Power & Market

Oppenheimer: Historical Drama, Subversive Horror

On the eve of its opening, I had the pleasure of viewing Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer with the Mises Summer Fellows. Despite what the trailers may lead one to believe, this movie is about much more than the bomb. It is about minds, wits, power, and politics. Oppenheimer is the focus of a much larger story unfolding in front of viewers, involving the role of ethics in scientific discovery, Presidential cabinet struggles, the Cold War, and of course, the story of the development of the atomic bomb.

I have quarrels with the performance of Robert Downey Jr., who seemingly does not know how to act as anyone other than himself. Cillian Murphy gave a decent performance of the promiscuous scientist and alleged communist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer confronts viewers with two significant issues: the importance of a normative vision in a positive scientific quest and the horror of the atomic bomb.

The central theme of the movie is Oppenheimer’s struggle with the morality of his involvement in the development of the bomb. As Austrians, we must ask ourselves why we engage in value-free economic science. Doing value-free economics is a way of describing the created order. There is nothing necessarily wrong in doing value-free economics. Scientific law is morally neutral.

However, what we do with positive economics has moral implications. For example, a purely positive, means-ends analysis for Stalin on the most effective way to deport Kulaks to Siberia is possible, however one cannot claim to be morally neutral in doing this. The value-free analysis is used in a way which has drastic moral implications, namely, the mass murder of innocent souls. This same principle applies to Oppenheimer.

1st Corinthians 13:2 states, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” We cannot merely pursue science on its own, as science does not tell us what is morally upstanding. This is not to say that economics is immoral, but that we must recognize that knowledge must be directed toward the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Simply doing science for its own sake is dead.

Of course, what would Oppenheimer be without an atomic bomb? Throughout the movie, scenes are interrupted by cuts of an atomic blast. Despite what the trailer may lead people to think, Oppenheimer’s atomic explosion is portrayed much more like a horror film than a typical Hollywood action movie. One member of our party stated that he covered his ears, expecting the climatic drop of the bomb to be deafeningly loud. However, it was not. During the test, all that is heard is breathing coming from a previous scene in the movie. The blast was virtually silent. I think of no better way to portray the absolute destruction of a nuclear weapon than this. The silence is indeed deafening. 

Despite some historical inaccuracies and seemingly leftist sympathies, Oppenheimer is worth the price of admission. Even if you do not particularly enjoy Christopher Nolan’s work (which this film is unlike any other he has made), Oppenheimer makes viewers grapple with important questions that any intelligent person could appreciate. The movie ends with Oppenheimer seeing a future of nuclear destruction. We should pray that Oppenheimer's vision is not prophetic.

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