Strips of translucent, flesh-toned material tear off a woman’s face in one of the closing scenes of Oppenheimer, the new film about the invention of the atomic bomb. She represents its victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose skin was burned off in the blast.
Yet the reality in Japan was far more gruesome than the artful depiction in the film, which skirts around the human suffering caused by the bomb.
Instead, the blockbuster movie from director Christopher Nolan is a pacy look at the scientific quest led by the eponymous J Robert Oppenheimer in the US to build a nuclear weapon faster than the Nazis at the end of the second world war.
The film explores Oppenheimer’s moral quandary over his role in creating the most destructive weapon ever made, but nuclear disarmament campaigners fear its power to persuade people of the existential threat posed by nuclear arms may be diminished by its focus on scientific achievement.
“The overall impact of the film is unbalanced – people leave the theatre thinking how exciting a process it was, not thinking ‘God, this was a terrible weapon of mass destruction and look what’s happened today’,” said Carol Turner, a co-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s London branch.
“The effect of the [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] blasts was to remove the skin in a much more gory and horrible way – in the film it was tastefully, artfully presented. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you look at photographs of actual survivors and read accounts of what happened to them it was a very horrifying, gory death.”
She added that although it was historically accurate to portray Oppenheimer’s ethical doubts about his invention, and his subsequent persecution by the US government, in effect this turned him into the film’s hero.
Despite these reservations, Turner considers it positive that the film is drawing people’s attention to the “real and present danger” of nuclear weapons arising from the Russia-Ukraine war, especially at a time when there is limited public discussion, for example the comparative silence around the storage of US nuclear weapons in the UK, relative to the outrage of past decades.
Diédre Paterno Pai, a manager at Pax Sapiens, an NGO specialising in armed conflict, said: “I don’t know that the general public understands how easy it could be to fall into a nuclear conflict. And the groups working to prevent that from happening are not front and centre in the way that climate change or other existential threats are.”
Sebastian Brixey-Williams, the executive director of the Basic thinktank, hoped the film could help reverse the virtual absence of the nuclear debate from the arts over the past three decades, which has engendered a “deep sense of apathy” among the public.
“The universe is calling for people to start doing this kind of film. In some ways it’s quite elegant because it’s not looking at some of these issues directly, but asking more reflective questions about nuclear weapons – and that internal struggle Oppenheimer faced really plays out at a societal level. They are difficult trade-offs to make,” he said.
“Nuclear weapons are becoming part of the international conversation again and that’s a double-edged sword. I’m glad they are, but this is because nuclear risks are rising,” he added, citing recent US and Russian exits from cold war-era arms control treaties in combination with China’s nuclear arms buildup as reasons for the escalating threats.
Brixey-Williams hopes the film will spur members of the public to campaign on nuclear issues, for example by showing their support for multilateral negotiations on deep cuts to nuclear arsenals, or for the rights of Indigenous communities affected by weapons testing and uranium mining.
He said: “The human story about Oppenheimer is a useful way into that – it throws down the gauntlet for NGOs like us to give people the tools to respond. [Nuclear weapons] are as out of control as the climate emergency is, but it’s just getting much, much less attention.”