Oppenheimer and the Chain Reactions of Our Own Making


Dark matter is invisible to normal means of detection, neither emitting or reflecting light. But its existence can be traced through its gravitational influence on other, more detectable objects. Map its influence and you can map its existence.

By tracing the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who probably did more than anyone to usher in the age of atomic warfare, Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” reveals the dark matter of human complicity that made the bomb possible — and makes the audience feel implicated, too.

That feeling, I think, helps explain why so many viewers report being profoundly disturbed by the film’s ending. It’s not that it reveals something new about the atomic age; anyone who sees this movie is probably aware of the horrors of nuclear war. Rather, “Oppenheimer” draws attention to something far more unsettling: a truth about what drives the systems we live in and the terrible dangers that come from those systems spinning out of control.

And while most Hollywood blockbusters imply a vast difference between the heroes onscreen and the ordinary people in the audience, “Oppenheimer” does the opposite by inviting the audience to judge themselves alongside those onscreen. (Spoilers for “Oppenheimer” will follow).

The first part of “Oppenheimer” follows the beats of a standard Hollywood great-man biopic. We first see the hero misunderstood, struggling to prove himself: Oppenheimer as an awkward graduate student, clumsy in the lab and angry at being humiliated by his tutor. Then his genius reveals itself: He impresses a great physicist with questions! He learns Dutch in six weeks!

Then comes the hero’s call: The U.S. military wants to build a weapon to win the war against the Nazis and decides Oppenheimer is the man for the job. With a whirl of activity, he marshals resources to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge and build the atomic bomb.

But at the height of the audience’s emotional investment, the hero narrative starts to fall apart. Other scientists ask questions: Why are they still working on the bomb after the Nazis’ defeat? Why use it against Japanese civilians rather than just demonstrate its power to the Japanese government?

And then, suddenly, there is a ticking bomb: the countdown to the Trinity test, in which the first atomic bomb was detonated.

A lifetime of action films has trained moviegoers to expect the hero to defuse the bomb just in time. But here, the Hollywood tropes are inverted. In “Oppenheimer,” the film’s apparent hero doesn’t stop the bomb. He sets it.

And as the horrifying consequences unfold, first in the bombings of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then in the arms race with the Soviets, the hero narrative turns against the audience: Look what happened when the hero did what the audience wanted.

Suddenly we’re out of Hollywood’s good vs. evil binary and into the real world, where one seemingly “good” decision after another can transform into an escalating cycle of wrongdoing and harm with no obvious escape.

In that view, history is driven by people who make flawed choices and are constrained by the systems they’re in. Those systems run on unwritten rules and social pressures that can be hard to see. But miss that dark matter and you miss how things work.

Take corruption, for instance. It is tempting to describe corruption scandals in terms of bad officials and good whistle-blowers. But the labels can obscure the greater force at work: a kind of self-sustaining chain reaction of bribery and graft.

“As more and more people engage in corruption, you’re better able to find willing partners in crime,” Raymond Fisman, a professor of behavioral economics at Boston University who studies systemic corruption, told me in 2016. “The benefits of staying honest decline, because everybody is cutting in front of you in line to see the doctor, or winning the contracts that you might have had a decent chance of getting.”

A new equilibrium will take hold — one that eventually makes dishonesty mandatory for people to get ahead, or even to get by. Anyone who won’t play by the rules of the corrupt system is ejected from it.

And when you’re a member of a community, it can be hard to see it clearly from the inside. Group norms and opinions often have more influence on people’s moral attitudes than actual laws do. And in the famous conformity study by the researcher Solomon Asch, a majority of participants chose a clearly incorrect answer to a question rather than defy the group by selecting the right one.

One of the most striking aspects of “Oppenheimer,” to me, is how inward-looking the scientists are as a community. Even before the barbed wire goes up around Los Alamos, they try to impress one another, sparring over personal grievances and trying to one-up one another’s achievements.

The film’s interwoven timelines draw a parallel between the men’s ego-driven responses to one another and the chain reaction that gives atomic weapons their power. One timeline, shot in color with a title card that reads “Fission,” follows Oppenheimer from his early life through his time at Los Alamos, framed with flashbacks from the red-baiting 1954 government hearing that revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The other timeline, whose title card reads “Fusion,” follows Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, during confirmation hearings for a cabinet position in 1959.

At first it isn’t clear how the two story lines will intersect, but their titles offer a hint: Nuclear fusion is the process that makes the hydrogen bomb so powerful. And it’s triggered, as a character explains later in the film, with a fission bomb. Eventually it becomes clear that Strauss decided to destroy Oppenheimer’s reputation after a series of real and imagined slights, and then members of the scientific community turned on Strauss. Fission triggered fusion, and in the end no one could escape.

It is possible, of course, to disrupt such interpersonal arms races. But the costs can be extremely high. The book “Beautiful Souls” by Eyal Press shows, through the stories of several dissenters, that just as nature abhors a vacuum, institutions abhor disloyalty, even in the name of preventing wrongdoing.

The book demonstrates how, again and again, people who stand against their communities as whistle-blowers or conscientious objectors — even if they are upholding the community’s stated rules and values by doing so — end up ostracized and punished. Even more chillingly, wrongdoing often keeps happening.

“The real lesson of the book is that we love to honor these individuals from a distance and after the fact,” Press told me last year. “But listening to them — not even honoring them, just listening to them — in real time, when they are calling out our own behavior or our own institutions, is exceedingly rare.”

Because nuclear weapons are so destructive, it would be comforting to think that the people involved in their creation and use must be subject to the highest standards. Surely one can rise above office politics and petty grudges when the existence of the world is on the line? Surely there comes a point when the chain reaction of ambition and grievance stops?

The horrifying message of “Oppenheimer” is that there doesn’t.


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