‘Oppenheimer’ Review: The Dharma of Death

Early in the morning of July 16, 1945, before the sun had risen over the northern edge of New Mexico’s Jornada Del Muerto desert, a new light—blindingly bright, hellacious, blasting a seam in the fabric of the known physical universe—appeared. The Trinity nuclear test, overseen by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, had filled the predawn sky with fire, announcing the viability of the first proper nuclear weapon and the inauguration of the Atomic Era. According to Frank Oppenheimer, brother of the “Father of the Bomb,” Robert’s response to the test’s success was plain, even a bit curt: “I guess it worked.”

With time, a legend befitting the near-mythic occasion grew. Oppenheimer himself would later attest that the explosion brought to mind a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Hindu scripture: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” Later, toward the end of his life, Oppenheimer plucked another passage from the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Christopher Nolan’s epic, blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer prints the legend. As Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) gazes out over a black sky set aflame, he hears his own voice in his head: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The line also appears earlier in the film, as a younger “Oppie” woos the sultry communist moll Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). She pulls a copy of the Bhagavad Gita from her lover’s bookshelf. He tells her he’s been learning how to read Sanskrit. She challenges him to translate a random passage on the spot. Sure enough: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (That the line comes in a postcoital revery—a state of bliss the French call la petite mort, “the little death”—and amid a longer conversation about the new science of Freudian psychoanalysis—is about as close to a joke as Oppenheimer gets.)

As framed by Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, Oppenheimer’s cursory knowledge of Sanskrit, and Hindu religious tradition, is little more than another of his many eccentricities. After all, this is a guy who took the “Trinity” name from a John Donne poem; who brags about reading all three volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital (in the original German, natch); and, according to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biography, American Prometheus, once taught himself Dutch to impress a girl. But Oppenheimer’s interest in Sanskrit, and the Gita, was more than just another idle hobby or party trick.

In American Prometheus, credited as the basis for Oppenheimer, Bird and Sherwin depict Oppenheimer as more seriously committed to this ancient text and the moral universe it conjures. They develop a resonant image, largely ignored in Nolan’s film. Yes, it’s got the quote. But little of the meaning behind it—a meaning that illuminates Oppenheimer’s own conception of the universe, of his place in it, and of his ethics, such as they were.

Composed sometime in the first millennium, the Bhagavad Gita (or “Song of God”) takes the form of a poetic dialog between a warrior-prince named Arjuna and his charioteer, the Hindu deity Krishna, in unassuming human form. On the cusp of a momentous battle, Arjuna refuses to engage in combat, renouncing the thought of “slaughtering my kin in war.” Throughout their lengthy back-and-forth (unfolding over some 700 stanzas), Krishna attempts to ease the prince’s moral dilemma by attuning him to the grander design of the universe, in which all living creatures are compelled to obey dharma, roughly translated as “virtue.” As a warrior, in a war, Krishna maintains that it is Arjuna’s dharma to serve, and fight; just as it is the sun’s dharma to shine and water’s dharma to slake the thirsty.


Author: showrunner