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please note - this article contains images that some may find distressing

'Oppenheimer' looks a front-runner for the Oscars this year. Some predict that the film may eventually take a billion dollars at the box office -

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer begins work on the top-secret 'Manhattan Project'. His team of scientists spend years developing and designing the atomic bomb. Their work comes to fruition on July 16, 1945, as they witness the world's first nuclear explosion.

The explosion is so fearsome that Oppenheimer would famously claim that a line from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, ran through his head: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Less than a month later, the Americans drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in an instantaneous flash of monumental destruction. The rationale for such an attack is simple. The Americans believe that without such a spectacular show of force, the Japanese would never surrender.

But Oppenheimer is haunted by the mass destruction and fatalities. He expresses feelings of his personal guilt to Truman but the president dismisses the physicist and his request to stop further development of the bomb.

After public humiliation at the hands of the establishment witch hunters who accuse Oppenheimer of Communist sympathies, he is eventually re-instated and finally left to reflect that his life work has put the world on an arms race that may one day destroy it.

...And so, after a running time of three hours, the movie 'Oppenheimer' closes; the story of a man who created a bomb that delivered its destructive force through a nuclear reaction that took less than a millionth of a second to deliver a blistering cloud of radiation, exploding with tens of millions of degrees of heat; spreading rapidly outwards from the epicentre at the speed of sound - creating a blast wave that destroyed all before it.

A nuclear weapon is appalling, its consequences truly horrific. Perhaps this is the reason 'Oppenheimer' - despite its star-billing and huge box office - has still not been released in Japan. The decision to screen what amounts to a sympathetic portrait of the man who brought such destruction and pain to the country is an understandably difficult one for any Japanese film distributor to make a call on.

A different dilemma faced the American forces occupying Japan in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Great efforts were made to suppress all images of the consequence of the Nuclear bombs - fearing that such would turn the American public against the weapon.

LIFE magazine - which was effectively the internet of the day, did not publish many of the photos that came back from Hiroshima. The images were considered too horrific by the magazine's editors - and, it was rumoured, there was also a secret directive from the establishment not to publish anything too 'upsetting'. America was shifting into its 'Cold War' with Russia and the Nuclear deterrent was something neither side was about to give up.

Reporters such as Bernard Hoffman, sent their reports without knowing what would actually be read by the public -

Carl Mydans, one of the founding photographers of LIFE magazine, took photographs of some of the survivors of the bombings. His most traumatic images were never published in LIFE magazine - and remain difficult viewing to this day.

Hiroshima bomb survivor - photo by Carl Mydans

Hiroshima bomb survivor - photo by Carl Mydans

Hiroshima bomb survivor - photo by Carl Mydans

The long and awful pacific war also has an archive of the dreadful suffering of the American GIs who fought island by island towards their ultimate objective of the island of Japan.

For most historians and, I guess, film makers like Christopher Nolan, there are no easy answers when it comes to the question of whether the bombs should have been dropped at all.

Japanese photojournalist, Yoshito Matsushige, is the only known photographer who caught images on the day of the bombing of Hiroshima. he was so traumatised that he only took seven frames on that day.

This is his image of schoolchildren having their burns soothed in oil after the bomb. Yoshito thought at first that it was the children's clothing that was hanging - but it was their skin; flayed by the force of the bomb.

Yoshito's negatives - washed in the radioactive waters of Hiroshima had degraded significantly by the time they came to be printed.

'Oppenheimer' is a remarkable film but I can't help thinking that it is a film that somehow sidesteps the true consequence of releasing such a horrific force on people. In the three hours the film takes to play out, we come to understand that Oppenheimer feels profound guilt for the consequences of his bomb and we are invited to find sympathy for his vilification by the establishment and then relief at his final re-instatement.

...But we, the audience, are not asked to face the images of the true destruction of Oppenheimer's bomb. The film alludes to the reality of the full force of the bomb in various ways in several scenes but we, like Cillian Murphy's Oppenheimer, are never made to directly face the true horror.

Perhaps this is why Japanese distributors are so reluctant to show the film. The latest news is that 'Oppenheimer' will be screened in Japan some time in March this year - more than seven months after its global release last year.

I will be fascinated to see how the film is received in Japan.

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman 2024

Images copyright their respective estates

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1 Comment

Feb 17

Great write up of a great film and I agree with you that it missed out on the opportunity of showing more of the full horrendous impact on humanity…terrific that it it was filmed with analogue film, especially the IMAX B & W and would have loved to have seen it in it’s original format at an IMAX Cinema, I hope that the use of this format will also feature in the awards

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