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Christopher Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' sweeps Golden Globes

Philipp Jedicke
January 8, 2024

In the award-winning biopic, director Nolan focuses on one of the most controversial physicists in modern history, also known as the "father of the atomic bomb."

The character of J. Robert Oppenheimer pulls down the brim of his hat as he walks through a row of photographers
The film stars actor Cillian Murphy as J. Robert OppenheimerImage: Universal Pictures/AP/picture alliance

Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" dominated the Golden Globes on Sunday, taking five prizes, including best drama, best director for Nolan, best score, as well as acting wins for Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr.

Emma Thomas, the film's producer and Nolan's wife, noted that the three-hour epic about "one of the darkest developments in our history" is "unlike anything anyone else is doing." 

The story of the 'father of the atomic bomb'

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. He was a US physicist and a key figure in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program that was responsible for developing the atomic bomb during World War II. At times, nearly 150,000 people were involved directly or indirectly in it.

Oppenheimer, the son of German Jewish parents, grew up in a wealthy family and developed an extraordinary interest in the natural sciences at an early age. He studied physics at Harvard University and received his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in 1929.

In the 1930s, Oppenheimer worked at various scientific institutions and made significant contributions to theoretical physics. In his research, he focused particularly on quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and the theory of neutron stars.

Actor Cillian Murphy in a scene from the film 'Oppenheimer' wearing lab glasses and observing something through a round glass window.
The film highlights the moral quandaries faced by Oppenheimer in his workImage: Universal Pictures

The Manhattan Project

In the late 1930s, several Jewish scientists who had fled Europe believed that nuclear fission could be used by the Nazis to build bombs. They convinced the most famous physicist of the time, Albert Einstein, who had also emigrated to the United States, to write a letter to then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to forewarn him. Given the intelligence reports and perhaps Einstein's letter, the decision was made to push for the development of an atomic bomb. The race against Nazi Germany began.

In 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed scientific director of the Manhattan Project. He assembled a team of scientists who worked day and night to develop this breakthrough technology.

The main base of the Manhattan Project was Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. There, Oppenheimer coordinated the scientific work on the atomic bomb and overcame numerous technical challenges through his extensive knowledge of the subject.

Moral dilemma

On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear explosion was successfully carried out in a test near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Oppenheimer was present at this historic event. The magnitude of the destructive power of "his" atomic bomb both moved and shook him deeply. He later quoted a line from the Indian poem "Bhagavad Gita" (Song of the Exalted Self): "Now I am become death, the Destroyer of worlds."

Black and white picture of J. Robert Oppenheimer wearing a suit and smoking a pipe.
Oppenheimer oversaw the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb Image: World History Archive/picture alliance

Oppenheimer was instrumental in building the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the war in 1945, causing widespread death and devastation. But he was so shocked by the consequences of his scientific work that he started to speak out against further bomb development. In fact, after the war he became one of the harshest critics of arms policies.

The American Prometheus

Oppenheimer was a brilliant and controversial figure who has inspired biographies, documentaries, series and even an opera. 

The new film "Oppenheimer," written, co-produced and directed by star director Christopher Nolan ("Inception," "Dunkirk" and "Tenet") is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin.

Nolan is no stranger to producing blockbusters. His films have grossed more than $5 billion (€3.03 billion) worldwide and received a total of 11 Oscars and 36 nominations, including two for Best Picture.

"What I wanted to do was take the audience into the mind and the experience of a person who sat at the absolute center of the largest shift in history, " Nolan said in a Universal Pictures press release. "He made the world we live in — for better or for worse. And his story has to be seen to be believed. It's full of contradictions and ethical quandaries, and that's the kind of stuff that always interests me."

Nolan wanted to tell the story of someone who was involved in highly destructive events that happened for the right reasons, from the person's perspective.

'Oppenheimer' director Christopher Nolan and producer Emma Thomas each holding a Golden Globe award.
'Oppenheimer' director Christopher Nolan and producer Emma Thomas, winners of the Best Motion Picture - Drama Golden GlobeImage: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Star-studded film

Cillian Murphy ("Peaky Blinders," "Inception") plays J. Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt ("A Quiet Place") plays his wife, biologist and botanist Katherine (Kitty) Oppenheimer.

Matt Damon stars as General Leslie Groves Jr, head of the Manhattan Project. Robert Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss, a member, and later chairman, of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh round out the star cast.

On top of this, Nolan creates a visual masterpiece using some of the highest resolution film cameras that exist. The feel is of a 3D film without the glasses.  The scenes told from Oppenheimer's perspective were shown in color, while those focusing on his dispute later with Lewis Strauss are in black and white.

Actors Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy und Florence Pugh at the 'Oppenheimer' film premiere in London.
The cast includes (from left) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy und Florence Pugh Image: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/picture alliance

Persecuted in the McCarthy Era

"Oppenheimer" also tells the story of postwar US, with the scientist later committed to promoting international cooperation and advocated nuclear disarmament.

During the Cold War, he was targeted by the FBI and senator Joseph McCarthy. In one of the film's key scenes, Oppenheimer is cited before the US Senate Atomic Energy Committee for his political views and past ties to communist sympathizers, based on true events in 1954.

There was no proof of him being guilty. And though Oppenheimer posed no security risk, he was stripped of his security clearance, which led to his expulsion from the scientific community.

A black and white still from the film 'Oppenheimer,' in which the lead character played by Cillian Murphy sits at a table, speaking into a microphone, in a room full of somber looking men in suits.
Oppenheimer went from being a hero to persona non grata after World War IIImage: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer continued working as a physicist and professor after the 1950s. In 1963, he received the Enrico Fermi Prize for his contributions to the theoretical physics of the atomic energy program as reparation for the discrimination he had experienced under McCarthy, Lewis Strauss and President Eisenhower. By then, he had become a symbol of the conflict between morality, science and politics.

Throughout his life, Oppenheimer remained an influential figure in physics. His final position was as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he died on February 18, 1967. His legacy remains controversial to this day.

Nolan's biopic explores the inner conflicts of one of the 20th century's most defining figures, whose scientific achievements and moral reflections have shaped how we understand nuclear weapons and their impact on society.


This article was originally written in German.

It was first published for the release of the film on July 17, 2023 and was updated following the Golden Globes award ceremony.