Red Flags

This controversy is perfect. This post is sloppy.

Among my favourite scenes in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer,’ (2023) is of the small rally held to mark the successful detonation of the first atomic weapon. It’s brief, focused, and gives us a deeper sense of the man we have come to see.

The scene became minor news on the film’s release. Anachronistic flags. Although highlighting that note robs this crucial moment of its perfection, it is factually accurate. I don’t believe it was a mistake.

Moments after news reaches Los Alamos of the successful mission to Japan, Oppenheimer addresses a group of men and women assembled in the base gymnasium. It’s an emotionally turbulent moment. The crowd is energetic yet subdued.

The audience in theater, Oppenheimer, the crowd on screen, all of us know what’s supposed to happen. They want triumphalist speechifying. Oppenheimer does his best to give it to them, and truthfully.

We watch him strive to meet their expectations–awkward, resistant, but only just. He offers them platitudes. He performs. He engages them as they want him to, carefully walking a line he himself has defined.

By this time, we believe we know Robert Oppenheimer. Throughout the film we’ve observed him navigating the world at large, and the microcosm of war-time service, balancing throughout his personal and professional duties. He’s grown adept at offering the effective response and the correct answer. Doing the ‘done thing’ is only another process–the result of a personal calculation, a formula.

As the crowd cheers, frenzied, Oppenheimer exchanges the material world of the present for a hypothetical one. He transposes the effects of this new weapon onto the crowd, living for a brief moment in the space where theoretical, probable, and factual intersect.

We live in a time which has trained us to abandon subtext, recite opinion, adopt slang, and shout slogans. Imposed on us are the expectations of the mob, the crowd, those who would reduce an entire life to one moment, one statement, one act, one word.

This scene catalyzes a shift in our understanding of the man–but later, only as the final act of the film returns us to the film’s present. With a deeper analysis, and within the context of the times in which he lived, Oppenheimer is revealed to be significantly more difficult to measure than we’d perhaps believed. We are forced to look in new ways for understanding, to imagine and theorize this man’s character.

The minor controversy around flags was almost lost amidst the Barbenheimer hysteria. People had spotted this inconsistency, and it seemed important. Some, no doubt, felt slighted by the issue. Flags are an identity. Nevertheless, they were wrong for the era but right for the scene.

In the end, Oppenheimer cannot be understood only through his actions. Nor can we understand him without weighing his decisions, beliefs, and behaviour. It is necessary to consider an interplay of forces in making it possible to see the man for who he was. If we try to understand him only through his weaponization of the basic forces of the universe, we’ll fail.

By the end of the film, Oppenheimer is still an enigma. We see him, but he isn’t there. The truth, as we are able to perceive it, is akin to the primal forces we’ve seen him grapple with.

We’ve inherited a series of worlds built on the foundations of his work. Atomic weapons are established in history. The Second World War is an idea, a cultural artifact rather than a living memory. From our perspective in time, Oppenheimer is the mystery.