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History Meets Popular Culture

A Cinematic Exploration of the Atomic Bomb's Legacy 

By: Aldo Bautista 

The anticipation surrounding Christopher Nolan's latest film, "Oppenheimer," is not only due to his directorial prowess but also because of the profound and lasting impact it highlights—the creation of the atomic bomb. In this article, we delve into the cinematic portrayal of this pivotal historical event and examine how it continues to shape our world today. 

Historical Context & Contemporary Relevance 

To fully grasp the significance of the film, Oppenheimer, we must first understand the historical backdrop of the film. The development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II marked a seismic shift in human history both literally and figuratively. Notably, figures like J. Robert Oppenheimer played a central role in its creation. The bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with respective human populations of over 200,000, stand as immediate consequences of this scientific innovation. 

 The film "Oppenheimer" bridges the gap between the past and the present, drawing parallels with the current global landscape. Global superpowers like North Korea and Russia still maintain nuclear arsenals, invoking the principle of mutually assured destruction to maintain a fragile peace. The United States and Russia possess the largest combined nuclear weapon stockpile, estimated at over 10,000, and the shadow of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looms large today over major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. 

Daniel Sanchez, a history teacher at G.H.S., offered these insights into the continued impact of the atomic bombings: "About 200,000 civilians were killed after the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Japan. Not only was this devastating to the population, but it also helped end WW2." Sanchez emphasized the long-lasting effects of the bombing, saying, "Even today, you have countries like Russia and North Korea threatening to use nuclear weapons." It is therefore no surprise that as "Oppenheimer" was released in theaters, critics in Japan raised concerns about its treatment of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and its portrayal of the "father of the atomic 

bomb." Some found the movie's timing, with its release just weeks before the anniversary of the bombings, to be potentially disrespectful. 

   Understanding the mechanics of nuclear bombs provides crucial context for interpreting their impact. Nuclear bombs alter atomic cores, releasing an immense amount of energy in the form of heat, which rapidly transforms into a devastating explosion. Bernie Barge, a physics and engineering teacher at GHS, explained, "Nuclear weapons are generally measured in Kilotons or megatons. One kiloton is the energy released by one thousand tons of TNT, and one megaton is the energy released by one million tons of TNT." These effects are why even states in the U.S., where Nuclear Bombs were tested, are still dealing with the aftereffects of those tests. According to Hedden, Adrian. "Lawmakers Demand Reparations for New Mexicans Imperiled by Nuclear Bomb Testing." Carlsbad Current-Argus, [2022, September], communities in New Mexico still grapple with the consequences of atomic bomb testing. Decades later, locals continue to face fallout and are engaged in battles for compensation from the federal government.

Photo Courtesy of Universal Studios

The Movie's Approach 

Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" is a masterful exploration of the complex moral and ethical dimensions surrounding the atomic bomb's creation. Through his unique cinematic style and storytelling techniques, the film offers viewers a nuanced perspective on the events of that era. "Oppenheimer" distinguishes itself from many contemporary films in significant ways. In an era when CGI (computer-generated imagery) dominates the cinematic landscape, "Oppenheimer" stands out for its decision not to use any CGI. Nolan, the film's director, deliberately chose this approach because he believed that using CGI would have made the film feel "too safe," as he explained to National Geographic. As a result of this approach, "Oppenheimer" is a testament to the artistry of cinematography and visual filmmaking. The film incorporates only 100 VFX (visual effects) shots. VFX involves creating visuals through a combination of live-action shots and digital imagery, while CGI is primarily used for creating digital images, animations, videos, and other digital media. By minimizing CGI and emphasizing practical effects and visual storytelling, "Oppenheimer" showcases the power of traditional filmmaking techniques. 

    These deliberate choices by Christopher Nolan and the filmmaking team demonstrate their commitment to authenticity and a desire to bring a unique cinematic experience to the audience. 

At the heart of the movie are themes of ethics and morality. The characters' dialogue and actions serve as a reflection of the ethical dilemmas faced by those involved in the atomic bomb project.  The creation and use of atomic bombs sparked discussions on nuclear proliferation, arms control, and ethical considerations. These events leave an indelible mark on international relations, nuclear disarmament efforts, and the awareness of the catastrophic potential of nuclear warfare. The legacy of atomic bombs endures, shaping our world in ways we may not always recognize.

Educational Potential 

It is evident that the film has immense educational potential, particularly in history classes. Just as movies like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or Schindler’s List introduce young people to the historical events and moral cost of the Holocaust, "Oppenheimer" can serve as an educational tool. If shown in high school classes, the movie offers students a deeper understanding of the origins of the atomic bomb and the moral and ethical implications that continue to shape our world today. Oppenheimer is not merely a cinematic masterpiece but a powerful reminder of the enduring impact of the atomic bomb. As we reflect on its portrayal of history, we must also contemplate the lessons it imparts for our world both today and tomorrow.