The ‘Troubling Reverberations’ at the End of Oppenheimer, Explained

Benny Safdie in Oppenheimer. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

In prerelease interviews and elsewhere, Christopher Nolan has talked about how shaken early viewers were by the ending of Oppenheimer. To some, these comments may have seemed like a bit of showmanship on the director’s part. But he wasn’t making it up, either. When I first saw Oppenheimer, I couldn’t leave the theater afterward for a while; I was frozen in my seat, unable to talk or think. Upon subsequent viewings, I witnessed others — even some famous faces — who were clearly rattled. One leaned against a wall, head down, sobbing. Even some in the cast and crew told me of similar experiences. “It blew my hair back,” Emily Blunt said. “I couldn’t talk to Chris after it. My mouth wasn’t working.” It’s no exaggeration to say that Oppenheimer has the most shattering ending of anything Nolan has made, and maybe even of any studio blockbuster in recent memory.

So, what exactly does happen at the end of Oppenheimer? Throughout the film, we see snippets of a meeting between Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer and Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein in 1947, when Oppenheimer was offered a job as the head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. The two men talk by a pond, as the wind picks up and droplets of rain slowly begin to fall. During our early glimpses of this meeting, we never hear what they say. (Robert Downey’s Lewis Strauss, who was looking on from a distance, is convinced that they were talking about him — part of a long list of petty grievances against Oppenheimer that would eventually lead Strauss to destroy the physicist’s reputation.)

Now, finally, we see the scene in full. Over the course of the film, Einstein has been perceived as an avuncular figure whose theory of relativity helped bring about the world of quantum physics, but who was too stuck in the past to really embrace it. Now, Einstein gently confronts Oppenheimer about this sentiment. “You all thought that I’d lost the ability to understand what I’d started,” he says. Then, he tells Oppenheimer that, in many ways, his time is also passing: “Now it’s your turn to deal with the consequences of your achievement.” He predicts that after the scientific Establishment tortures him enough, they’ll give Oppenheimer awards and arrange salmon dinners in his honor: “They’ll pat you on the back, tell you all is forgiven.” As he speaks, we see brief flashes forward of Oppenheimer as an old man, getting presidential awards, being fêted politely by old rivals. “Just remember, it won’t be for you,” Einstein adds. “It will be for them.” We see a middle-aged Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), whom we had seen earlier testifying against his old colleague at Oppenheimer’s security hearing, shake Robert’s hand. But Kitty Oppenheimer (Blunt) refuses to shake Teller’s. (This is something that happened in real life. Safdie told me that when he researched Teller’s life, he discovered that the physicist went home and cried over Kitty’s rejection.)

Now, however, comes the key moment, and the one that strikes the dark note that the film closes on. As Einstein turns to leave, Oppenheimer reminds him of an earlier conversation they had before the testing of the first atom bomb, when the Manhattan Project physicists were worried that the chain reaction caused by the atomic bomb might never end — that it could proceed to ignite the Earth’s atmosphere and destroy the planet.

“When I came to you with those calculations,” Oppenheimer tells Einstein, “we thought we might start a chain reaction that might destroy the entire world.”

“What of it?” Einstein asks.

“I believe we did,” Oppenheimer says.

As the camera closes in on his face, we cut to an array of modern-day nuclear missiles. (Look fast, and you might notice a sliver of Oppenheimer’s telltale silhouette in the corner of the frame.) Drifting among the clouds, we see vapor trails of nukes being fired through the air. We then see Oppenheimer, stuck inside a plane, watching the night sky lit up with rockets passing above — an image tied to a memory earlier in the film from David Dastmalchian’s William Borden, who recalled being in a plane watching German V-2 rockets headed toward England. We see explosions across the surface of the planet, their blast radiuses unspeakably vast. Then, a ring of fire begins to consume the Earth. The very last image of the film is Oppenheimer’s face in extreme close-up, staring at the droplets in the pond, and closing his eyes. Perceptive viewers might realize that these final frames echo the movie’s opening images, which were of the young Oppenheimer in close-up, looking at droplets of rain in a small pool of water.

It’s an astonishingly powerful ending, in part because it gives grim cinematic life to the generational fear that nukes are effectively Chekhov’s gun: a weapon introduced in an earlier act of our lives that will inevitably be used before our story ends. Nolan, like many of us, grew up under the specter of thermonuclear annihilation. It’s an old, defining fear that has been dormant in recent years, but it’s never really gone away, has it? Recent events in Russia and Ukraine have served as grisly reminders that we all remain just a hair trigger away from incinerating ourselves in a nuclear holocaust.

So, that’s the ultra-nihilistic reading. I did ask Nolan whether he’d anticipated this kind of reaction to the finale. “It’s the response I’d hoped for in terms of the strength of the reaction,” he said. “That specificity certainly wasn’t my intention.” Nolan doesn’t want to send messages with his work, and he’s adamant about never being didactic. But he did want, he says “a strong set of troubling reverberations at the end. And I felt strongly that if I did my job right, those would land differently with each individual watching the film and different audiences.”

In fact, there is something else happening during the Einstein scene if we watch closely, and it speaks to the psychology of the central character. Nolan has always liked to structure his screenplays around pivotal scenes in his protagonists’ lives, intimate moments that gather force as the characters obsessively return to them. In Interstellar (2014), for example, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper winds up returning to a quiet conversation he had with his young daughter before he left her for good; in Tenet (2020), Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat talks about seeing a woman diving off her abusive husband’s yacht, and envying that woman’s freedom; she later realizes that this was herself, having traveled back through time to kill her husband, who had himself circled back to this moment as a rare moment of happiness on which to destroy all time forever (long story); in Inception (2010), Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb keeps returning to the hotel room in which his wife killed herself.

Similarly, the conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein is this movie’s secret emotional fulcrum. Note that this conversation is occurring in 1947, just two years after the Trinity blast and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events which had turned Oppenheimer into one of the most important men of his time. At that point, he was still presumably riding high on his celebrity. The film’s twin, interwoven framing devices — Oppenheimer’s controversial security-clearance hearing in 1954 during the height of McCarthyism and Strauss’s Senate confirmation hearing in 1959 — happen years after this moment. During the security-clearance hearing, it is noted repeatedly by others that Oppenheimer is passive and hesitant. “Did you think that if you let them tar and feather you the world would forgive you?” his wife Kitty asks him, angrily.

Toward the end of the picture, Oppenheimer is grilled by attorney Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), who points out the hypocrisy of his not having any moral objections over the atomic bomb in 1945 but having them over the hydrogen bomb in subsequent years. (“Dr. Oppenheimer, when did your strong moral convictions develop with respect to the hydrogen bomb?” “When it became clear to me that we would use whatever weapon we had.”) As Robb flays him, the screen goes white and the walls start shaking, and the scene starts to feel like it might be happening inside Oppenheimer’s head. It very well might be. Over the years, he has been consumed by doubt, fear, and regret, but he’s failed to properly express it. (During a slideshow of Japanese A-bomb victims, he pointedly looks away.) In some ways, he’s now allowing himself to be punished through the security hearing. It’s a form of self-flagellation for not having spoken up sooner. Prometheus torturing himself.

But let’s think back to those droplets. Throughout the film, we’ve been given glimpses of Oppenheimer’s visions of the subatomic world, of the quantum reality that his studies have opened up. To convey this, Nolan cuts to images of waves, sparks, particles, ripples of water, shocks of fire, and beams of light. These snippets were critical for Nolan, and the first person he shared the script with after his producer Emma Thomas was Andrew Jackson, his visual-effects supervisor, who then went ahead and created experimental footage for the director to start working with.

These effectively become one of the psychological through-lines of the film. Early on, Oppenheimer notes that he was “troubled by visions of a hidden universe.” It’s only after Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) recommends that he go out into the world and expand his horizons that he begins to be able to control his visions. Right after the conversation with Bohr, we see a glorious montage of Oppenheimer looking at Cubist art, listening to avant-garde music, reading Modernist poetry, all the while throwing glass cups against a wall to study the breakdown of crystals. We also see him looking at small fires and clouds — images that will come back into play at the finale. As the capper to this montage, we see Oppenheimer cracking a rare smile, as if he’s finally wrested control over his visions and found a way to reconcile quantum theory with the world at large.

It all seems to come together during the Trinity explosion, when Oppenheimer stares into the blast and observes small bursts of sparks within the great canvas of atomic fire. It feels as if the physicist’s visions have now found a fearsome and concrete embodiment in real life. He has worked his way through the science and has found himself face to face with a mushroom cloud. The words Oppenheimer famously quoted from the Bhagavad Gita — “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds” — don’t just refer to the awesome power of the atomic bomb. They refer to himself, to his own capacity for death and destruction. (This impulse is foreshadowed during his first sexual encounter with Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock, when she makes him read those words. It’s clear that Oppenheimer blames himself for Tatlock’s death. If she did indeed commit suicide, he assumes she did it over their inability to be together. It’s also possible — as hinted by a flash of a black glove pushing her head down — that she was murdered by the government over security concerns around the Manhattan Project.)

After Trinity, Oppenheimer no longer has visions of the quantum world. He begins to see something else. In what might be the movie’s most powerful sequence, Oppenheimer gives a victory speech to a cheering Los Alamos crowd after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. A tense smile plastered to his face, he hesitates and seems paralyzed with indecision. He gets out a few words, but the walls shake and flashes of light begin to tear through the screen, much as they will later during the final Robb interrogation. He sees a young woman, her face stripping off in flakes as if she were made of paper. (A telling detail: The young woman is played by Flora Nolan, the director’s daughter.) Screams of joy become tears of anguish. A young couple making out becomes a young couple holding each other and crying in terror.

Note the way the sound of the crowd comes blasting in belatedly during this scene. It resembles the cutting of the Trinity explosion, where the sound was similarly delayed. “The whole film is about consequences,” Nolan told me when I asked him about this. “The delayed onset of consequences that people often forget — the film is full of different representations of that. Some visceral, some more narrative.” Editor Jennifer Lame confirmed that she and Nolan worked at trying to evoke Trinity with this scene. “It took a while to make those two feel a pair with each other. It’s such a fine line between just making them the same rather than making them feel they speak to each other,” she said. Of the speech’s relation to Trinity, she calls it “the evil stepsister to Trinity in a way, sound-wise, in the way we cut it.”

The speech also evokes a psychological reality Nolan uncovered as he worked on the picture. “As I immersed myself in Oppenheimer’s story, what I eventually came to is the realization that even though he never specifically apologized for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his actions the night after the bombing were the actions of somebody truly possessed by guilt, truly possessed by a desire to undo what he had done,” he said. “So I felt that in the telling, I wanted to be true to my interpretation of the interior turmoil he must have felt, how that would’ve manifested itself.”

After the Trinity explosion, Oppenheimer’s visions become almost exclusively ones of destruction, as if the chain reactions he imagined are continuing, growing ever larger and more apocalyptic. In other words, the connection he had made between theory and reality has been thoroughly poisoned and is now destroying him from within. During a meeting of the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, as others argue around him about the hydrogen bomb, the droplets he saw earlier become expanding blast radiuses on a map of the Soviet Union. As a young man, he had harnessed his own psychological demons by connecting quantum theory to the wonders of the modern world. “It’s so beautiful for him,” Lame told me. “Science to him is beauty and art and poetry. It just makes the movie so much more devastating at the end.”

Nolan’s closing images do serve as a warning and a portent of doom, and they are enormously moving as such. But they’re also one final glimpse into this character, revealing that in his mind at least, he has destroyed the world: He has destroyed his world, his very conception of reality. Where once he saw the astonishing connections that lay at the heart of all matter and even human relations, now he sees only horror and fire, of the destructive power that lies beneath the shape of all things.

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The ‘Troubling Reverberations’ at the End of Oppenheimer