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On ‘Oppenheimer’ and the Limitlessness of the National Security Project

Hyemin Han
Thursday, August 17, 2023, 12:00 PM
A review of the 2023 film “Oppenheimer.”
A mushroom cloud expands seconds after the detonation of the first nuclear bomb in Jornada Del Muerto Desert, July 16, 1945. (United States Department of Energy,; Public Domain)

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Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” opens with a depiction of the world’s first-ever nuclear explosion—a shot of glaring orange fire clouds, fusing with pillars of unfurling black smoke. Against the blaze, text reads: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” Here, Prometheus is J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose authoritative biographers Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin titled their book “American Prometheus” for his role in giving humankind the ability to use weapons of mass destruction. 

There are many paradoxes in calling Oppenheimer an American Prometheus. One of them is that, according to Greek myth, Prometheus stole from the gods to give humans a gift: fire, as a technology, as a means for civilization to progress, as a means to innovate. Nuclear weapons, of course, may facilitate civilization’s end, not its progression. But what “Oppenheimer” argues is that the eponymous physicist was asked by his government to see the atomic bomb as a kind of gift for humankind—a means to end all war, and a way for the U.S. to obtain national security in a moment of dire need. And the film argues that Oppenheimer earnestly believed this, until he came to see that the atomic bomb was just the beginning and that national security is not something that can ever be obtained. All the while, he experienced how a government can build up, and then break down, individuals in the name of national security in the process of trying to obtain it. 

The good news is that, to make this point, “Oppenheimer” the film doesn’t equivocate on Oppenheimer the man. He’s portrayed by a quiet but expansive Cillian Murphy as a theoretical physicist who saw symphonies of atoms in his mind and then used them for destructive ends; as someone who selfishly loved the hauntingly beautiful Native lands of Los Alamos where he would cause pillars of fire to tower and spew during the Trinity test; and as someone who couldn’t commit to a moral code until it was too late. 

However, “Oppenheimer” posits that Oppenheimer’s road to his realizations were chaotic, for reasons partially beyond his control. Maybe that’s why viewers should forgive Nolan for telling a sometimes hard-to-follow narrative that ping-pongs between multiple storylines in both color and black-and-white. Scenes alternate asynchronously from different parts of Oppenheimer’s life to trace how he was first brought on to lead the creation of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project in 1945 because of his apparently singular scientific mind, and then lost his security clearance less than a decade later in an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hearing that failed to follow its own rules. The film frames the AEC proceedings, which centered on Oppenheimer’s perceived communist ties and opposition to the hydrogen bomb, as an episode in the McCarthyite past of Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), who failed to make it through a Senate confirmation hearing to become secretary of commerce. Strauss is portrayed as the mind behind Oppenheimer’s rigged clearance hearing, and his antagonism toward Oppenheimer is framed as being a main reason for the Senate’s refusal to confirm him.

While some creative license is taken (the Oppenheimer matter wasn’t the central reason Strauss didn’t get confirmed, for one), “Oppenheimer” doesn’t overstep to make its argument. Start with the point about how a government can use national security to build individuals up and then use it just as easily to bring them down again. During the AEC proceeding, a three-person bureaucracy sits to decide whether Oppenheimer—who just delivered the U.S. the atomic bomb—should be able to retain his Q clearance and continue to work on scientific projects for his country in spite of his perceived communist relationships and weapons control stance. A gray-haired, skeletal Oppenheimer is shown being harangued by AEC special counsel Roger Robb, played by Jason Clarke, who gets to make up the rules as he goes. Clarke reads things into the record that Oppenheimer’s lawyer hasn’t had the chance to review (in the name of national security), and dredges up FBI-provided materials that reveal that Oppenheimer has been surveilled for a long time (in the name of national security). 

Flashbacks are artfully employed to summon visions of Oppenheimer’s dearly beloved into the ugly conference room: Bared to the kangaroo court are the sensitive details of Oppenheimer’s affair with Communist Party member Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh), the communist ties of his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), and his tumultuous relationship with his wife Kitty Oppenheimer (played by Emily Blunt). It’s not just Oppenheimer the individual who’s implicated for maintaining security: It’s other individuals related to the original subject who find themselves scrutinized by the government as well. 

The AEC sequence is good realistic fiction, especially in the context of what we know from the declassified near-1,000-page transcript of the AEC hearing that spanned an unrelenting four weeks in 1954. The real-life FBI notes on Oppenheimer approach that number, too. (And the movie is released during a year when the civil liberties implications of the government’s Section 702 surveillance authority is being hotly debated by Congress.) The Department of Energy acknowledged last December that the AEC ran a flawed hearing in the Oppenheimer decision (though it remained agnostic on the merits of his case). Of the 24 charges against Oppenheimer at the time, 23 were related to communism, while one concerned Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb: Oppenheimer was actually a target of a Red Scare, McCarthy-era witch hunt at the time. And it’s not hard to imagine that this happened in this way in light of the constitutional rights violations that current-day U.S. security clearance processes might commit, especially against subjects who are less powerful and well-known.

How the U.S. government used national security needs against Oppenheimer is portrayed at Los Alamos, too, albeit more subtly. There, we see an Oppenheimer who is supposedly founder, mayor, and sheriff of the makeshift New Mexico town where the atomic bomb is to be built. But, in reality, he’s a captive in a container that the U.S. government has created for the sake of national security. Compartmentalization—the favorite concept of Matt Damon’s Gen. Leslie Groves—is the means by which Oppenheimer and the other scientists working on the project with him are controlled: They’re not allowed to meet freely with one another to engage in conversation, they’re not allowed to enter and exit at-will, and they’re not allowed to see family who aren’t cleared to be on site—even if it risks their happiness, sanity, and possibly even their ability to build the best bomb possible. Groves makes it clear in a punishing line to Oppenheimer: “You have just the rights I give you. No more. No less.” 

Such fortressing activity can also frustrate individuals’ ability to see how their actions might impact the world, whether domestically or internationally. One of Oppenheimer’s most important realizations is that he and the others at Los Alamos have been made to know only themselves by the government’s compartmentalization: They are in a bubble whose only goal is to create a bomb. The bonds created at Los Alamos, the desire that everyone there has to want to just succeed in general, helps to obscure the terrifying reality of what they’re making. 

Despite attempts by his fellow scientists to get Oppenheimer to see this reality sooner, he arrives at an abrupt awareness in one of the crowning scenes of the film, in which he’s only able to imagine the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he overlays the burning of bodies in a bright white flash onto the faces of the very community members at Los Alamos who are celebrating him for his work. It’s exactly the right way to portray this moment. Oppenheimer really wouldn’t have been able to see the damage of his actions until many days later, representing the information gap that private citizens face regarding foreign policy decisions made by governments—which makes it potentially easier to make or retroactively justify morally questionable choices. And such a vision makes the point that we, selfishly, tend to feel anguish and guilt only when we imagine the consequences of our actions impacting those in our own body politic, not the faceless “fellow man.” The tragedy of the AEC investigation, then, is in part that Oppenheimer is to some extent punished for finally having gained consciousness of what he’s unleashed, and his willingness to follow the political reasoning that flows from that realization: that the U.S. should not be manufacturing more weapons of mass destruction.

So what is all of this for? Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, foreshadows the limitlessness of the national security project to Oppenheimer early on in the film, telling him that he will not have control over the endless applications of his talents: “It won’t be for you. It’ll be for them.” The “them” here is the U.S. government, embodied by a President Truman who pronounces Nagasaki flippantly and a secretary of war who rules out bombing Kyoto in part because he honeymooned there (not totally true). 

The film doesn’t trivialize the difficult wartime decisions that the U.S. government faced at the time. The presence of the war weighs heavily: Oppenheimer, who is Jewish, pushes to build the bomb in part to help save the European Jews being murdered by Hitler. But “Oppenheimer” does portray an American national security state—a “them,” in Einstein’s words—that uses an atomic bomb created to defeat Hitler even after the collapse of the Nazi regime, and seamlessly shifts the identity of the national security threat from fascism to communism, from Germany and Japan to Russia. 

In showing how national security is defined in part by the perceptions of “them,” how such priorities may be created and justified on the basis of information that only they have access to, “Oppenheimer” successfully makes its second point about the limitlessness of the national security project. There will always be a new threat and a bigger bomb needed to combat it. And decision-makers’ perception of a constantly changing enemy can potentially even engender new threats, even when such dangers might not have existed to begin with. It’s the classic security dilemma: Actions taken to bolster national security can provoke similar reactions from other states, which could actually make the original state less secure.

Such limitlessness is represented by one of the final moments of the movie. In a kind of fever dream, Oppenheimer imagines himself being hurled in a small fighter jet across a dark night sky. The shot is meant in the first instance to represent the B-29s that carried the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, especially with Ludwig Göransson’s nerve-wracking “Destroyer of Worlds” playing in the background, the shot reminds viewers that the real-life Oppenheimer also saw the first intercontinental ballistic missiles during his lifetime, created by the Soviet Union not very long after the U.S. deployed Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan. It expanded the possible range of delivery for a terrible weapon that quickly went from unimaginable to the new status quo, the coveted focus of an arms race that first introduced the idea of mutually assured destruction. 


In the October 1954 issue of The Atlantic, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. examined the version of the Oppenheimer AEC transcript that was public at the time. Criticizing the AEC’s actions, Schlesinger made the argument that state overreach on scientists’ freedoms and the weaponization of science represented one of the greatest harms of the “subversive” ends of absolute security. 

The nature of innovation has changed since Oppenheimer’s day: It’s facilitated by competition domestically as well as internationally, rather than being driven primarily by state involvement and the pressures of a world war. And international norms and treaties on nuclear nonproliferation might make the warnings of “Oppenheimer” seem less relevant today as a direct analogy. But take the development of artificial intelligence (AI) as an example. In a world where researchers are currently signing petitions about the concerns they have about the unknowns of AI, where AI may be used in classified settings that require intricate regulation, where individuals’ data is being used to train AI models without explicit permission, and where AI may serve as one of the greatest geopolitical weapons of our time, “Oppenheimer” can be seen as a warning about 1945 problems that extend into the world of 2023. 

Oppenheimer’s tale raises the question: What kind of world do we want innovations to be born into? If it’s a world governed by visions of security risks, in which individual awareness is limited as a function of national security needs in more ways than one, Oppenheimer’s story tells us that talents and freedoms will be sucked into the limitlessness of the national security project. It’s a problem created by what George Kennan once called the “illusion of security.” 

The conclusion of “Oppenheimer” isn’t necessarily that we should ignore national security—which would be a preposterous suggestion one year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rather, the argument is that we should preempt its limitlessness. Some viewers will leave the newest Nolan narrative feeling unsure about why they needed to watch a three-hour movie that wants to give the benefit of the doubt to a man who made a decision that seems, to many, so obviously wrong in hindsight. But seeing how the father of the atomic bomb was built up and brought down for national security ends makes it easier to see how Oppenheimer’s story could easily become ours. We’re left with the sense that we’d do well not to lose ourselves the way that Oppenheimer did, all in an effort to gain something that cannot be obtained.

Hyemin Han is an associate editor of Lawfare and is based in Washington, D.C. Previously, she worked in eviction defense and has interned on Capitol Hill and with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She holds a BA in government from Dartmouth College, where she was editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth independent daily.

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