American Icarus: Color and Light in Nolan’s Oppenheimer
“Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” These words serve as the epigraph to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023), an epic biopic of the so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” It is an apt comparison: The book the film is based on is titled American Prometheus , and Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is referred to as such in the film, by fellow physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). But perhaps this association between Oppenheimer and the Olympian god of forethought is a misplaced one. In Nolan’s film, and through his visual language especially, Oppenheimer becomes more of an American Icarus, not a victim of divine punishment but of a self-inflicted one. The film portrays not only Oppenheimer’s role in creating the atomic bomb, but also his post-war fall from grace, when his security clearance is revoked due to his left-wing political beliefs. Oppenheimer’s story is largely framed by his rivalry with Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who served as chair of the Atomic Energy Commission while Oppenheimer served as chairman of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee. However, bitter disagreements between the pair, particularly surrounding the hydrogen bomb, led Strauss to orchestrate Oppenheimer’s security hearing. Nolan splits the film into two distinct sections, shown interchangeably throughout the film. The first, entitled “Fission,” is in color and follows Oppenheimer’s point of view. The second, entitled “Fusion,” is in black and white and follows Strauss’. Nolan explained to Total Film that the color scenes were “subjective” while the black and white ones “objective.” Nolan even wrote the color scenes in Oppenheimer’s first-person perspective, while the black and white scenes remain in the standard third-person. However, this does not mean that the color scenes are less truthful or that Oppenheimer is an unreliable narrator. Rather, subjectivity and objectivity define the morality and worldview of the two characters. The titles of the two sections, “Fission” and “Fusion,” and those two scientific processes at the heart of the film, further emphasize the differences between the two perspectives. To understand this, let us first examine the use of color versus black and white scenes in film, where black and white often represents reality while color often represents illusion, dreams, or abstraction. In The Wizard of Oz (1939), the ‘real world’ of Kansas is presented in black and white while the dreamland of Oz is depicted in full technicolor. Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) is mostly in black and white, but the tarot reading that opens the film, full of magical predictions that turn out to be false, is shot in color. More recently, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (2023) presents real life as black and white but the play-within-a-movie fills the screen with Anderson’s signature pastels. Oppenheimer follows the same format. We experience life in color, but we also experience life with our own subjective perspective. We experience life as self-centered. But history, politics, legacy? We can only really grasp these things (or could in the time of the film’s setting) through photographs, newspapers, and the like. We experience these in black and white. Throughout the film, Oppenheimer remains focused inward. In the studies of his youth, “troubled by visions of a hidden universe,” he concerns himself with immaterial theory and shuns material lab work. He commits to communist ideals, donates to communist causes, but refuses to join the Communist Party. He is a womanizer, cheating on his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) while expecting her forgiveness. He sees his scientific prowess as an excuse for his poor behavior. “Brilliance makes up for a lot,” he argues. Oppenheimer is instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, and does little to prevent its use on Japan. Yet, after the bombs are dropped he shows sudden remorse, laments his creation, preaches disarmament, and expects everyone to take these moral qualms seriously. Lewis Strauss, by contrast, is a shrewd politician, willing to “play the game” in order to get his way. Strauss is focused not on theory but on the global implications of the bomb. He understands the realities of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, the black-and-white framing of the war against Communism, and uses them to his advantage at every turn. He is focused on objectivity. His black and white scenes evoke a sense of the historical: newsreels, newspapers, real photographs from the era. This gives us a sense of Strauss’ own objective, historical focus. Where Strauss is concerned with the fusion of science and politics and legacy on a global scale, Oppenheimer is concerned with the fission of his own identity and mind into contradictory parts: womanizer and family man, the father of the bomb and its greatest critic. Oppenheimer wants a carefully shaped, selective legacy, Strauss explains, “to be remembered for Trinity, not Hiroshima, not Nagasaki.” Oppenheimer is caught up in his subjective, paradoxical, multicolored understanding of the world. His scenes give us a sense of the personal: life as we see it, biased and in living color. Additionally, Nolan uses the metaphor of the sun to enhance this divide between Oppenheimer and Strauss. The atomic bomb is often likened to the sun, with Oppenheimer himself describing the bomb’s power as the “fire of a thousand suns.” Strauss, defending his actions once it is revealed he was behind Oppenheimer’s ousting, explains that “amateurs seek the sun and get eaten, power stays in the shadows.” Oppenheimer “seeks the sun”—in both his ambition to be recognized for his brilliance and in his quest to harness the power of the atom—and is blinded by it. Strauss even asks how “a man who saw so much could be so blind.” When Oppenheimer’s introspective focus and refusal to consider greater consequences collide with real world implications, Nolan fills the screen with what the script calls “blinding daylight.” First, when Oppenheimer realizes for the first time the true horror of what he has unleashed after the bombings of Japan. Then, later, when Oppenheimer is confronted with his hypocrisy surrounding his moral qualms about the bomb at his security hearing. So just as Icarus’ downfall resulted from his flying too close to the sun, Oppenheimer’s fall from grace was of his own making. Nolan’s visuals and accompanying metaphors paint a precise picture of this fall. The American Icarus, however, was not cast down into the sea. Rather he was consumed, eaten, by the fire of a thousand suns. Benjamin Fishbein is a sophomore in the College studying History, Theology, and Film.