Should Oppenheimer Have Shown WW2 Bombings Of Japan? Original Book Author Responds

Summary

  • Author Kai Bird believes that showing old news clips of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Oppenheimer would have trivialized the devastation caused by the atom bomb.
  • Christopher Nolan has his own explanation for not showing the bombings, stating that the film’s point-of-view dictated that the audience never sees the devastation.
  • While Bird’s point is well-taken, it is unclear whether a different method could have been used to visualize the horror of the bombings without being exploitative or disrespectful.

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The author of the book upon which Oppenheimer was based answers whether the film should have shown the World War II atomic bombings of Japan. Christopher Nolan’s 2023 blockbuster biopic on the father of the atom bomb was always going to be controversial, given its explosive subject-matter. It’s no surprise then that many arguments have sprung up around the film, including a heated debate about Nolan’s decision to focus on the creation of the atom bomb, but not show the devastating result of the super-weapon being used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Another voice has now been added to the ongoing Oppenheimer debate about whether to show the bombings themselves, as Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, has given his take on the controversy. Appearing along with Nolan and producer Emma Thomas from The Graduate Center, SUNY, Bird gave his reasons why he believes it was the correct call not to show the devastation wrought upon Japan as a result of Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project. Check out his remarks below (around 36:06 of the clip):

In particular, I know a few critics have suggested that somehow the film should have shown what happened to people on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I personally, I disagree. I think that if you had shown old news clips of the devastated city of Hiroshima taken a few weeks after the bombing, it would’ve trivialized what had happened. All you see are these broken buildings.

Nolan Has His Own Explanation For Not Showing The Bombings In Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer celebrating in front of an American flag

The author of the Oppenheimer book that inspired Nolan’s biopic has now weighed in on one of the movie’s biggest controversies, but Nolan himself has already given his own reasons for not showing the bombings. Speaking after a screening of the movie back in July, Nolan explained how the film’s particular point-of-view dictated that the audience never see the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (via IndieWire):

We know so much more than he did at the time. He learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio, the same as the rest of the world.

Oppenheimer does indeed take a very subjective point-of-view for much of its run, at times literally depicting the inner-workings of its subject’s mind via practically-achieved effects meant to evoke the chaos of quantum physics and of Oppenheimer’s thoughts. On the other hand, the film does also feature objective scenes, shot in black-and-white, that tell the story beyond Oppenheimer’s own perspective, so presumably Nolan could have included the bombings had he deemed it worthwhile.

Bird’s point about not trivializing the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by employing the tired docudrama technique of showing old newsreel footage is well-taken, but it doesn’t answer whether a different method could have been employed to visualize the horror wrought by the bombs. Given the amount of imagination deployed throughout the rest of Oppenheimer, it seems Nolan could have come up with some way to show the effect of the bombings, without it seeming exploitative or disrespectful.

Source: The Graduate Center, SUNY/YouTube

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