Oppenheimer succeeds despite Gita controversy

I avoided watching the movie Oppenheimer until I was assigned to review it. I did not want to watch the horrors of human suffering unleashed in the wake of the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II. So I watched the Barbie movie instead, the other blockbuster blowing up the box office. And then, the Bhagavad Gita controversy erupted. I had read about the outcry in India and the Hindu diaspora about the use of a quote from the holy Gita in vain and out of context. Nevertheless, the film grossed over INR 670 million (~US $8 million) in less than a week, making India the third largest market for the film behind the U.S. and the UK. 

Complex, brilliant, flawed

Christopher Nolan’s Julius Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), with his haunting Irish blue eyes on a gaunt face, is a complex individual with a layered personality. He is brilliant but flawed. He has an obsessive-compulsive relationship with quantum physics and the fusion and fission theories. He is known in the scientific community for his insightful observations. He is a Renaissance man and reads Freud, Jung, T. S. Eliot, the Gita, and nuclear physics. He also sympathizes with Spanish rebels, makes a mean martini, listens to Stravinsky, and admires Cubist paintings by Picasso. He even has a torrid affair with a political activist he meets at a Communist Party event. 

The thought of the immense power Oppenheimer holds is exciting to his girlfriend Jean Tatlock (a vivacious Florence Pugh) a sultry brunette with a tip-tilted nose and a promiscuous manner. But Oppenheimer’s preoccupation with sex does not stop. He later weds an alcoholic Kitty Harrison, a biologist and ex-Communist (played by an intense Emily Blunt), who accompanies him to Los Alamos, where she gives birth to their second child. He continues to meet  Jean Tatlock while he is married until she overdoses on barbiturates and chloral hydrate.

The character development is great but the linking of the A-bomb to the Bhagavad Gita falls short of clear interpretation. Violence is seemingly eroticized.  Linking the power of mass destruction to Eastern philosophy comes across as an attempt to arouse and absolve the protagonist of his personal responsibility. 

A deep dive

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Nolan dives deep and swims long —-three hours post-edit — in retelling the story of Oppenheimer. He collaborates with Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, who wrote the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biography.  

In 1926, Oppenheimer was sleepless, anxious, and homesick while studying under Patrick Blackett at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. When he is openly ridiculed in the laboratory, Oppenheimer leaves Blackett  a green apple poisoned with potassium chloride. A visiting Danish scientist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh)  almost eats the apple but Oppenheimer snatches the apple from his hand. He goes on to complete his PhD in physics at the University of Göttingen in Germany. He meets Werner Heisenberg there. On September 1, 1939, Germany invades Poland. Britain and France join forces against Adolf Hitler. Europe is in the grips of World War II.  Oppenheimer moves to Berkeley in California and befriends Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), the nuclear physicist who invented the cyclotron, a particle accelerator.  

He also meets the project’s military head, Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). The film becomes more interesting when the crusty conservative soldier enlists the leftist scientist as the director of the Manhattan Project. They don’t see eye to eye but they agree to conduct the nuclear experiments at Los Alamos in the middle of the bleak landscape in New Mexico. When Germany surrenders in World War II, some project scientists doubt the bomb’s continued importance. But the bomb is completed and the Trinity Test is successfully conducted. 

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” 

Oppenheimer quotes the same verse from the Gita again when the successful completion of the joint work at Los Alamos results in the first test nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

There has been much discussion about Oppenheimer’s use of the quote, his own recollection of using it, and possible quoting out of context. Perhaps Nolan’s Oppenheimer quotes Gita to distance himself from the doomsday that destroyed more than 200, 000 lives by convincing himself that this was a divine intervention and beyond the hands of the mortal scientist. 

Oppenheimer’s biography, American Prometheus,  refers to the Greek god Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and had to face a tragic end for his hubris. The Greek analogy suits Oppenheimer’s turbulent life and development of the atomic bomb better than his quoting the Hindu God Vishnu.  


Now Oppenheimer is catapulted into the public eye as the “father of the atomic bomb”. Haunted by the immense destruction and suffering the bombs caused, Oppenheimer personally urges President Truman to use restraint in developing more powerful weapons. Truman perceives Oppenheimer’s distress as weakness and insists that as president, he alone bears responsibility for the bomb’s use. 

His reticence became a point of contention in the Cold War era against the Soviet Union. Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, hates Oppenheimer for publicly dismissing his concerns regarding the export of radioisotopes.  Oppenheimer is betrayed by theoretical physicist Edward Teller (who was working on the hydrogen bomb) and other associates’ testimonies, while Strauss exploits Oppenheimer’s associations with current and former communists such as Tatlock and Oppenheimer’s brother Frank.

Despite some allies testifying in Oppenheimer’s defense, Oppenheimer’s security clearance is revoked. Later, at Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing as Secretary of Commerce, fellow physicist David L Hill exposes Strauss’ personal motives in engineering Oppenheimer’s downfall. Strauss’ confirmation fails to pass.

Inclusion, representation, or cultural insensitivity?

Hollywood has used faith-based references about India loosely in past films, such as the unwarranted imagery of Goddess Kali in movies like The Deceivers, The Temple of Doom, and Gunga Din. This is not an act of inclusion or representation of a diverse point of view. It is selective cultural sensitivity or, in these cases, insensitivity. A dialogue in the movie questions the political correctness in relation to the Japanese. It is declared that Kyoto be removed from the bombing list because of the city’s culture and because an American dignitary and his wife honeymooned there. 

Cast and storytelling deliver

This is a scene from the film Oppenheimer that shows two men talking near a pond. One is facing the camera and the other's is a side and back profile(Image courtesy: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pic via IMDB)
A scene from Oppenheimer. (Image courtesy: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pic via IMDB)

The talented Cillian Murphy looks remarkably charismatic as Oppenheimer in a gray suit, a wide-brimmed taupe hat, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Also impressive was Oppenheimer’s chief antagonist, Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr.
Downy Jr.’s unforgettable performance brings to life the story of a shoe salesman-turned-chair of the United States Atomic Energy Commission who has aspirations for a cabinet position. He is so shrewd that it takes Kitty Oppenheimer to throw a cocktail glass at her husband’s head to make him realize that Strauss is not his ally!  

In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson presents Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation. It was clever to use this award ceremony to reveal that an earlier conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein was not about Strauss but about nuclear weapons and their far-reaching implications. Dialogues between Einstein and Oppenheimer are revealing.

Nolan’s filmmaking is direct, instructive, not ostentatious, and very immersive. The movie has a lot of detail about the events leading to the building and detonation of the A-Bomb. My heart jumped up to my throat when my seat shook when the bombs exploded. I looked around myself when the staff and scientists drummed their feet and yelled, “Oppy, Oppy, Oppy!” 

Oppenheimer’s committee hearings, although long and oppressive, were important in making a point about political witchhunts. Nolan shows more than he tells: a friend offering Oppy a peeled orange, a nude couple embraced in a court scene, Kitty hanging sheets on the laundry line, Oppy’s brother, Frank (Dylan Arnold), laying train tracks, a hand trembling over the big red button. 

The film has raked in over $200 million worldwide already and has received critical acclaim for the screenplay, cast, and black-and-white IMAX visuals. Oppenheimer is an important film about a climacteric subject. It will continue to generate an animated discussion amongst viewers, scientists, filmmakers, and critics.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two...