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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

Bombs Away: How Will ‘Oppenheimer’ Usher Nuclear Discourse Into the 21st Century

Updated: Feb 15

“I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon… but we have no choice.”

After months of teasers and tight lips, the official trailer for Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic, Oppenheimer is finally here. It’s filled with emotive speeches on fear and the future, countless explosions, and epic cinematography (all of which are staples, in some form, of the director’s work).

Nolan, whose discography includes fan-favorites like Inception, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, will tackle his first biopic - an unsuspecting move away from his usual cerebral, fictionalized world-building. It is important to note, however, that this is not his first adaptation of actual events (or WWII narratives in general); Dunkirk (2017) is a quasi-fictional tale of the real-life battles which took place on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940, marking a turning point in the war for England and France. But Oppenheimer will be different. This isn’t a fable about travelling through wormholes or vigilantes protecting comic-book cities.

Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy will take on his biggest role to date, playing the titular theoretical physicist. He is joined by a star-studded cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, and many more. According to IMDb, the movie will tell “the story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb.”

This brings about many questions. Will we get a definitive timeline as to how Oppenheimer come to be known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”? Will there be a monologue of those famous eerie words (“I am death. Destroyer of worlds”)? And because no single man can produce so much destruction alone, who stood beside Oppenheimer under the covert Manhattan Project? What were their stories?

More importantly, why is this story being told now? It’s difficult to fathom such a question, especially as tensions rise around the world, and leading nations stock up their arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine on February 24th, the threat of a nuclear reaction has grown tenfold. Iran - a nation already undergoing social unrest following extremist policy - continues to build up its own nuclear program and uranium stock. China and North Korea are conducting nuclear testing in their own regions. The word “nuclear” is becoming commonplace in conversation and media.

And I, for one, am afraid. Afraid of "the bomb" and the men behind the buttons. Worried that, after decades of innovation and research, the strength of these weapons has surpassed those used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Of course, this is all speculation.

Yet, the signs are there; plotting which regions of the United States are most likely to be hit, New York City’s worrisome PSA on how to survive an attack, and countless refrences to world-ending bombs in movies and film (a growing list ever since the classic 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove). As Russian forces continued their military advancements on Ukraine back in spring 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued his own dire warning: The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility."

So, why now? A new Cold War is on the horizon. And just like global warming - ironically, those years of testing in oceans and deserts are probably partially to blame - this chilly front is bound to heat up even quicker than it did all those decades ago. Perhaps a glimpse into the past may serve some good. Both as a warning of man’s immense hunger for domination at any cost, as well as that age-old hubris in knowing that we are capable of bringing about just that. As Murphy’s Oppenheimer puts in the trailer, “We imagine a future. And our imaginings horrify us.”

Maybe that’s Nolan’s intentions. To highlight the man behind the bombs and his pursuit of science to solve the war. To fully comprehend the errors of our ways and the incessant strive for progress in the face of total destruction. To acknowledge an era that seems so distant in history, but serves still as a foundation for what is going on in the world now.

“They Will Fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it, until they’ve used it.” - Oppenheimer (Murphy).

Mark your calendars now - or follow along with the film’s official website, with a live countdown to “doomsday.” Oppenheimer drops out in theaters on July 21, 2023.

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