenheimer leaves, Truman tells his assistant “don’t let that crybaby back in here.” Nolan thus contrasts the feeling of the scientist compared with the cynicism of the politician.
Nolan tells his story through numerous dialogues between Oppenheimer, his friends and colleagues and even his enemies without once showing the atomic blast that killed so many Japanese people. What seems breathtaking on the screen is the scene in which the test bomb Trinity explodes in the desert of New Mexico. Nolan shows different shots of the explosion and the impact on the faces of those who work at Los Alamos in complete silence, delaying the sound of the blast, capitalising artistically on the idea of a difference in speed between light and sound to show the full horror.
The filmmaker reveals most of what happens in Los Alamos, when General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) is placed in charge of the Manhattan Project and joins Oppenheimer in recruiting the team of scientists. The film would not be complete without some information about how the project works in that remote place in the desert. Nolan manages to simplify a few scientific rules to that end, but his focus is to show Oppenheimer not as the “father of the atomic bomb” but as a genius manipulated by politicians.
One of the most interesting scenes is when Oppenheimer meets Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), with Nolan making something of a philosophical point by showing them together at two different points in time: first, when Oppenheimer is still finding out whether an atomic blast could generate a chain reaction that would destroy the world; then, when Oppenheimer tells Einstein that he thinks they did create that infinite chain reaction, meaning the nuclear arms race.
Although watching Oppenheimer was a unique and satisfying experience, it inspired me to revisit another film that shows a different aspect of the same incident, Alain Resnais’ debut Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). The importance of this film is that it is one of the earliest examples of the French New Wave (la nouvelle vague), the pioneers of which include Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
From the first scene it is clear that Hiroshima, Mon Amour speaks a new cinematic language: an image of the two main characters making love is superimposed on a close shot two dead bodies covered in atomic ash; love in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Alongside such poetic imagery, the narration consists of a debate between the two main characters Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Lui (Eiji Okada). Saying that she saw Hiroshima, the Frenchwoman Elle (She) describes what she has seen in the hospital and the museum (which atrocities Resnais shares with the viewer) but her Japanese lover Lui (Him) replies: “You didn’t see Hiroshima.”
Renais was known for making short films and documentaries, and this film was also planned to be made as a documentary about the tragedies of the atomic bomb after 14 years, but he managed to create a long fiction film with the help of the novelist Marguerite Duras, who wrote the script. He still switches from fiction to documentary and back, showing Japanese people with permanent injuries from the atomic blast. On the other hand he reveals the deepest emotions of the two lovers: Elle, a French film actress who stays for a month in Hiroshima to shoot a film; and Lui, a Japanese architect she meets on her last day in the city. Both are married and have their own lives, but they fall in love.
The story follows the two lovers from Elle’s room to the streets of Hiroshima in one day, with the drama developing beautifully, showing how in a very short time this love affair develops into a deep bond with a few intense hours of passion, agony and happiness.
Resnais’ unique directorial technique is as evident in the opening sequence as it is in the scene in which Elle spends nearly 20 minutes telling Lui of her past in Nevers, France, where her first love was a German young man who was killed; sometimes, confusingly, she addresses Lui as though he was that man, but Resnais juggles the two timelines expertly, using flashbacks to convey the full gamut of suffering. To keep each other alive despite the hopelessness of their love and its tragic setting, the characters decide to call each other Hiroshima and Nevers: people’s names can be forgotten, but places live on…
Both Oppenheimer and Hiroshima, Mon Amour remind the audience of the most atrocious bombing in modern history. The former shows how human intelligence can be manipulated by power to create such a weapon, while the latter shows the result of the bombing 14 years after it occurs. In both cases there is a sense that love can prevail in the face of brutality and oblivion. Hiroshima, Mon Amour won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes in 1959 among other awards; it was also nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar. Oppenheimer is likely to compete for several 2024 Academy Awards including best actor in a leading role (Murphy) and best supporting actor (Downey Jr) as well as best direction and screenplay (Nolan).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly