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What You Need to Know Before Watching 'Oppenheimer'

A quick guide to the most complicated masterpiece of the year

spinner image cillian murphy holding a pipe in his hand in a scene from the film oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Oppenheimer."
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer may be the smartest blockbuster movie ever made, but boy, is it confusing — and nuclear physics isn’t even the hardest thing to understand about it. The rapid-fire dialogue, vast cast of characters, multiple feuds and complicated issues come at you at the speed of light, and the hero is a wildly contradictory character. He's so weird you might think director Christopher Nolan must be making it up. But the portrayal is close to 100 percent true.

Here is some background that will give you a better shot at comprehending the most ambitious biopic of the year.

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spinner image cillian murphy working on a bomb in the film oppenheimer
Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer was the father of the atomic bomb.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientist who predicted black holes in 1939, and he directed the physicists who created the first atomic bombs, which helped end World War II. Then he said that he felt he had blood on his hands, advocated international nuclear disarmament and opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon 1,000 times more destructive than his A-bombs. So the government revoked his security clearance, booting him off his Atomic Energy Commission job.

spinner image cillian murphy wearing googles while looking into a hole emitting a bright light in the film oppenheimer
Universal Pictures

He thought H-bombs were a worse idea than A-bombs.

At first, he didn’t think H-bombs could work. When he realized they could, he thought that while A-bombs could repel a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, H-bombs would just obliterate cities, triggering a devastating arms race. He also naively thought the Soviets would sensibly agree to limit nukes at the peak of the Cold War.

spinner image emily blunt sitting on a couch behind cillian murphy as he is sitting in a chair at a desk in the film oppenheimer
Emily Blunt (left) stars as Kitty Oppenheimer, the wife of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer wasn't really a communist, as his persecutors claimed.

But his wife, brother, close friend and mistress were all communists or ex-communists, and during the ’50s Red Scare, if you hung out with commies — and in the ’30s had advocated a minimum wage, racial integration and fighting Fascists in Spain, as Oppenheimer had done — your career was in peril. Plus, Oppenheimer unknowingly hired a Russian spy for his A-bomb team, and had tried to protect a communist friend from government investigators.

spinner image robert downey junior in the film oppenheimer
Robert Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss in the film.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

His persecution was orchestrated by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Oppenheimer was even more arrogant and offensive than he is in the movie, repeatedly humiliating Atomic Energy Commission boss Lewis Strauss — who had appointed Oppie to direct Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein worked. Strauss asked FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to bug the man who gave us the bomb. But Strauss, a conservative self-made millionaire, sincerely feared that the left-leaning Oppenheimer might be a spy, and believed his opposition to H-bombs and advocacy of “candor” with Soviets played into our enemies’ hands.

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spinner image tom conti as albert einstein and cillian murphy as j robert oppenheimer in a scene from the film oppenheimer
Tom Conti (left) as Albert Einstein in "Oppenheimer."
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Oppie and Einstein were pals, but Einstein had doubts about the new quantum physics theories, which were incompatible with his, yet later confirmed by experiments.

Einstein and Oppie both thought the A-bomb was needed to stop Hitler — in fact, Einstein urged FDR to develop it (Einstein was so leftist, however, the U.S. didn’t trust him to help build it). Einstein was behind the times, because he refused to believe that the extremely bizarre new quantum physics of Heisenberg, Oppenheimer and others was true.

spinner image benny safdie and cillian murphy in a scene from the film oppenheimer
Benny Safdie (left) stars as Edward Teller.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Among the large parade of physicists in the movie, there are two more you need to know.

Werner Heisenberg was the German granddaddy of quantum physics. He tried to build an A-bomb for Hitler but was as incompetent at running the project as Oppenheimer was brilliant at it. Germany was the center of nuclear physics — that’s why Oppenheimer was scared Hitler would get the bomb first — and Heisenberg was stunned that America made one first.

Edward Teller, a physicist on Oppie’s Los Alamos team, found the A-bomb boring, threatened to quit, and demanded to work on an H-bomb (based on nuclear fusion, as opposed to A-bombs’ nuclear fission). He sided with Oppie’s accusers, got his own famous lab and became the father of the H-bomb (and was regarded as a villainous turncoat by half the scientists in America).

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Matt Damon (left) as Leslie Groves Jr.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer was pretty bizarre.

He delivered his first major academic lecture at 12 and learned Greek, Latin, French, German, Sanskrit and (in six weeks) Dutch so he could deliver a nuclear physics lecture. He cured his suicidal depression by reading Proust. He almost got booted from Cambridge University, probably for poisoning his teacher’s apple, retrieving it before the don could eat it and die. When his close friend attempted to cheer him up by saying he was getting married, Oppie tried to suffocate him. When teaching at the University of California, he took a date to the Berkeley Hills to enjoy the view, then wandered off and went home to bed, forgetting that she was still alone up in the hills. “I’m awfully erratic, you know,” he said. “I’m sorry.” In the film, his boss, Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon, 52), tells him, "You're a dilettante, you're a womanizer, unstable, theatrical, neurotic!"

spinner image cillian murphy in front of a cheering crowd in a scene from the film oppenheimer
Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

The movie does not depict the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but its moral crux is whether they were really necessary to end the war.

To learn more about the dilemma, watch the documentary Oppenheimer: The Decision to Drop the Bomb and read Evan Thomas’ new book, Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II. Thomas notes that Japan’s ruling military was not deterred by the A-bomb deaths of 200,000 of its citizens. The military was murdering 250,000 foreigners a month, and Gen. Korechika Anami told the Supreme War Council, “Would not it be wondrous for the whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?” Truman thought he’d have to drop a third A-bomb, perhaps on Tokyo.

But Japan’s emperor defied the military and decided to surrender. The night before he did so, soldiers frantically searched his palace to find and smash the recording of the announcement to be played on the radio. But he’d hidden the record in the room of the empress’ ladies in waiting. The next morning, the surrender was announced.

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