The Big Picture
- Oppenheimer captures the intrigue and moral horrors of the atomic bomb through tightly written scenes and standout performances.
- Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer is central to the film’s tensions, with a chilling scene in a small multipurpose room that encapsulates his guilt and moral qualms.
- The scene uses powerful visuals, including disintegrating faces and a flashing light, to explore Oppenheimer’s guilt and the harshness of American military culture, while propelling the rest of the film towards atomic regulation.
Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer captures much of the intrigue and moral horrors that come from both the existence of the atomic bomb and the people who tried to harness its power. Christopher Nolan’s film mixes tightly written scenes with major names and also allows actors to surprise their castmates with independent research about the real leaders involved. Of course, Cillian Murphy’s work as the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer proves to be catamount to the film’s tensions and allure, and he’s at the center of, perhaps, the most chilling scene in the entire three-hour film.
No, it does not take place in a boardroom or a lab or even during the breathtaking bomb test. Rather, the scene is just a speech Oppenheimer gives to a crowd in a relatively small multipurpose room – one in which you can see a basketball hoop. Still, the scene encapsulates everything Oppenheimer hypothesizes about its central figure’s guilt and moral qualms in a manner that allows the visuals to advance the story toward its weighty questions.
Oppenheimer’s Ghosts Flash Before His Eyes
Oppenheimer (Murphy) has just found out that his atomic bombs were dropped, as previously planned, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The initial elation he and his scientists felt for making a successful bomb and changing science is gone, but the soldiers and Americans at Los Alamos kept pumping the American pride. That carried into the aforementioned multipurpose room, where Oppenheimer is comforted by his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt) before walking through the hyped crowd. They’re chanting his name, clapping, and stomping on the floor in excitement, only going silent when Oppy steps up to the podium.
His first words to the crowd are “The world will remember this day.” Editor Jennifer Lame cuts between Oppenheimer’s face and the crowd several times in the scene, and as Oppenheimer makes the speech, they show shots of the camera zooming in closer on Oppenheimer’s face with the depth of field becoming shallower and the room seemingly starting to shake. He mentions that he does not know the results of the bombing but that the Japanese “didn’t like it” and the crowd goes wild as the camera shakes around Oppenheimer. The scientist then mentions how he’s proud of their work and that he only wishes they could have used the bomb on the Germans. As he speaks and the camera gets tighter, the room is surrounded by a white flashing light, reminiscent of the scene of the bombing. And, like the bombing scene, the room goes silent for a second and Oppenheimer looks around. He sees a girl’s face start to disintegrate (Flora Nolan, yes, Christopher’s daughter) and briefly it cuts to a shot of the room empty, before going back to Oppenheimer’s face.
Like the bombing, a loud noise fills the room, but instead of a blast, it’s cheers from the crowd and that banging on the floor, matched with when someone grabs Oppenheimer’s shoulder. Oppenheimer starts to salter out of the room, but not before he believes he steps on an ashy, decaying corpse on the ground. And as he leaves, he sees two reactions in the gym: one woman crying hysterically, presumably tears of joy, and another of a man crying into a woman’s arms under the bleachers, hiding his tears. Oppenheimer gets outside and sees a person throwing up before looking back at him; all he can offer in return is a horrified glance as he leaves before a fade to black.
The Consequences of Oppenheimer’s Sins
This memory sticks with Oppenheimer. He references that stomping noise several times throughout the film: during the hearing when Oppenheimer says he never saw Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) again; when Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) discusses building up the hydrogen bomb program in the U.S.; when William Borden (David Dastmalchian) tells him about the potential for the fighter jets he flew to drop bombs; in the film’s final moments when Oppenheimer imagines the world he creates. The loud, banging noise almost interrupts his thoughts whenever he starts to feel guilty about his involvement in the bomb’s creation and the future arms race it develops. The banging complements the explosions that have replaced the music and lights that he used to see. His guilt has reshaped his connection with science and turned music into explosions and stomping feet. It turns the odd patriotism connected to the deaths of thousands of innocent people into a surrogate for the bombing. That noise brilliantly represents the harshness of American military culture and how it’s used to justify wars and harmful tasks.
But the comparisons to the bomb go beyond the stomping. The whole scene plays out exactly like the bombing from tense buildup to the flashing light to silence and then the bang. The noise and the enthusiasm for death from the crowd force him to relive the bomb test again. But somehow more effectively, the disintegrating woman and the corpse are the only two individuals shown in the film that are damaged, and it’s all in Oppenheimer’s head. He’s comparing giving a victory speech to the bomb test. A test he knew there was a remote chance that the bomb would destroy the world. He later says in the film that he believes he destroyed the world by creating the bomb and letting humans have God-like power, and this scene visualizes that fear. Seeing a person’s corpse signifies Oppenheimer’s guilt strikingly.
Murphy also dazzles in the scene, as he does throughout the film. He’s able to feign the charm he carries enough of the rousing charm from his quantum physics lectures, but also clearly carries a sense of unease throughout the scene. He only has a few lines in the scene, but he’s able to both punch them up to please the crowd and then switch to the face of a person who’s about to throw up. And the rest of the actors in the crowd provides an excellent counter to Oppenheimer’s despair with the cheers of vigorous nationalism. Their screams only heighten the scientist’s discomfort about the future of nuclear destruction (and their work should be better compensated when the film replays on streaming, so here’s a link to help the striking actors).
Oppenheimer creates a fascinating portrait of a man whose intellectual curiosity led him down the path of theoretical science. That curiosity helped him build a following, a reputation, and the reasoning for the U.S. government to turn to him for the atomic bomb project. Of course, as a Jewish man, Oppenheimer had a personal reason to want to defeat fascism, and he knew the consequences of making such a bomb could be dangerous but felt it was necessary to end the war. This scene captures Oppenheimer’s growing guilt for unleashing this fire. Nolan lets Murphy’s reaction to his troubled visions implicitly explode on the screen for one of his most striking scenes ever put to screen. And it propels the rest of the film towards Oppenheimer’s push for atomic and hydrogen regulation, both to protect humanity and to ease his conscience. Earlier in the film, Kitty tells Oppenheimer after learning of Jean’s death that he cannot commit “sins” and then ask people to feel sorry for him. The speech scene forms a powerful, illuminating snapshot into Oppenheimer’s inner turmoil with his country, the future of an atomic world, and the festering guilt blowing up in his brain.