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How Do We Know the Motorman Is Not Insane?

Oppenheimer and the demon heart of power.

Nolan’s movie is flecked with moments like these, small but fathoms-deep ruptures in the fast-running fabric of its narrative, teasing glimpses beyond its slick surface into a forbidden strata of disease and desire too terrifying to contemplate. Oppenheimer is a film constantly invaded by the shadow of a plutonium-stained black-gloved hand, a hand which stills its own tremble the closer it gets to the launch button, or to the neck of a man daring to defy the authority derived from it. Like the balled flash of Trinity, creased and veined with the particulate of invisible death, this otherwise regular story of a monumental figure is riven with a sickness neither potassium iodide nor Prussian blue can cure: the sickness of power, and what that power is prepared to do to a single life – what that power is prepared to do to all life. What Stanley Kubrick distilled in its absurd and comic mode in Dr Strangelove, Nolan is attempting to grasp in a serious manner in Oppenheimer. And in that attempt, in the strain of his effort, we see Nolan butting up against the limits of his own creativity, his own inclination for rationality and scientific rigour in his work, the often extreme literalness of his art. Rationality, after all, was the first thing betrayed in the world Oppenheimer helped to birth.

“They won’t fear it until they understand it,” Oppenheimer says to a midnight forum of scientists worried about ‘The Impact of the Gadget on Civilization’, “and they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.” Perhaps more than any other, “understand” is the most common and important word in the film. In his earliest work on the rules divining the structure of the universe, Neils Bohr is trying to “understand reality.” A lack of “understanding” is what non-scientists plead when they encounter Oppenheimer’s totemic mind and the eccentricity of the New Physics. It sums up the impasse and strife of a relationship, and acts as a bid for humility before a hostile interrogator. Ernest Lawrence understands “completely” the rule of secrecy he is expected to follow, then immediately breaks; it is what Lewis Strauss says whenever he is lying, what Teller utters as he leans forward and delivers the Judas kiss.

Understanding is the subconscious joke made by a director to his audience in a film about physicists but which contains almost no physics. Understanding is also the motive for Oppenheimer’s making: my generation is the first generation not to have learned duck-and-cover drills alongside basic grammar and multiplication, who did not help out on the weekends building backyard shelters, and the film’s audience – for the most part and mercifully – do not remember the daily Damocles of the Cold War, and must be reminded how dire things were then, and how dire things remain for so long as the invention remains invented. Understanding is also the antonym of naiveté. For all his erudition and brilliance, his intuitive gift for spasms of genius, naïve is decidedly what Oppenheimer was – a curse of foolishness which delivered him and all his achievements into the claws of a caste of people he could not comprehend and whose passions Oppenheimer could never quite translate; a passion for extermination, the ultimate extermination.