There has never been a moment in my life when the possibility of a war waged with invisible particles split open and set off against other particles, a war of instant annihilation, a war of mutual, total, omnivorous destruction, didn’t exist. Born in the last weeks of 1961, I was a child of the so-called Cold War, trained — without much opposition on my part — to hate Communists and Communism.
I still hate them, as well as their watered-down perversions, present in this country today. But that’s a story for another day.
The reason for this brief rumination on fission and fusion is my recent viewing of the film “Oppenheimer.” Like the documentary “To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb,” Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus tells the intertwined stories of all the characters involved in the Manhattan Project. There is the drama of building the bomb, keeping secrets, worrying about leaks and spies, political hatreds, professional enemies, and unexpected loyalties and betrayals. There are love stories, possible suicides, alcoholism, mental anguish, and technological triumphs.
All of it is beautifully depicted by actors who seem to have been born for this film, these roles, this moment. And Cillian Murphy, who resurrects J. Robert Oppenheimer like a celluloid Lazarus, just earned himself next year’s Oscar Award for Best Actor. No one else need apply.
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As someone who never experienced the before, the pre-nuclear era, it was incredibly moving to see how the characters in this story, some of them manipulated like the human puppets attached to the strings of Aeschylus and Euripides, justified the unleashing of Promethean fire. The military saw it as necessary, and I agree with them. The scientists, at least most, looked upon the bomb as the culmination of their combined efforts, their shared genius, and I agree with them, too.
But Oppenheimer, and Neils Bohr before him, and Albert Einstein even further back, knew they would break the hinge on Pandora’s Box and create a world where any idea of a forced, unilateral peace would be impossible. The advent of nuclear warfare, weapons that harness the invisible to create the omnipotent, changed us forever.
I grew up in a country that was still a superpower, but one that could no longer impose conditions without compromise. My America no longer “owned” the powerful weapons of the universe. Due to the duplicity of spies, and the inevitable results of human ingenuity, other countries had the power to kill us while killing themselves, dragging us all into the maelstrom together.
The most poignant moments in “Oppenheimer” come as you see the film’s namesake, and a few of his colleagues, wrestle with the terrible truth that to save civilization, they needed to forever place it in an as yet undefined but always present, looming, future danger.
I was born in that danger. And yet I know that the great men and women who made those choices almost two decades before I was born guaranteed the survival of the world, vouchsafed to us the ability to avoid mutual destruction (if we took the time and employed the effort to make it happen), and did their best to show us why there were no other options.
The destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be forgotten, and are not acceptable in a vacuum. In that vacuum, they are the definition of genocide. But when viewed in context, and against the background of these great minds struggling with few alternatives other than the sacrifice of these innocent caught up in their government’s crusade, the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb, was more Angel of Deliverance than of Death.
This movie reminded me that I need to be grateful that others made excruciating, tortured, moral choices, so that I would ultimately have choices of my own.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61