The following story contains spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023).
SURE, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S Oppenheimer is, ostensibly, about the creation of the atomic bomb—the most powerful and scientifically-advanced weapon ever used in modern warfare. But Nolan’s film, a three-hour epic that features career-best work from Cillian Murphy as the titular scientist and probably about a dozen others, is more than just that. It’s a story that follows a path of evolution; how can something go from an idea, to a plan, to a nightmare?
Nolan’s movies tend to cross all sorts of genres—his Batman trilogy is somewhere between action and adventure, Interstellar brings a sci-fi entrée with a side dish of melodrama, The Prestige is a period mystery, and Dunkirk is a heart-pounding war film unlike any other you’ve seen. Oppenheimer appears on its face to be a fairly traditional biographical drama, and, for most of its lengthy runtime, it is one. But the film’s final act, just like the characters in Nolan’s The Prestige, pulls one hell of a trick: Oppenheimer turns out to be, at least the beginnings of what could be considered Nolan’s first—and forever most relevant— horror movie.
The first two hours of Oppenheimer generally focus on establishing both J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s genius as a physicist and his abilities as a leader; people believe in what he knows and has to say, and tend to come on board when he expresses ideas and plans. As he is recruited by the U.S. Government (led by a high-ranking official played by Matt Damon) to create what would ultimately become the atomic bomb, he brings numerous other incredibly-accomplished scientific minds along with him. The movie refers, at one point, to the “cult” of Oppenheimer; that’s the degree to which the people around him believed in him, and should be credited as a major part as to how the bomb’s development was ultimately successful.
Things starkly shift when the Trinity test is successful and the characters learn that the bomb is successful. From there, Oppenheimer goes from having all the power in a world of his own making to having none in someone else’s. We learn through an off-screen voice that a pair of atomic bombs have been dropped on enemy territories in Japan: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer is left to grapple with an immense pain and destruction that he can only begin to imagine based on second-hand tellings and reports.
“The whole film is about consequences,” Nolan told Vulture. “The delayed onset of consequences that people often forget—the film is full of different representations of that. Some visceral, some more narrative.”
Oppenheimer’s final hour, particularly as Oppenheimer deals with the fallout of Trinity and realizes the consequence and aftermath of contributed to and helped create, is the key to understanding the movie’s heart-stopping conclusion.
How did Lewis Strauss figure into Oppenheimer‘s ending?
The movie is told throughout from different vantage points, and so there are a few recurring moments, storylines, and happenings that Nolan dives into and occasionally pulls away from. Two of the most important of these are the recurring appearances of a pair of characters who are introduced in the same early, 1947-set, black and white scene: Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Early on, the 1947 scene finds Strauss offering Oppenheimer a cushy post-Trinity job at Princeton, where he offers to introduce the scientist to Einstein, who’s on site. Oppenheimer says he already knows him, and heads out for a quick chat. We don’t find out the contents of this conversation until the very end of the movie, but we immediately see Einstein appear to shun Strauss; he won’t even look at him.
It’s the first of several minor slights that Strauss attributes to Oppenheimer that eventually leads him to orchestrating the revoking of his security clearance and destruction of his reputation. Strauss is shown throughout the film to be a careerist, a career bureaucrat who, while he does seem to have the best interests of the nation in mind, has absolutely zero idea or understanding of moderation. And when Oppenheimer won’t give him or his ideas the time of day, he decides the only way to deal with this is to find a way to take him down.
Strauss’ story, throughout the film, is framed in black and white testimony scenes as a senate hearing works to confirm him as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce. Throughout these scenes, he’s paired with an unnamed Senate aide (Alden Ehrenreich) who eventually tells this man (one Nolan clearly sees as significant, yes, but figuratively small) what his massive ego never did about the conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein that so peeved him: perhaps they were talking about something more important than you.
What were Einstein and Oppenheimer really talking about?
Here’s where the horror of it all comes in. The aide was right: what Oppenheimer and Einstein were talking about had absolutely nothing at all to do with Strauss, and rather with the way their ideas had evolved into things far beyond their control. “You all thought that I’d lost the ability to understand what I’d started,” Einstein tells his friend, referring to the fact that his theory of relativity was the building block upon which everything Oppenheimer and his contemporaries started their broad research. “Now it’s your turn to deal with the consequences of your achievement.”
The entire third hour of Oppenheimer—everything that comes after the Trinity test—is about the Oppenheimer’s guilt and desperate need to amend for the horror that he horror that he can only even begin to understand that he unleashed upon the world. Every way he turns, he’s faced with something that doesn’t comfort his mind, and, in fact, makes it feel worse; the horrible encounter with President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) perhaps the best example.
Oppenheimer asks Einstein to remember a conversation they had in the past—one we saw discussed earlier in the movie—where calculations indicated a possibility that a chain reaction from detonating the atomic bomb could wind up destroying the entire world. “I remember it well,” Einstein tells him. “What of it?”
And in one of the most jarring, heart-stopping final lines of the last 20 years, Oppenheimer responds: “I believe we did.”
Murphy absolutely crushes the dread and utter hopelessness of Oppenheimer’s delivery, and as we watch, we feel the same way—because we know its true.
Suddenly, Nolan flashes forward to what’s either meant as our present, or the future that Oppenheimer was imagining. We see an arsenal of nuclear missiles. We see water droplets, perhaps meant to stand for the even-more powerful hydrogen bomb that Oppenheimer strongly opposed. And we see a zoomed out view of Earth, one country at a time, being enveloped in the flames of a nuclear fires.
It’s rarely at the forefront of our minds, but the world lives its life in constant fear of the weapons that do exist that could end our lives, along with millions others, at a moment’s notice.
J. Robert Oppenheimer couldn’t see 80 years into the future; this isn’t Inception or Interstellar. This isn’t a sci-fi movie. But he could see far enough.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.