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Why Oppenheimer Didn't Show the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

"To depart from Oppenheimer’s experience would betray the terms of the storytelling."

By Josh Weiss

The R-rating given to Oppenheimer by the MPAA (the first Christopher Nolan-directed project to receive such a designation since 2002's Insomnia) has nothing to do with violence or graphic imagery.

If you head over to FilmRatings.com, you'll see that the atomic bomb thriller chronicling the life and career of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (portrayed onscreen by longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy) received an R for "some sexuality, nudity, and language."

Despite its status as a war movie, Oppenheimer (now streaming exclusively on Peacock) doesn't take us to the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific. More importantly, it doesn't show us the horrifying aftermath of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This clear lack of carnage came as a something of a surprise to Chuck Todd (host of MSNBC's Meet the Press), who brought up the matter to Nolan last weekend for a discussion commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Trinity test in July 1945.

RELATED: Cillian Murphy Doesn't Understand Oppenheimer's Physics Either – But He Did Learn Dutch

"I think really, as a filmmaker, you can’t be overly conscious about why you choose to do things. You have to run on instinct to a degree," the filmmaker said at the New York City event attended by NBC Insider and SYFY WIRE. "But the feeling for me as a filmmaker was very strongly that to depart from Oppenheimer’s experience would betray the terms of the storytelling."

While the atomic bomb never would have come to fruition without Doctor Oppenheimer and his army of pioneering Manhattan Project scientists, the government did not inform him of when the two explosives would be dropped on Imperial Japan.

Why Didn't Oppenheimer Show the A-Bombs Being Dropped?

"He learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio — the same as the rest of the world," Nolan said, referencing the new information he discovered within the pages of American Prometheus (the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography upon which the film is based). "That, to me, was a shock … Everything is his experience, or my interpretation of his experience. Because as I keep reminding everyone, it’s not a documentary. It is an interpretation. That’s my job."

That's why Nolan decided to write the screenplay in first-person and why he's wary to discuss "spoilers," even though the history is common knowledge at this point. "That’s why it’s not a documentary or docudrama," he said. "Because it’s the way in which you receive the story that hopefully creates suspense, hopefully creates surprise."

Nolan on Why the Threat of Nuclear Weapons Never Goes Away

OPPENHEIMER, written and directed by Christopher Nolan

The topic of nuclear weapons forcefully reentered the global consciousness last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, especially once Vladimir Putin began making thinly-veiled threats about utilizing nuclear weapons if the U.S. and its NATO allies interfered with the conflict by putting boots on the ground or enacting a no-fly zone.

"Even though the situation in Ukraine puts it more in the forefront of people’s minds, the truth is nuclear weapons are an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have lying around the house," Nolan continued. "It is not something we should ever forget about and it’s not something we should take lightly."

Fellow panelist Thomas Mason, current director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (the position once held by J. Robert Oppenheimer nearly 80 years ago) pointed out the macabre irony of nuclear deterrence and how it "has acted as a restraint" on armed conflicts spiraling out of control since 1945.

While the specter of mutual assured destruction (MAD) hasn't felt this potent since the mid-20th century, it is successfully "containing the conflict" in Ukraine," Mason said. "Now, it’s scary because we don’t know whether or not it’s gonna hold."

RELATED: Christoper Nolan Says Oppenheimer's Story Is “Most Dramatic” He’s Ever Come Across - “Fictional or Real”

Nolan's biggest fear concerns tactical nukes, which he believes may actually become accepted as regular instruments of war by way of politicians and the media "warming us up to the idea that perhaps there’s a certain size of nuclear weapon that would be acceptable as opposed to large ones."

Despite his eventual pleas for disarmament and closer international cooperation between the world's emergent nuclear powers, Doctor Oppenheimer apparently supported the idea of tactical nukes. Not because he found the idea of them particularly palatable, but "because he wanted to play the Army off against the Air Force, essentially," Nolan explained. "He wanted to temper the threat of these giant, genocidal H-bombs that the Air Force wanted to have in the air 24/7."

"I hope there will be more scientists speaking out," added fellow panelist Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist at France's Aix-Marseille University. He pointed out that while humans have always invented bigger and more devastating weapons with which to kill one another since the dawn of time, there are promising moments throughout our history where cooler heads prevailed.

"Think about the treaties limiting nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union and United States were able to negotiate in the hardest moment of the Cold War with a huge ideological clash. Reasonable people in power could decide to sit down and at that point, scientists — and in particular, physicists — played a big role."

How To Stream Oppenheimer?

Oppenheimer is now streaming exclusively on Peacock alongside a slew of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The NBCUniversal platform currently offers two monthly subscription plans: Premium ($5.99 a month with ads) and Premium Plus ($11.99 a month with no ads and download access for certain titles). If you're a student, you can enjoy the Premium plan for just $1.99 for an entire year!

Looking for some theatrical action in the meantime? The HoldoversMy Big Fat Greek Wedding 3The Exorcist: BelieverFast XRuby Gillman, Teenage KrakenFive Nights at Freddy's, and Strays are all streaming on Peacock!

Originally published Jul 24, 2023.

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