The Man and his Bomb
On Oppenheimer, Twin Peaks, The Social Network, Cormac McCarthy, and the way the world ends
After seven and a half hours of delirious, inscrutable exposition, David Lynch shows a title card: July 16, 1945. White Sands, New Mexico. 5:29 AM (MWT). Lynch’s camera watches like a god, suspended above the barren desert scape. Then a rush of fire from the ground, then the earth’s evisceration, desert becoming dust, a towering mushroom plume. The test, shot in black in white, is more ominous than it is awesome—Lynch’s is a well-rendered mushroom cloud, but a mushroom cloud all the same. But here, in Part Eight of Twin Peaks: The Return, you see Evil born.
After a barrage of abstract, horrific visuals, the camera goes into the cloud. Out, like vomit from the mouth of a humanoid shape, spews demons, among them the entity BOB responsible for the series’ entire dramatic arc. If the central premise of Twin Peaks felt somewhat incomplete or incoherent, Part Eight is a skeleton key. Twin Peaks was no longer the story of how a supernatural demonic presence explained away the most horrific, ritual abuse possible, but about how America let these demons into its homes. This force, this Evil, was created not by us—that is to say, not by you or I—but by America, the country that played god without realizing it was the devil. The thing haunting Americana, according to Lynch, is America itself, the country responsible for inventing a way to destroy the world. Here is a central wonder of Twin Peaks, a show that works helically: what is sold as a small-town murder mystery spirals up into a whirring, supernatural theory of Evil as an independent, real, autonomous entity, an insatiable and indefatigable thing, until reaching at the top of the helix the first atomic bomb test, the moment that humans unleashed the Evil in an attempt to harness it for their own use, an Evil that spirals back down to a radio booth in the middle of the desert.
Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s latest and likely best film, is similarly preoccupied with structure and bombs. Oppenheimer is far grander in scale than Lynch’s peculiar show, even if it reveals itself as conceptually far smaller. The film is probably not Nolan’s masterpiece (it has, for instance, no heist scenes), but in many ways it approaches the platonic Nolan film. Oppenheimer is technically dazzling, structurally both playful and sound, intellectually underdeveloped, emotionally austere, conservative in its outlook, pitched simultaneously to your dorm-room high guy and to anybody who can afford an IMAX ticket.
Ostensibly a biopic about the man who invented the bomb, the film is at its most interesting when it foregrounds the bomb over of the man, Cillian Murphy’s compelling performance notwithstanding. The bomb looms over the film’s first two thirds, menacing the audience more than it does the conscience of its father.1 Nolan’s gambit, executed well, is that his audience might come to feel invested in the bomb’s development despite knowing the hell it would wreak on the rest of time, despite knowing that the war was won, despite knowing that it opened a door that could never be closed. Oppenheimer conscripts you into hoping, in direct contradiction of every moral you hold, that the Trinity test succeeds, then executes the detonation spectacularly. Where it stumbles is in the way it assigns meaning to the wreckage. Nolan, the master of spectacle with a completely blinkered view of the human mind, has made both a stunning film about the atomic bomb and also one where “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” is dispatched with as an Easter egg in a full-frontal Florence Pugh sex scene.
It’s difficult, perhaps impossibly so, to make a film about the bomb. Take it from the sunscreened Benny Safdie or the stodgy Matt Damon: the bomb can only be viewed at a distance and through a prism. The bomb, in its power to destroy worlds, obliterates meaning. It can only be properly handled through metaphor and abstraction. Where Lynch’s bomb births demons, Nolan’s produces ideological, fast-talking little men.
Much has been rightly made by way of comparison between Oppenheimer and The Social Network. Both films are talky biopics from a generation’s biggest, if not most talented, directors; both structure their narrative action around a series of depositions and hearings; both tell the story of a man inventing technology that would irreversibly change the world for the worse. But The Social Network makes more sense as a Fincher-Sorkin project than Oppenheimer does as a Nolan one. Aaron Sorkin, as fashionable as it is to hate him, knows how to write dialogue. Where The Social Network is easily re-watched, remembered, and referenced, Oppenheimer’s forays into punchy dialogue tend to muddy the film. Oppenheimer makes the least sense when it directly recalls The Social Network: its university scenes less engrossing, its invocation of Albert Einstein as elder statesman so distracting it begs the question of whether someone can be too famous to portray on film. Matt Damon, charming and excellent as he is, seems often to be in a different movie than the actors around him.
The Social Network works because it is a tighter film by the right creative duo, but more importantly because its treatment of Mark Zuckerberg makes sense. Sorkin treats his characters like economic units, essentializing them down to their most abstracted beliefs, values, and moral systems; in Sorkin’s talky world, the person most able to sway others to their noble vision is the one who moves society forward. It’s a worldview with which I disagree, but one that renders his Zuckerberg little more than a bruised, vain, conniving nerd. The portrayal grows more welcome as it ages, having anticipated a world that would come not only to be run by reptilian tech billionaires but also to be populated by masses having convinced themselves the revolution begins by owning these billionaires with facts and logic. Read enough tweets about Elon Musk—I promise, you will find them—and you will come to appreciate how economically Sorkin cuts Zuckerberg to size: not a megalomaniacal mastermind to be stopped only by crying out to the mods, but a pathetic historical accident to be treated as such.
Oppenheimer’s Sorkinisms are its weakest points because Nolan’s view of humanity is not one that can adequately internalize something as tremendous as the bomb. Nolan’s overt, capital-C Conservatism, addressed ad nauseam, rears its head throughout the film, but it’s his general view of humanity and history that undermines his character study. Nolan is a big director preoccupied with big things—war, nuclear weapons, climate change, time, society and disorder—but, as Sami Reiss wrote, he is not smart enough to make sense of them. Nolan’s is a world of men and their attitudes, a vision of history and power that is the perfect foundation for an action movie and wholly inadequate for considering how humanity has assured its own destruction. There’s a reason that Nolan is at his most successful when his protagonists are portrayed with an almost autistic affect (John David Washington in Tenet, Christian Bale’s Batman): Nolan’s morality plays are best treated as tedious foreplay to an explosion scene. The ideal Nolan character is either a two-dimensional god or pawn. And so of course Nolan’s bomb movie is the story of a Great Man of History, beleaguered by zealous cold warriors and vendetta-holders, grappling less with his creation than with his subsequent political persecution. Nolan asks us to view the bomb through Oppenheimer, which is fair enough, but he can’t grasp humans enough to convincingly reduce his God to mere man.
Nolan’s man birthed bomb; Lynch’s bomb birthed Evil; Cormac McCarthy’s bomb was always there, just waiting for its earthly form. McCarthy’s final two novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, treat not the bomb but its spiritual wake, concerned as they are with the two children of a prominent Manhattan Project engineer. Alicia Western, daughter, is a prodigal mathematician and tormented schizophrenic, kept company by dreamlike visions both before and after having institutionalized herself in mourning of her brother whom she believes dead. Bobby, son, floats through New Orleans shattered and hollowed out before disintegrating wholesale, spiritually excavated by his sister’s suicide. They are in love.
The bomb haunts the novels, even if it is largely discussed only in the latter, and then only glancingly. But Alicia, at least, is unequivocal: “Anyone who doesn’t understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most significant events in human history hasn’t been paying attention. It’s up there with fire and language.” Alicia, a child of the project, has come to view the bomb less as an expression of humankind’s capacity for good or evil than as a divination of some mathematical rule. Throughout Stella Maris, she (and, it appears obvious, the late-in-life McCarthy through her) treats mathematics as an uncaring, universally encompassing system of truth; her mathematics are a religion offering not salvation but the certainty of destruction. The act of divining these mathematics seem, as much as anything else, to have driven her insane, her mind absorbed by computation much as she believes the world will be.
“Assuming at last that one could,” she asks her analyst, “what would be the advantage of ignoring the transcendent nature of mathematical truths. There is nothing else that all men are compelled to agree upon, and when the last light in the last eye fades to black and takes all speculation with it forever I think it could even be that these truths will glow for just a moment in the final light. Before the dark and cold claim everything.” It’s not so much that men used these mathematics to create a world-ending weapon, by her logic, than it is the inevitability of mathematics acted upon men like her father and Oppenheimer to bring death into being. To Alicia, whether the creators of the bomb had any agency is a wholly uninteresting question. “I think most of the scientists didn’t give that much thought to what was going to happen,” she muses. “They were just having a good time…they’d never had so much fun in their lives.” As for the bomb itself: “Whoever made the bomb was going to blow something up with it and I’m sure he thought better us than them.”
It is when portraying the mathematics of the bomb—not its improbability, but its spectacular and horrific inevitability—that Oppenheimer works best. Look past the romantic subplots, the zippy one-liners, the congressional hearings and depositions, and there is a film about a man drafted not by history or ideology but by a mathematics he foolishly thinks he understands into staring down the face of a burning mushroom cloud.
Oppenheimer’s most striking scene, and the best of Nolan’s career, comes just in the wake of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After a day of exuberance from the project engineers and their military babysitters, Oppenheimer walks into the Los Alamos gymnasium to address a sea of stomping feet, drunken revelers, and guilty vomiters. The sound of their feet on the wood of the bleachers is overpowering and unbearable. Oppenheimer stumbles pallidly through a speech and is met by deafening cheers. The sound mix abruptly jolts into a silence, which, after a breath, is punctuated by a devastating, blood-curdling scream. In the crowd, Oppenheimer sees faces melt off of bodies; on his shaky way out through engineers sobbing and fucking alike, he steps through the ribcage of a burnt corpse. For a brief, hallucinatory moment, the mathematics reveal themselves to the great man.
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Might Oppenheimer be better understood as an Oedipal film, Oppenheimer not as father but as nurturing mother, America as the father it kills?