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By Travis Mullis

On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, an American bomber, dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, instantly killing tens of thousands of Japanese civilians. On Aug. 9, another bomb, named “Fat Man,” was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, also claiming tens of thousands of lives in an instant. “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were created by the Manhattan Project deep in the desert of New Mexico, at Los Alamos. The man who headed that project was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of Christopher Nolan’s latest film, now showing at the Independent Picture House. Oppenheimer, like all of Nolan’s films, is pure spectacle that begs to be seen on the big screen. Also like all of his films, it is crammed full of technical brilliance, a slick ensemble cast, great visual effects, a soaring musical score and as many big ideas as Nolan could pack into the script. Where it differs from his past films is the moral and ethical questions it raises throughout.

In the years that led up to World War II, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt about the possibility of using quantum mechanics and theoretical physics to devise a weapon that would be so powerful its very existence could threaten the future of the human race. Once this idea was planted in Roosevelt’s mind, it seemed the only possible outcome would be America’s quest to try and build just such a weapon. The thinking then and now was that someone in the world was going to develop this weapon, so it might as well be us. We certainly didn’t want the Nazis getting there first, though it turns out their efforts in that direction ended well short of fruition.

This past Sunday I had the privilege of seeing Oppenheimer at IPH. The film was followed by a lively and thoughtful panel discussion about the film and the moral and ethical dilemmas it grapples with. The panel was moderated by Tim Funk, a retired reporter for The Charlotte Observer, and consisted of Dr. Eric Mullis, a philosophy professor at Queens University of Charlotte, and Umesh Silwal, a lecturer in nuclear physics at UNC Charlotte. The central question for both the film and the panel was whether or not using the bombs developed by the Manhattan Project was morally and ethically right. The takeaway from Oppenheimer is a fairly definite no. The panel seemed to have a more mixed response. 

The thinking at the time among the top brass of the American military was that Japan wouldn’t surrender without a full-scale invasion of the home islands. Such an operation would require millions of men and several hundred thousand casualties and deaths. Therefore, use of the bomb was justified because it would save the lives of American service members. Dr. Mullis mentioned that his grandfather fought in the Pacific and would surely have been part of any invasion force, something that weighed on his mind as he considered the morality of the situation. To most people, use of the bombs was necessary to save American lives.

But what if the whole idea that the United States had to invade Japan was wrong? That possibility has always intrigued me. The Empire of Japan was close to collapse in the summer of 1945 and considering surrender but holding out for more favorable results from a negotiation. Little did they know what was coming, or perhaps they would have surrendered sooner. The issues raised by the film are profound, so inevitably I left the panel discussion with more questions than answers, but I found it enlightening nonetheless.

The publicity and buzz around Oppenheimer has been slowly building for months. Touted as both an epic feast of apocalyptic imagery and a deeply personal retelling of a towering American intellectual’s struggle with the moral and ethical dilemmas of his age, this film has been called Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece and the most important film of the year. It mostly succeeds in delivering a well-crafted biopic about a decisive man in a decisive moment in American history. Surprisingly, Nolan also delivers a hefty dose of emotional depth often lacking in his filmography. But perhaps most surprising of all, the film seems to fly by, something not often said of a film that clocks in at three hours.

Nolan has always been a director in love with big ideas, whether they be the brain’s ability to remember, complex magic tricks, space and time travel, the subconscious and dreams, vigilante justice and terrorism, or atomic weapons. With Oppenheimer, he has delivered his most grown-up film and his most emotional one. See it for yourself and join the national discussion this film has sparked about the moral and ethical use of technology and who gets to use it.


Travis Mullis is a Charlotte native and freelance writer always on the lookout for a good meal and a good film.
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