A guest post on Variety.com on Feb 24, 2024

Christopher Nolan called Robert Oppenheimer “the most important person who ever lived.”

It’s hard to know how he would have responded. Pleased with the recognition, modest demurral, or a caustic retort?  

What we do know: he certainly felt his work and the significance of it — and felt the weight of it. As he described it: “We knew the world would never be the same.” He spent the rest of his life trying to share that insight with the world.

It’s possible that the re-awakening of the story, the re-telling of the myth of Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan and the cast could tip the scales, ever so slightly in the direction of survival — at this critical, unstable time in the world. Where we need to look to our ancestors for guidance. We still have time to listen to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s message, his principles, and even his specific policy advice.

One of the reasons that “Oppenheimer” is such a success is that it touched a nerve, and deep need in society: Can we learn from this lesson? Can we take representations from art and history, learn from them, and help shape our future in the real world, today? There is a chance that can happen — that the effect of this movie is a sparking of dialog, actions, and eventually real-world change. It is rare for a movie to be able to do that, but this is one such case.

Nolan used the artists’ tools to bring this story of JRO forward to millions. “Oppenheimer” has a mostly neutral take, asking the audience: What would you do? Would you join a war in America in 1942? Would you have used your skills to make the most powerful weapon in the world? Would you have done everything you could to try to sway policy after the war, to avoid an arms race, irrespective of the chances of success? And most effectively and frighteningly: How will this all turn out?

I believe Robert Oppenheimer would approve of this approach. He had a deep love for art, literature, and philosophy, not just science. In his essay “Prospects in the Arts and Sciences,” he compared the plight of scientists and artists, and the duty of art to bring specialized knowledge to a wide audience.

“The artist depends on a common sensibility and culture, on a common meaning of symbols, on a community of experience and common ways of describing and interpreting it. He need not write for everyone or paint or play for everyone. But his audience must be man; it must be man and not a specialized set of experts among his fellows.

His story tells of the central role we all have. The ability we have to affect the world — be prime movers. JRO’s leadership was so effective that thousands who followed him couldn’t imagine that the Manhattan Project could have succeeded without him. But his story is also of one swept along in the cosmic flow — the bomb would certainly have been made without him, at some point. His story is one of a hero, who rises to a challenge and succeeds unexpectedly; and also that a hero can fail tragically, be misunderstood, be subject to the low, crass, self-interested side of human nature, of tawdry rumors and politics, be attacked, to be canceled.

The movie tackles an incredible scope of history — and it’s difficult to fit everything in. I was impressed by the crafting of each scene, compressing years of history into one phrase that is supported by historical fact. I have had people tell me: “I’ve never done so much research into a topic after seeing a movie.” That is the exact effect we need, awakening thought and discussion of the deep history — but even more so the applicability to today’s problems.

An area that did not fit into the three-hour timeline was much of JRO’s policy work between 1945 and 1954. As a family member, I am trying to promote his actual policy advice, which called for more international cooperation as an antidote to modern risks. I believe we have to act — with our abilities and flaws, to have the courage to be considered a hero or villain in the scope of history. To advocate and fight for the right side of the Oppenheimer prophecy.

And if we get closer to that, it would certainly make it the most important movie ever made.

“The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand.” 

— J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oct. 16, 1945

Charles Oppenheimer is the grandson of J. Robert Oppenheimer and a founding partner of the Oppenheimer Project, a nonprofit organization committed to honoring the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and advancing a safer future in the face of technological change.