Oppenheimer: A Dire Warning About America’s Decaying Political Climate

Christopher Nolan's blockbuster film underscores why our country must return to an era of electing the leaders most capable of making life-and-death decisions.

Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr., was released in theaters on July 21, 2023.

By Tom Sileo Published on August 11, 2023

As I watched Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece Oppenheimer, all I could think about was a scenario similar to World War II playing out in America’s current political climate.

The date is January 20, 2025. Frustrated by his military’s latest setback and afraid of losing his grip on power, Russian president Vladimir Putin decides to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Our country’s newly-elected president must then decide whether to strike back, which would undoubtedly plunge much of the world into nuclear holocaust.

Putting your personal political beliefs aside, are you confident that America’s 46th president, Joe Biden, is capable of handling such a monumental crisis and coordinating an international response given his advanced age and communication struggles? Are you confident that our nation’s 45th president, Donald Trump, could do the same considering his increasingly erratic behavior and frequent social media meltdowns?

What if, rightly or wrongly, Trump is in jail while serving some or all of his second term as president? Wouldn’t that slow down America’s response to a nuclear attack, where wasting even a single second could ultimately be the difference between life and death?

In addition to giving us perhaps the most important cinematic history lesson since Steven Spielberg’s 1993 holocaust epic Schindler’s List, Oppenheimer –intentionally or not lays bare the descent of our country’s politics into silliness and slime. While some debates among politicians are serious, most of what we see playing out on cable news is meaningless compared to the ultimate responsibilities entrusted to our nation’s leaders.

Instead of hurling insults and obsessing over poll numbers, politicians (and reporters who cover them) should be talking about safety, security, war, peace and – as unthinkable as it was before Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (brilliantly played by Cillian Murphy) was asked to lead the Manhattan Project – who can be trusted whether or not to press the button.

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I grew up 15 miles from our nation’s capital. For most of the 1980s, the threat of nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union was still a very real and scary thought, especially for a child living a few minutes from the White House. At any moment, my hometown could have been vaporized.

America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan, projected an image of unprecedented strength and defiance toward the Soviets. Privately, however, he worried about what he initially believed was an inevitable nuclear war. This 1988 Los Angeles Times article by Daniel Schorr outlines Reagan’s long and deeply held concerns about the prospect of a nuclear holocaust.

“In a 1980 interview on Jim Bakker’s PTL television network, [Reagan] said, ‘We may be the generation that sees Armageddon.'”

Thanks in large part to President Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War did not end with civilization’s extinction. As a politician, Reagan naturally received his fair share of criticism from Democrats, but he also wound up becoming arguably the most popular president in modern U.S. history. I believe that’s because a vast majority of the American people saw that despite Reagan’s tough rhetoric toward our nation’s enemies, a lasting era of peace and prosperity was their president’s primary objective.

Some might argue that by the time he left office at age 77, Reagan – who would famously be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years later – displayed troubling signs of mental decline. Had Reagan been proven incapable of handling his duties, however, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was a former CIA director, combat veteran and decades-long public servant. As evidenced by the fact that Bush wound up being elected as Reagan’s successor, the American people clearly trusted him to make tough decisions. The same could be said for Harry Truman when he took over after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945.

If re-elected, President Biden will be 82 years old when he is inaugurated a second time. President Trump will be 78.

If Putin follows through on his alarming threats to use nuclear weapons, let’s suppose that Vice President Kamala Harris is forced to handle a nuclear crisis in the event of Biden’s incapacitation. On the other hand, let’s say Trump returns to office and former TV news anchor-turned-politician Kari Lake, who has been frequently floated as a potential 2024 running mate, has to step in while Trump is incapacitated? Do you trust any of these potential presidents or vice presidents to make the most important decision a commander-in-chief can ever make? Perhaps you do, but it’s a question you have to ask.

While all of the acting in Oppenheimer is superb, two performances that jumped out were by Robert Downey Jr., who portrays U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, and the great Gary Oldman, who briefly but memorably plays the only world leader to ever use nuclear weapons: Truman. Downey, who was in the film much more than its trailers led on, plays a misguided politician who targets Dr. Oppenheimer during the brewing era of McCarthyism.

Oldman, who only portrays Truman in one scene, grows angry when Murphy’s Oppenheimer character visits the Oval Office and agonizes over his central role in unleashing atomic fire on Japan. While I firmly believe that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately saved hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lives by ending World War II, one can only imagine what went through the minds of both Oppenheimer and Truman as they pondered the human toll of nuclear war, especially in their later years.

The only things present day politicians seem to agonize over are bad poll numbers, scandals, or unfair media coverage.  That’s a big reason why I think our country’s politics have become deeply unserious and at times, pathetic. As I grew up in the ’80s, the idea of politicians shaming rivals or voters as “fat” was unthinkable. Back then, the point of presidential elections was choosing a leader who could stand up to our country’s enemies while keeping us safe and prosperous at home. Today, the goal seems to be electing a president who will humiliate or even imprison the other side’s leader as allies inside their party and the media cheer them on.

Since the days of Oppenheimer, FDR and Truman, the two times the world came closest to nuclear war were during the Cuban Missile Crisis and renewed 1980s U.S.-Soviet tensions. In the early 1960s, when eccentric Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev posed a clear threat, President John F. Kennedy nevertheless found a way to defuse the crisis and spare the world from the horrors of nuclear war. Reagan would do the same two decades later while successfully negotiating peace with Gorbachev.

Fast forward to January 20, 2025. Which current 2024 presidential candidate, if any, do you trust to follow in Kennedy and Reagan’s footsteps on the day he or she takes the oath of office? My humble advice is to watch Oppenheimer before casting your vote. Your children’s lives could very well depend on who decides whether or not to press that button.


Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is the author of the recently released Be Bold and co-author of Three Wise MenBrothers Forever8 Seconds of Courage and Fire in My Eyes. Follow Tom on Twitter @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.

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