Nolan’s Oppenheimer: Him Unadorned


The story appears to be a biography of one man, but it is ultimately a biopic of a group of people. Upon reading it, I am deeply touched. It is like the countless times I gazed up at the night sky searching for answers, only to find none. But one day, with the shimmering of one single star, I have come to understand that I am never truly alone. This realization didn't provide me with answers, nor did the star itself understand me. But in that moment, I realized that there are others like me, searching for meaning in this vast and lonely universe. I don't know what the star is pondering or questioning, but I do know that its light continues to shine and shimmer, regardless of its distance from other stars or how much time it will take to reach them. The fact that it keeps shining and shimmering was already enough.


People with unique perspectives are often more vulnerable to emotional harm. Oppenheimer, with his distinct points of view, is no exception. When others fail to understand his uniqueness, he may resort to defending his vulnerability like a curled-up hedgehog, instinctively shielding his most sensitive areas. Those who have cared for hedgehogs know that they have gentle personalities and that curling up is simply a natural defense mechanism. They may not even be aware of the sharpness of their quills.

For those of us who are not hedgehogs, these quills can pose a potential hazard. Simply by getting close or blocking our path, they can cause injury. To mitigate this risk, it may be necessary for intelligent individuals to exercise caution when interacting with ‘hedgehogs’.

Oppenheimer, too, is often seen as an unpredictable hedgehog. In the opening scenes of the film, we witness his tutor, the experimental physicist Patrick Blackett, admonishing him in the laboratory, reprimanding him for his inability to perform even the simplest tasks. However, for Oppenheimer, his anxiety comes from deeper passions unexplained to his Blackett. Blackett’s words were not intended to harm him, but rather to encourage Oppenheimer to focus on the experiment. Unfortunately, the harsh words struck the wrong chord with Oppenheimer, leaving him feeling hopeless and lost. This emotional turmoil clouded his judgment, leading him to make the drastic decision to poison his tutor. Thankfully, Oppenheimer spends a night awake and reaches a newfound clarity, gaining new insights from his dream.

Oppenheimer's dream

What did Oppenheimer dream about? The film opens with images of the universe, particle collisions, and explosions. These are Oppenheimer's dreams, but they are also his private musings - the perspectives he cannot share with anyone during the day, only pondering them in solitude. However, his thoughts far surpass what he can articulate. Therefore, the remnants that cannot be expressed or comprehended become his worries and infiltrate his dreams at night. As a result, we see Oppenheimer struggling to sleep at night and concentrate during the day because he is too preoccupied with his uncontainable thoughts.

It is only when his mentor introduced him to Max Born, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, that Oppenheimer found his true passion, and it is because of being surrounded by like-minded others that he found his niche and calling in life. With the right environment and support, he took to it like a duck to water.

Them To Him.

Oppenheimer's success is achieved with the help of a group of people. While he plays a significant role in the group's success, the film's focus was on the collective effort. Oppenheimer's gratitude towards Born during his student years led him to find his path of calling. Rather than providing a detailed account of Oppenheimer's time with Born, the film emphasizes his story of establishing a quantum physics department from scratch at the University of Berkeley after arriving in the United States. Having only one student in his class didn’t tamp down his enthusiasm about spreading quantum physics. His passion for the subject is evident, and he creates an ideal environment for himself while also influencing others and providing more people with the opportunity to understand him. When we see him begin teaching, it's clear that his goal is not to be understood but rather to simply talk about the subject he is so passionate about. Although it is difficult for him to find someone who truly understood him, he appreciates the opportunity when it came and is willing to invest all his energy into it.

Does Oppenheimer's passion eventually turn into fanaticism for war? According to the film, the answer is a resounding no. Oppenheimer is a man with an innocent passion. He values opportunities that would support his research, even if he has limited decision-making power over the outcome of it; he values the spread of ideas though he was reluctant to take sides; eventually he is so devoted to his pursuit of physics that he neglects all that is happening around him and found himself powerless in the face of an unpredictable world. He did not choose his background. As a Jewish man witnessing the horror of Hitler's regime, General Leslie Groves comes to him with an offer that is impossible to refuse. Groves offers full support to his research and all of his basic needs, going so far as to overlook Oppenheimer’s support of the Communist Party. Oppenheimer is a man who would die for a cause. If no one could understand him, the least he can do is remain true to himself and not betray his own beliefs. He cares about the war, but the waris never his primary concern.

As people say, the same knife cuts bread and fingers. The film presents a nuanced and impartial portrayal of human nature, which is complex and multi-faceted. By utilizing multiple narrative threads, the movie vividly depicts Oppenheimer's interactions with various characters and his evolving thoughts and ideas. The film also shows how people's attitudes towards Oppenheimer changed based on their own interests or values, as evidenced by the outcome of the hearing about his security clearance. In real life, perspectives can be limited and ideas can change over time. The use of different visual styles for each timeline, based on the interests of the characters involved, is an effective way to better represent these blind spots. This approach is similar to using different colors for lines of different routes to avoid confusion.

Him To Them.

Oppenheimer is not a Prometheus-like figure; he is simply a normal man who becomes consumed by his pursuit of scientific discovery. He is so engrossed in the subject that he became like a playful child, completely lost in his own world and losing sight of the potential outcomes. When Oppenheimer is a student, he often dreamed of scenes where particles collided and exploded and is plagued by the question of whether they were real. This led him to consider using the Trinity experiment as a way to verify his beliefs. Oppenheimer assembled a team of exceptional individuals to conduct the experiment with him, and they witnesse the results together.

The problem is that the people involved in the project brings their own different perspectives to the table, and they are only united by their common interest. Oppenheimer is successful in convincing others to believe in his vision, but he fails to see what each of them is really after. That’s why he is so lost when he is betrayed. He loved what he is doing so much that he paid so little attention to what is happening around him.

Moreover, the resulting chain reaction is entirely unpredictable. In the movie, we see dream sequences decrease in frequency, replaced by a scene where a group of people stomp their feet in unison in an auditorium. As the story approaches its climax, this scene becomes more intense and frequent. Eventually, we learn that these people are those involved in the Trinity experiment, who witnessed the atomic bomb explosion alongside Oppenheimer. They eagerly await Oppenheimer's response, hoping to hear what they want. Oppenheimer paused for longer than he should be before speaking. He appears to be tormented by the sight of the destruction and death caused by the atomic bomb in Japan, leaving him confused and ultimately panicked. This reaction is not what they expected. They only wish to cheer for Oppenheimer in unison, worshipping him like a God because he delivered what they wanted -- victory.

They forged a moral statue of the “Oppenheimer” who they expected to commemorate, but not Oppenheimer himself.

Him Unadorned

After the war, Oppenheimer became an icon, though that is not his intention. He is featured on the cover of Time magazine and accepted the President's invitation to meet with him. He tried to express his guilt and raised concerns about the arms race, but instead is kicked out and called a "baby" in return. Meanwhile, those who had benefited from his work revelled in their success and sought even more to avoid losing their gains. Oppenheimer eventually realizes that the chain reaction he has set in motion would continue to expand. He uses his influence to oppose the arms race, which put him at odds with those who profit from it. However, he recognizes that his cause is no longer just about himself; he needs to fight for the greater good. He used to shine to confirm if he was alone in the universe. Only upon discovering the loneliness and desolation of it does he finally understood that his light could also bring warmth.

Some may say that Nolan is "showing off" his storytelling skills, but in fact, it is the most straightforward approach to present the complex drama around Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer is a physicist who practiced the chain reaction of physics, while Nolan is a writer-director who presents the chain reaction of humanity. In the final scene, before David Hill spoke up and defended Oppenheimer, we thought Oppenheimer had lost all hope and his light of passion may extinguish. David not only stood up for justice but also responded to Oppenheimer’s passion. Nolan could have told the story in a linear way, but if he had, the final scene might have lost its power. Multiple narrative threads not only helped us to get a larger picture of the drama but also helped us empathize with Oppenheimer’s pressure until the very end.

Such a complex drama can only unravel around someone who possesses innocent passion as such passion is unadorned and can not be adorned. Thus, by following a clear path of such passion, we can finally connect all the dots.

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