Oppenheimer’s Most Poignant Scene Isn’t About Science

Trigger warning for mental health/suicide, and moderate spoilers.

Nolan is one of my favourite directors and he didn’t pull any punches on a complex issue. Here’s why Oppenheimer’s most poignant scene has nothing to do with science.

Oppenheimer's most poignant scene - nothing to do with science
Source: Universal Pictures

I recently wrote in my big “Oh Hai Everyone I Back From Paternity Leave And New Youngun Crazy Times” post last week that I was fortunate to get some time recently to go see Christopher Nolan’s newest movie, Oppenheimer. Ideally would have loved to do the Barbenheimer duo that most Americans were raving about for weeks, but I’m sure I’ll get to see the other side of the big movie day coin soon.

Nolan is my favourite director. As I highlighted in My Top 10 Favourite Movies Ever (Revisited) (and spoiler alert, the list before it), so many of Nolan’s movies are absolutely amazing to me. I think probably Momento and Dunkirk are the only ones that aren’t in my “WOW” category. But come on – The Prestige is Hugh Jackman’s best movie and an unreal premise, Inception and Interstellar were there to bend the fiction in science fiction, Tenet was one of the most creative things I’ve ever experienced, and the Batmans of course hold up exceptionally well and changed superhero movies forever. Even saw a bit of Man of Steel again recently where Nolan was a producer and he just bumps up the quality of everything he works on.

And so enter the political drama Oppenheimer, AKA American Prometheus The Movie. One of the best casts ever assembled, featuring many returning Nolan favourites such as Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon, with some incredibly understated but wildly powerful performances from Malek, Dehaan, Peck, Clarke, Downey Jr… so, so many.

There’s some big names missing off that list above – don’t worry, we’ll get to some more of them in a minute.

And it’s a very, very heavy and sombre look at the desperation of the world during World War 2. Uncertainty of Japanese surrender, uncertainty of Nazi and Soviet weaponry, uncertainty of what the US government would do with weapons of mass destruction, the tension, the drama, the cost, the the the the the the the the the the the the you get it.

Everyone seems to be talking about that ending. Funnily enough, the ending is right there in all the trailers. That moment with Einstein where Robert says, “When I came to you with those calculations, we thought we might start a chain reaction that might destroy the entire world… I believe we did“. And Nolan is famous for having a big twist ending in most of his movies – this time, the twist was not a movie based item, but human history itself, and our modern day state of affairs. Released 18 months into the ongoing invasion of Ukraine (and repeated threats to Georgia of further action) and State TV broadcasts regularly threatening the detonation of a nuclear missile in Kyiv, Berlin, London or under the ocean to flood the West Coast of the USA – it’s a crazy confronting existential epic.

And as powerful as that was, there is another crazy big part of the movie about this man’s life that stands out all the more with a lot to say.

Now I mentioned it above, but moderate spoilers and definite trigger warning regarding mental health/suicide to follow. Please proceed with wisdom based on your own circumstances.

It is probably worth noting that the film classification/rating does also specifically call out a suicide scene, and this is a biopic about a man from history, so maybe this isn’t as spoilery as it seems.

In that big list of who’s who that I missed a whole lot of names off of, you didn’t think I was going to leave out Florence Pugh or Emily Blunt did you? Because these women chart a very challenging, very real, very relatable to many thread that occurred in Robert’s life and had a profound shaping on who he was.

Florence plays a very troubled woman named Jean Tatlock, who some describe as Oppenheimer’s truest love. They were friends and lovers and she would regularly call him during bouts of depression or loneliness for his support and comfort, which he obliged well into his marriage to Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer.

But eventually, he recognises he is no longer the right person for her to keep reaching out to, and says he can no longer see her.

It is either in response to this perceived rejection or following this that we learn that Jean takes her life.

This is such a real, real pressure and moment for so many people, and Nolan and everyone involved was so bold to be willing to not shy away from this part of Robert’s life. The trauma and the heartbreak of it all is captured in very realistic detail.

It is a true tragedy when someone, anyone, feels so lost in life and loss that they see no other option available. Or even when the level of depression or anxiety is just so high in general, even if no further action takes place.

I am fortunate that I have never struggled with ideation, but I sure can relate to bouts with anxiety and depression in my own life, and I have had several people in my life of varying degrees of closeness that have used the S word a lot and I can totally relate with the pressure portrayed in this film (fortunately not currently).

But the other side of this very dark coin that Oppenheimer as a film went head on into, was the expectation that sometimes people in these boats put on the others in their lives.

Whether it’s on a single person like a lover or a spouse, or on a few people like children or parents or uncles or aunties, or on a tight group of friends, the film really challenges and boldly says something that many voices are unwilling to say.

It’s in a scene where Emily Blunt’s Kitty, who has had to be subjected to having Robert’s affair with Jean spilled out in trials and inquiries, confronts her distraught husband and says to him, “You don’t get to commit the sin and have others feel sorry for you when there are consequences.”.

She then proceeds to help him pull himself back together, and restores in him her trust and support, both in this scene, and throughout. He recalls multiple times that he kept trying to be there for Jean, and feels ultimately responsible for what happens, until what seems to be this series of confrontations, comforts, and ultimately defences of her husband’s personhood and value brings him back to life.

It also becomes understood that as much of a factor Robert no longer being available was in the decision, it was ultimately Jean’s to make, not Robert’s.

Ps. Emily Blunt definitely deserves an Oscar nod for this performance amongst the sea of amazing ones. She may have just played the best movie wife in history.

It’s a challenging, unglorified moment, like most of the movie, simply trying to show what happened.

And amongst all the pressures in Oppenheimer’s life, the pressure to be someone’s only support with the threat of death hanging over his head is one of the many the film conveys as being unfair.

And that’s probably because it is.

The truth is none of us are geared to be a person’s only support in life. And as many mental health support services rightly point out, having someone demand this of you and then threaten to kill themselves or guilt trip you without it can actually be a form of emotional abuse.

I remember times in my life feeling like if I wasn’t there for someone, I would lose them, especially when they would communicate to that effect. And I’ve also seen many people I know subjected to the same kind of quandaries.

And it is indeed a quandary, because the person making the threat is genuinely hurting.

And the truth is, it’s unfair for one person to shoulder all that weight. I’ll repeat that – it’s unfair for one person to shoulder all that weight.

And more broadly, it’s unfair for any one person to shoulder all of someone else’s emotional weight in general. Even if it isn’t a suicidal ideation, when we treat our lives like umbrellas (one support) instead of houses (multiple supports), there’s going to be hell to pay when the umbrella eventually collapses.

Because no person – not you, not me – can carry all the pain that someone does not get adequate help to address.

I’ve written a lot about this such as in Most People Stop Making Friends As They Get Older, or How The Root of Bitterness Destroys Relationships. As much as we value our immediate relationships, we and our marriages and our careers and our friendships and our families need way more than 1 to 4 people in order to flourish.

And so Jean’s portrayal in this film is powerfully realistic with Oppenheimer’s most poignant scenes not really being about bombs or science, but humans in flux, trying to find their place in this world, and what level of expectation we should have of each other.

In a film around Oppenheimer’s series of impossible choices, the decision to pull back from someone who demanded what could never be given certainly was as challenging and confronting to swallow as all the decisions around the Manhattan Project.

And in our lives, you and I may have to face similar “impossible” choices.

If you are experiencing ideation or even the threat of ideation from a loved one, get help. Both the person ideating and the person being threatened need support in such circumstances. It is usually a clear sign as it was in Oppenheimer’s life that clear boundaries were needed and violated repeatedly, producing a state where one or more people are definitely going to get hurt, the expectations and dynamics between the people isn’t at all healthy, and the right support and counselling/medication is also needed.

I know I had to take honest stock at varying points in my life at how dependent I had allowed people to become on me, and how much unrealistic weight I carried in trying to support well beyond my own means and at unsalvageable expense. I wonder if you can also relate to that.

And I absolutely think we are supposed to help shoulder each other’s burdens, for sure. I don’t think we should ditch people in need or close ourselves off to helping others. After all, You and I Know A Lot Of Great People, and serving others is life’s truest calling and highest honour.

But as the film questions, and we sometimes need to question, is the state of the relationship actually healthy? Or has it become enmeshed and unfair because one or multiple people refuse to get all the help they need from the right sources?

Oppenheimer felt so pressured to continue supporting Jean that he violated his own marriage vows to accommodate, creating more pain than originally existed and arguably possibly masking what was really needed. I wonder what this pressure is doing to your own decisions?

I hope this movie helps take a giant sword to cut off the blame and guilt from so many people who had people pressure them to be something they can’t be. I believe there is a Saviour, but it’s not me, and it’s not you. And I believe there are a variety of supports that all of us nee d to avoid crushing our loved ones and ourselves under the weight of things they are unable to carry.

Difficult, layered issue presented in a difficult, layered way. Oppenheimer’s most poignant scene really is a risky but powerful opportunity for all of us to reflect on how the pressures and despairs of one life can also affect so many others, and what everyone does from there is up to the individuals involved.

I am only truly responsible for my own life, and others are responsible for theirs

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