Oppenheimer Isn’t A Story About The Atomic Bomb — It’s About Ourselves

The film is a cautionary tale of what's happening in society today.

Man shaking hand with a robot, atomic bomb and digital matrix The Everett Collection, Yuuji | Canva

Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated film, Oppenheimer, opened in theaters a few weeks ago. It beat expectations raking in a whopping $80.5 million in sales. Despite the ongoing labor strike in Hollywood, its release — alongside the Barbie movie — set records.

Running three hours, Oppenheimer tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who became the father of the atomic bomb. The film is as much a biopic of his life as it is a history lesson of the Manhattan Project, the secret government program that led to the invention of nuclear weapons during World War II.


But that’s not all it is. In retrospect, the film is neither about the atomic bomb nor J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a story about what came after American Prometheus gave man the power to destroy the world.

Oppenheimer is a cautionary tale about technology and our role in the proliferation of it. Christopher Nolan didn’t create the movie just to break box office records. He did it to shed light on the ethical choices and unknowable consequences that emerge as a result of technological innovation.

This essay will dive into some important questions raised by the film. It will attempt to connect those questions to real events happening in our lives today. Just as J. Robert Oppenheimer ushered in a new world order with the weaponization of physics we’re on the precipice of doing the same thing with artificial intelligence.


The world is rapidly changing around us. With that change comes significant questions we all must contemplate.

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The government doesn’t trust us. And we shouldn’t necessarily trust it either.

One of the biggest themes of the film is the relationship between the U.S. government and the scientists convened at Los Alamos in New Mexico. The military personnel in charge of the project fear there are spies within the ranks of the scientists.

Meanwhile, the scientists, blinded by their ambition to achieve the unachievable, put too much faith in their government. Once hailed for their achievements, Oppenheimer and many of his colleagues faced political persecution once the Manhattan Project came to an end.


Students of American history will easily recognize the undertones of McCarthyism throughout the film.

As a quick refresh, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia rocked the world at the turn of the 20th century. The Romanovs had ruled Russia for three centuries but that changed when socialists took over. This wasn’t just about the transition of power in Russia, though. From the moment Vladimir Lenin ascended to power, communism became an existential threat to the industrial capitalist system.

McCarthyism was a response to the fear that once fascism was defeated in Germany and Italy, communism would take over the world. After World War II, communists became the public enemy of the American people.

Senator Joe McCarthy led a crusade to stop communism from gaining a foothold in the American homeland. Many of the scientists on the Manhattan Project with left-leaning political views became victims of this crusade.


In practice, McCarthyism turned America into a surveillance state.

The FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, maintained files on American citizens who held ideologies that might pose a threat to the United States. As the film shows, the Communist Party had traction amongst American intellectuals. Not all were card-carrying members, but many individuals like Oppenheimer, were curious. Free thinking was the first casualty of McCarthy’s campaign against communism.

The film highlights the extent to which the government does not trust its own people.

Compartmentalization was a policy implemented during the Manhattan Project to keep information siloed. Even though the scientists needed to coordinate their work, the military feared that doing so would create a security liability. The legacy of this is still manifest in the bureaucracy of Washington today. While it’s hard to say for sure, it’s possible that 9/11 may have never happened if people in the CIA and FBI simply talked to one another.


Oppenheimer’s tribunal-style review of his security clearance is the main plot of the film. It also illustrates the idea that there is a lack of trust between the government and its citizens.

During the proceedings, it came to light that Oppenheimer’s phone lines were tapped, conversations were recorded, and he was routinely tailed by FBI agents. Even though he accomplished what he was tasked to accomplish — building an atomic bomb — his prior ties to Communist Party members made him a threat in the eyes of the government.

Not much has changed since Oppenheimer’s security hearing of 1954. The government still surveils its own citizens on the basis of "national security." 

Following 9/11, the Patriot Act was signed into law. Most people don’t know that it degraded their privacy rights and weakened the rule of law.


And even fewer people know that laws passed in the early aughts increased the power of a shadow legal system that gives the government permission to monitor the private communications of its citizens. Had it not been for Edward Snowden providing evidence of global surveillance programs a decade later, these programs might still be little more than conspiracy.

Oppenheimer raises important questions about our relationship with our government. In times of war or national peril, it reveals our government doesn’t trust us. That begs the obvious question: Should we trust it?

We put our faith in the government because we believe Uncle Sam is looking out for us. When our interests align that may be true. That was certainly the case for Oppie and his Manhattan Project colleagues during the war. But once the bombs were dropped in Japan, they became expendable. When their service was no longer needed and the fear of communism was at its peak, they were persecuted just like everyone else. Their names and accomplishments cast into the footnotes of history until now.

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Power in the face of truth wins because power has the ability to suppress the truth.

We want to believe that everything has a happy ending. Truth, honor, loyalty, and love always prevail. But what if that isn’t actually the case? What if that only exists as a myth in our collective consciousness?

Like most of Christopher Nolan’s films, Oppenheimer leaves you with more questions than answers. It reveals a paradox in our thinking and suggests the truth isn’t as black and white as it seems.

One of the main storylines of the film doesn’t involve Oppenheimer, but Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Acting as Secretary of Commerce under President Eisenhower, Strauss is up for confirmation by the Senate. It’s revealed during his hearing that Strauss was behind an ambitious plot to discredit Oppenheimer. The security clearance hearing Oppenheimer endures throughout most of the film had been nothing more than a ruse put into motion by Strauss himself.


On the surface, it might appear that truth won and justice was served. Strauss’s political conniving backfired. He became only the eighth cabinet nominee in American history to not be confirmed by the Senate. But Oppenheimer didn’t win either. Strauss and his allies successfully exerted political power over him. He lost his security clearance and with it the prestige and respect he held in government circles.

Oppenheimer reveals that truth isn’t an absolute fact — it’s a choice.

There are two sides to every story which means two competing truths can coexist at the same time, it just depends on your perspective. Just like in the court of law, once the facts are revealed you get to decide which truth to believe in.

The way Oppenheimer was discredited in his 1954 security hearing is eerily similar to how several prominent scientists and medical professionals are being discredited today.


Dr. Peter McCollough, a respected cardiologist, was ousted for voicing concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. He’s been mocked and publicly chastised for positing that alternative treatments could have been a viable alternative to it. Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Malone, a researcher behind mRNA technology, voiced similar concerns about the safety of the vaccine and was summarily de-platformed because of it.

If you set your political beliefs aside and look at history objectively, you can see similarities between then and now.

After the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated, Oppenheimer advocated for peace fearing the power he unleashed on the world. Likewise, Drs. McCollough and Malone advocated for science — or the very least the freedom to test scientific hypotheses — and raised concerns about the unknown consequences of a new vaccine. While Oppenheimer was tarred and feathered in Washington, these two men have been tarred and feathered in the digital public square.

Like quantum physics, truth is multi-dimensional. Just because you prefer one truth over another doesn’t mean that the other truth is invalid. Sometimes a truth doesn’t have to be true at all, it just needs the probability that it could be true.


When power is used to suppress the exploration of other truths, we’re only left with one truth to believe in — the truth that those in power want us to believe in.

Oppenheimer reminds us that power can take many different forms and with it, the suppression of truth. Politics and nuclear weapons aren’t the only ways to destroy a man. Under the right conditions, taking away his voice is just as effective.

Short-term objectives supersede long-term consequences. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in.

The Manhattan Project was started as a race to beat the Nazis to the atomic bomb. This was an imperative that the scientists — many of whom were Jewish — could rally behind without question.


However, the objective of their mission changed when the war in Germany ended. The goalposts were moved and they were now in a race to beat the Russians.

President Truman gave the scientists an ultimatum: test the bomb before Potsdam. And they did. The day after the Trinity test, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman convened at the Potsdam Conference to discuss the terms of Germany’s surrender. There Truman bragged about the successful test the day prior. Three weeks later, the power of America’s atomic bomb was put on display in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the whole world to see.

The American interpretation of World War II fails to acknowledge that bombing Japan was a choice. The Manhattan Project wasn’t just about beating Hitler to the bomb. It was about projecting American power too.

The shortsightedness of American hubris in the 1940s ushered in a new world order governed by the threat of mass destruction.


The Cold War wasn’t just fought to contain communist ideology like we were taught to believe. It was fought over the rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons. By bombing Japan, America inadvertently kicked off a global arms race that we have spent decades and trillions of dollars trying to undo ever since.

Following the Trinity test at Los Alamos Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita:

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan aptly captures the internal anguish Oppenheimer feels that’s reflected in this quote. He brought a new destructive force into the world and he knew that it wasn’t something man should be trusted with. Once the genie was out of the bottle he knew it couldn’t be put back in.


This is a metaphor for the current technological zeitgeist we’re living in.

Just like Oppenheimer, we’re on the precipice of massive innovations in computing. Like the atomic bomb, artificial intelligence will change the world. The film serves as a premonition and a warning against the perils of unleashing a new technology onto the world without thinking through the long-term consequences of doing so. Once it’s in the world there’s no turning back.

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Few people are able and willing to ask the hard questions that need to be asked. The ones that do often pay a heavy price.


Audiences might walk away from Oppenheimer believing the most important scene in the film is a conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein by a pond at Princeton. But that isn’t the most important scene. Arguably, Oppenheimer’s trip to Chicago bears far greater importance.

The Manhattan Project was spread across three official research sites: Hanford, WA, Oak Ridge, TN, and Los Alamos, NM. Aside from these official research sites, scientists from several universities also participated in the project, including physicists from the University of Chicago.

Oppenheimer heads to Chicago to get an update on their work. But before he does so it’s revealed that a number of the scientists there signed a letter opposing the weaponization of their discovery. Once he arrives he learns why: they proved the theory right, building a bomb was possible.

There are small pockets of dissent captured in the film. At one point, Oppenheimer walks in on a meeting convened by workers on the Manhattan Project discussing the moral and ethical implications of the work they are doing. But it doesn’t appear that those concerns were taken seriously. Whatever qualms existed, those concerns were of far less importance than beating the Nazis and later, the Russians.


Again, this is a cautionary tale of what is happening in society today.

Scientists and medical professionals who have had the courage to ask questions about the response to COVID-19 have been suppressed and de-platformed. For the average person, asking questions hasn’t really been an option. If you do, you’re immediately dismissed as an anti-vaxxer. Truth be told, even though I am personally vaccinated someone will read this and pillory me for writing these very words.

People can’t ask difficult questions because their income is on the line if they do. As you may recall, COVID-19 vaccines weren’t really optional. Many states mandated them and employers made them a condition of employment. Even writers like myself have to self-censor. Platforms like this have policies in place and if I don’t adhere to them I will lose my opportunity to derive financial compensation from my work.


But just because we might not like the nature of a question doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask it. The ability to ask hard questions is our check on power. Power suppresses the truth because the truth is an existential threat to power. Asking questions sheds light on unexplored truths. Those truths don’t have to be correct, they just have to be plausible enough to cast doubt on the prevailing narrative.

J. Robert Oppenheimer paid a price for speaking truth to power but he hasn’t been the only one in American history to do so.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, calling into question the U.S. government’s decisions in Vietnam. He was tried under the Espionage Act of 1917. Had it not been for the government illegally obtaining evidence against Ellsberg, he may have spent the rest of his days in federal prison.

Edward Snowden, on the other hand, released classified information regarding state-sponsored global surveillance programs. He avoided prison time by fleeing to Russia. But it’s unlikely he will ever be able to return to the United States.


Whether you look at whistleblowers or scientists, history is filled with examples of individuals who have been willing to risk everything in order to ask difficult questions. Oppenheimer shows the consequences of not asking the right questions at the right time. Failing to do so can unleash a chain reaction that is difficult to stop once it is in motion.

The film is heralded as one of Christopher Nolan’s greatest works. And it very well could be. But it’s not so much about the story being told on the silver screen. It’s the fact that it’s a mirror to the story that’s unfolding before our very eyes.

Just as J. Robert Oppenheimer ushered in a new world order with the atomic bomb, Silicon Valley is ushering in a new world order with artificial intelligence. It is going to change the way we think, our relationship with money and work, how governments are structured, and whether or not governments will still exist at all in the future.

Some people are asking difficult questions about what is to come. Earlier this year thousands of computer scientists, researchers, and intellectuals signed an open letter demanding a pause on the release of new generative AI tools. Just like Oppenheimer’s concerns about the creation of the atomic bomb, the problem isn’t the technology itself but how it could be used.


An AI gold rush is underway. We’re now in a race to beat the Chinese at building generative AI tools with venture capitalists underwriting the effort. There is a legitimate reason for doing this. America can co-exist with China but it cannot let China control the digital infrastructure of the future.

That being said, once AI is fully in the world there is no going back.

Some people are paying attention to this, but the bulk of the American public is too swept up in polarizing cultural issues du jour. Our politicians are so busy regulating the personal lives of their constituents that they can’t possibly begin to think through the legislation that needs to be put into motion to contain the creation of AI.

The absence of any meaningful discussion on this means we’re unable to ask the hard questions that need to be asked right now.


As the film ends, we learn what was actually said between Oppenheimer and Einstein by the pond at Princeton. The unstoppable chain reaction they feared did indeed happen, but not in the way they imagined. It wasn’t a chain reaction governed by the laws of physics, it was a chain reaction guided by the whims of men.

Oppenheimer is part cinematic masterpiece and part cautionary tale warning us of the perils of unregulated technological development and unchecked power. We didn’t learn the lessons from the atomic bomb, but there is still time for AI.

We have the capacity to speak truth to power and learn from our mistakes. What remains to be seen is whether or not we have the courage to do so.

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Amanda Claypool is a writer, entrepreneur, and strategy consultant. She writes about money, crypto, emerging tech, and the future of the economy on Medium.