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Friday, July 12, 2024

'Oppenheimer' and the Dharma of Death

Early in the morning of July 16, 1945, before the sun had risen over the northern edge of New Mexico’s Jornada Del Muerto desert, a new light—blindingly bright, hellacious, blasting a seam in the fabric of the known physical universe—appeared. The Trinity nuclear test, overseen by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, had filled the predawn sky with fire, announcing the viability of the first proper nuclear weapon and the inauguration of the Atomic Era. According to Frank Oppenheimer, brother of the “Father of the Bomb,” Robert’s response to the test’s success was plain, even a bit curt: “I guess it worked.”

With time, a legend befitting the near-mythic occasion grew. Oppenheimer himself would later attest that the explosion brought to mind a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu scripture: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” Later, toward the end of his life, Oppenheimer plucked another passage from the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Christopher Nolan’s epic, blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer prints the legend. As Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) gazes out over a black sky set aflame, he hears his own voice in his head: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The line also appears earlier in the film, as a younger “Oppie” woos the sultry communist moll Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). She pulls a copy of the Bhagavad Gita from her lover’s bookshelf. He tells her he’s been learning how to read Sanskrit. She challenges him to translate a random passage on the spot. Sure enough: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (That the line comes in a postcoital revery—a state of bliss the French call la petite mort, “the little death”—and amid a longer conversation about the new science of Freudian psychoanalysis—is about as close to a joke as Oppenheimer gets.)

As framed by Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, Oppenheimer's cursory knowledge of Sanskrit, and Hindu religious tradition, is little more than another of his many eccentricities. After all, this is a guy who took the “Trinity” name from a John Donne poem; who brags about reading all three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital (in the original German, natch); and, according to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography, American Prometheus, once taught himself Dutch to impress a girl. But Oppenheimer’s interest in Sanskrit, and the Gita, was more than just another idle hobby or party trick.

In American Prometheus, credited as the basis for Oppenheimer, Bird and Sherwin depict Oppenheimer as more seriously committed to this ancient text and the moral universe it conjures. They develop a resonant image, largely ignored in Nolan’s film. Yes, it’s got the quote. But little of the meaning behind it—a meaning that illuminates Oppenheimer’s own conception of the universe, of his place in it, and of his ethics, such as they were.

Composed sometime in the first millennium, the Bhagavad Gita (or “Song of God”) takes the form of a poetic dialog between a warrior-prince named Arjuna and his charioteer, the Hindu deity Krishna, in unassuming human form. On the cusp of a momentous battle, Arjuna refuses to engage in combat, renouncing the thought of “slaughtering my kin in war.” Throughout their lengthy back-and-forth (unfolding over some 700 stanzas), Krishna attempts to ease the prince’s moral dilemma by attuning him to the grander design of the universe, in which all living creatures are compelled to obey dharma, roughly translated as “virtue.” As a warrior, in a war, Krishna maintains that it is Arjuna’s dharma to serve, and fight; just as it is the sun’s dharma to shine and water’s dharma to slake the thirsty.

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In the poem’s ostensible climax, Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu, Hinduism’s many-armed (and many-eyed and many-mouthed) supreme divinity; fearsome and magnificent, a “god of gods.” Arjuna, in an instant, comprehends the true nature of Vishnu and of the universe. It is a vast infinity, without beginning and end, in a constant process of destruction and rebirth. In such a mind-boggling, many-faced universe (a “multiverse,” in the contemporary blockbuster parlance), the ethics of an individual hardly matter, as this grand design repeats in accordance with its own cosmic dharma. Humbled and convinced, Arjuna takes up his bow.As recounted in American Prometheus, the story had a significant impact on Oppenheimer. He called it “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.” He praised his Sanskrit teacher for renewing his “feeling for the place of ethics.” He even christened his Chrysler Garuda, after the Hindu bird-deity who carries the Lord Vishnu. (That Oppenheimer seems to identify not with the morally conflicted Arjuna but with the Lord Vishnu himself may say something about his own sense of self-importance.)

The Gita,” Bird and Sherwin write, “seemed to provide precisely the right philosophy.” Its prizing of dharma, and duty as a form of virtue, gave Oppenheimer’s anguished mind a form of calm. With its notion of both creation and destruction as divine acts, the Gita offered Oppenheimer a frame of making sense of (and, later, justifying) his own actions. It’s a key motivation in the life of a great scientist and theoretician, whose work was marshaled toward death. And it’s precisely the sort of idea Nolan rarely lets seep into his movies.

Nolan’s films—from the thriller Memento and his Batman trilogy to the sci-fi opera Interstellar and the time-reversal blockbuster Tenet—are ordered around puzzles and problem-solving. He establishes a dilemma, provides the “rules,” and then sets about solving that dilemma. For all his sci-fi high-mindedness, he allows very little room for questions of faith or belief. Nolan's cosmos is more like a complicated puzzle box. He has popularized a kind of sapio-cinema, which makes a virtue of intelligence without being itself highly intellectual.

At their best, his movies are genuinely clever in conceit and construct. The one-upping stage magicians of The Prestige, who go mad trying to best one another, are distinctly Nolanish figures. The tripartite structure of Dunkirk—which weaves together plot lines that unfold across distinct periods of time—is likewise inspired. At their worst, Nolan’s films collapse into ponderousness and pretension. The barely scrutable reality-distortion mechanics of Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet smack of hooey.

Oppenheimer seems similarly obsessed with problem-solving. First, Nolan sets up some challenges for himself. Such as: how to depict a subatomic fission reaction at Imax scale or, for that matter, how to make a biopic about a theoretical physicist as a broadly entertaining summer blockbuster. Then he sets to work. To his credit, Oppenheimer unfolds breathlessly and succeeds making dusty-seeming classroom conversations and chatty closed-door depositions play like the stuff of a taut, crowd-pleasing thriller. The cinematography, at both a subatomic and megaton scale, is also genuinely impressive. But Nolan misses the deeper metaphysics undergirding the drama.

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The movie depicts Murphy’s Oppenheimer more as a methodical scientist. Oppenheimer, the man, was a deep and radical thinker whose mind was grounded by the mystical, the metaphysical, and the esoteric. A film like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life shows that it is possible to depict these sort of higher-minded ideas at the grand, blockbuster scale, but it’s almost as if they don’t even occur to Nolan. One might, charitably, claim that his film’s time-jumping structure reflects the Gita’s notion of time itself as nonlinear. But Nolan’s reshuffling of the story’s chronology seems more born of a showman’s instinct to save his big bang for a climax. When the bomb does go off, and its torrents of fire fill the gigantic Imax screen, there’s no sense that the Lord Vishnu, the mighty one, is being revealed in that “radiance of a thousand suns.” It’s just a big explosion. Nolan is ultimately a journeyman technician, and he maps that personality onto Oppenheimer. Reacting to the horrific, militarily unjustifiable bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (which are never depicted on-screen), Murphy’s Oppenheimer calls them “technically successful.”

Judged against the life of its subject, Oppenheimer can feel like a bit of let down. It fails to comprehend the woolier, yet more substantial, worldview that animated Oppie’s life, work, and own moral torment. Weighed against Nolan’s own, more purely practical, ambitions, perhaps the best that can be said of Oppenheimer is that—to paraphrase the physicist’s actual reported comments, uttered at his moment of ascension to the status of godlike world-destroyer—it works. Successful, if only technically.

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