Dr. Oppenheimer was a man with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove. He was an experimentally weak scientist, who had been ridiculed for his ideas early on in his career. Quantum theory was only an exciting field in Europe with its early adopters (Bohr, Heisenberg…).
He knew there was an uncanny potential to quantum before anyone else around him. He felt it was his duty to uncover it, as Einstein uncovered relativity before him. However, Einstein’s understanding of the world was still classical, and was shown up by Bohr when quantum theory arrived in Europe.
Oppenheimer saw this potential in these new physics. For that he was ridiculed in America, until the world began to understand and accept its power. The power to unleash energy exponentially. Nuclear potential.
He was used and exploited for his knowledge. Bigged up by the US, made to feel essential and dutiful. After Project Manhattan was complete and his baby was made it was efficiently taken out of his hands. He didn’t fight for it and was used as necessary independently of his approval.
Then, he’s accused of treason. Admitting spies into his research meetings. Maintaining relations with communists. Not having national security as a priority. However, what truly troubled Oppenheimer comes back to his initial spark that began the project.
He had used his inspiration, given from beyond, channeled it into his duty to science and the world, only for it to be immediately taken out of his hands. It was taken, defiled, used for evil and to make others fear him. And Oppenheimer accepted that he was the cause of that, even after being humiliated. The weight of what he had done was too heavy to fight back.
My interpretation of the film is that it shows what happens when governed by fear. It doesn’t prevent disaster, it ensures it. Oppenheimer was afraid of what the Nazis might do with the atomic bomb, so he created one to defend the world out of fear. He feared them and vilified them to such an extent that he didn’t consider the possibility of international negotiation, and creating regulations before taking the most extreme option.
He set off a chain reaction that led to the murder of tens of thousands of innocents in a display of divine judgment, creating a new world where everybody was afraid of what he had brought to humanity. His hatred of himself only grew, having betrayed his own conviction for peace. As a scientist, he believed that his role was only to uncover the rock, and if there is a snake there, that is part of it. He never thought of what he should do after.
Oppenheimer was theoretical, he failed experimentally. He idolized those experts that could build things, as shown in the film when he sees the collider being built at the university. He is awestruck by what his thoughts can bring to actual reality in the Manhattan Project. He was afraid of not understanding the consequences of his actions. Of things happening that weren’t theoretically predictable. And when the fat lady has sung, everything falls upon him and crashes on top of his soul.
The end of the film is the summary of these points. He tells Einstein by the lake that he has created something that will inevitably lead to the destruction of the world. We then see the weight of all his life fall on top of him. This is a man at the peak of moral encumberment. His failed relationship, the images of radioactive decay and the questioning of his own ethics become a part of this chain reaction that at the beginning was just about science and knowledge. He can’t bring himself to act when part of such a vortex that sweeps away his will.
The lesson is that vilification of enemies only brings more evil. That fear only breeds more fear and destruction. As the German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel put it: “Evil is also the gaze which sees evil everywhere around it.”