Stephen Arnell

Moral dilemmas on screen: from Oppenheimer to Passengers

Moral dilemmas on screen: from Oppenheimer to Passengers
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'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'

Father of the Atomic Bomb Robert Oppenheimer once claimed that these words from Hindu scripture’s Bhagavad Gita raced through his mind when he witnessed the first nuclear weapon detonate on July 16, 1945.

Much of Oppenheimer’s life and work are seen through the lens of the moral dilemma he faced in leading the Manhattan Project that developed the deadly bombs (dubbed ‘Fatman’ and ‘Little Boy’) which destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a month later.

Director Christopher Nolan has chosen the scientist as the subject of his next film, the follow-up to the underwhelming Tenet (2020). Nolan regular Cillian Murphy (Inception and the Batman trilogy) plays Oppenheimer with support from Emily Blunt (as his wife Kitty) Robert Downey Jnr (Lewis Strauss, the Atomic Energy Commission chairman who suspected he was a communist sympathiser) and Matt Damon (Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project).

This won’t be the first time Robert Oppenheimer has featured as a character on screen; he was also played by Daniel London in the WGN series Manhattan (2014-15), Dwight Schultz (The A-Team’s ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock) in 1989’s Fatman & Little Boy, (which I’ll discuss later) and by Sam Waterson in BBC2’s Oppenheimer (1980). This BBC version is currently free to watch on YouTube.

As we begin the long wait for the release of Oppenheimer in July 2023, here are ten motion pictures where we also see protagonists confront life-changing moral challenges.

Let Him Go (2020) Amazon

‘Touching’ and ‘Neo Noir’ are two words not usually associated with each other, but Thomas Bezucha’s (The Family Stone) Let Him Go proves a bittersweet pleasure.

Montana, 1961: taciturn former lawman George Blackledge (Kevin Costner), wife Margaret (Diane Lane), son James (Ryan Bruce), spouse Lorna (Kayli Carter) and their toddler Jimmy live an unexceptional life on their ranch. James dies when thrown by his horse and things rapidly take a turn for the worse.

Lorna remarries soon after, taking Jimmy to live with her new family, the Weboys, headed by Lesley Manville’s sadistic matriarch Blanche.  George and Margaret determine to see how their grandson is faring and find themselves confronted by the psychopathic Weboy clan who soon reveal their true colours.

George must make a decision to abandon his lifelong code of abiding by the law to rescue Jimmy and Lorna from the abusive family. His first effort results in a Tarantino-esque scene when the former sheriff’s fingers on his gun hand are severed clean off by an axe when blindsided by the Weboys. His second attempt is successful in freeing Jimmy and Lorna, but George pays a heavy price.

Costner and Lane (who have worked together before in Man of Steel) have real chemistry and make Let Him Go more than the sum of its parts – a rare movie that will have the viewer cheering when the couple decide to act, then reach for the tissue box when the dust settles.

There is a particularly poignant scene where the couple meet young Native American Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart), abandoned by both his tribe and white society when the latter failed to ‘wash the Indian’ out of him.

Manville is magnificent as the platinum-haired Blanche, channelling Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck to present a thoroughly nasty Lady Boss.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018) Amazon Rent/Buy

With a title that befits a Troma movie (Surf Nazis Must Die, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown etc) it is a surprise to find out that The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is something of a hidden gem, a melancholic rumination on futility and lost love.

The great Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski) plays Calvin Barr, a highly skilled tracker and hunter, who as a special ops soldier (played by Aidan ‘Poldark Turner) successfully killed the Führer during WWII – only to see him replaced by a double, with the conflict continuing as before.

Years later, the future of the world is threatened by a pandemic, whose origin is believed to be the Bigfoot of the Canadian wilderness.

The US secret service enlists the help of a still spry (and immune to the virus), but reluctant Barr to see off the cause of the virus.

The hunter’s memories of the Hitler mission and his reluctance to destroy another living being haunt Barr until he faces off with the creature, now rabid and visibly distressed by the virus it carries.

Will Barr take Bigfoot down? The clue is in the title, as Catchphrase’s Roy Walker might say

Passengers (2016) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

The sci-fi flick Passengers is one of those motion pictures where you must wonder what the studio bosses were thinking when they greenlit the movie.The creepy premise of Passengers and attempt to paint it as a love story resulted in a general reaction of queasiness.

Briefly, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is mistakenly released from cryosleep 90 years in on a 120-year journey to colonise a new world optimistically named Homestead II.

With only Michael Sheen’s android barman for company (obviously a necessity on any long-haul space flight), Preston conducts a recce of all female passengers and selects writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) to be his companion, falsely claiming that her early release from hibernation was another pod malfunction.

To its credit, Morten Tyldum’s (The Imitation Game) film looks good, but the sense of moral queasiness as events unfold coloured the experience for me – and apparently, many other viewers.

The Box (2009) ICON, Amazon Rent/Buy

Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly’s bleak sci-fi thriller The Box is not a movie to watch if you are in need of a cinematic pick-me-up. Based on Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button (1970), The Box confronts the audience with a moral choice – by pressing a button you will be given $1m – but at the same time, someone you don’t know will die. Unfortunately for cash-strapped couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) the button is pressed. 

A disturbing picture with a pervading sense of dread, The Box is notable also for Frank Langella’s unsettling turn as the disfigured box purveyor Arlington Steward.

Fail Safe (2000) Amazon Rent/Buy

Stephen Frears directed this live black and white TV version of the classic 1964 movie for CBS.

An interesting technical exercise, but unnecessary, as Sidney Lumet’s original is far superior. The crux of Fail Safe centres on an existential choice given to the US President (Richard Dreyfuss).

When a US nuclear bomber mistakenly heads to Moscow to bomb the city under the false impression that a global conflict has broken out, the President’s more gung-ho advisors suggest following through with all-out war while they have the element of surprise.

Dreyfuss opts for another course of action. If the US bomber succeeds in destroying Moscow, POTUS offers the Russians a shocking solution; he will detonate a nuclear weapon over New York (where his wife is), killing everyone in the city as a quid pro quo.

By making the offer to the Soviet Premier, the President hopes that the Russians won’t accept, but stand down in recognition of his sincerity, recognising that the destruction of Moscow was a dreadful mistake…

Deep Blue Sea (1999) Amazon Rent/Buy

Like the later Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Deep Blue Sea provides an object lesson in the folly of crossing the moral and ethical boundaries involved in animal experimentation.

In Deep Blue Sea, Dr. Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows) inadvertently creates super-intelligent Mako sharks in her attempt to cure Alzheimer's disease.

Renny Harlin’s movie is a great thrill ride if you park your brains at the door, forming a near-perfect triptych of aquatic mayhem with the same year’s Lake Placid and the earlier Anaconda (1997).

Alive (1993) Amazon Rent/Buy

Not a film to watch before (or after) dinner, Alive depicts the real-life events surrounding the Uruguayan rugby team's crash aboard Air Force Flight 571 into the snowy peaks of the Andes.

As weeks pass by with no sign of rescue and rations running out, the starving survivors must make the morally hazardous decision whether to eat the raw, unseasoned flesh of their deceased friends and relatives.

Malice (1993) Amazon Rent/Buy

This seriously underrated thriller from Harold Becker (Sea of Love) is great fun if you have a taste for black comedy of the deepest hue.

I won’t go into the minutiae of Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank’s labyrinthine plot, but medical malpractice, fraud and murder all feature.

Alec Baldwin gives a magnificent performance as arrogant surgeon Jed Hill (at one point he rebuffs an accusation of a God Complex by replying ‘I am God’) who finds that there is a line even he cannot cross…

Baldwin’s performance in Malice acts as a companion piece to his egotistical fashion photographer Robert Green in the equally enjoyable survival movie The Edge (1997).

Cape Fear (1991) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

When lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) conceals evidence that could have prevented the conviction of his client, rapist Max Cady (an OTT Robert De Niro) he stores up a world of pain for himself and his family.

It’s payback time for the twisted con on his release 14 years later.

As Cady was guilty, and was clearly a danger to society, Bowden’s actions in dropping his client in it are justifiable, but he certainly crossed legal and ethical lines, if not moral ones.

Martin Scorsese’s remake of J Lee Thompson’s 1962 potboiler is notable in casting the original’s leads Robert Mitchum (Cady) and Gregory Peck (Bowden) in antithetical roles in his update. Scorsese also brought back character actor Martin Balsam, who played the judge in both versions.

Fatman & Little Boy (1989) Amazon Rent/Buy

Unfortunately, Roland Joffé’s Oppenheimer drama Fatman & Little Boy was hobbled on release by the perception amongst many cinemagoers that it was going to be a knockabout comedy (or something far worse, depending on how you interpret the film’s title), rather than a rather dull recounting of the Manhattan Project.

The picture was also accused of miscasting the two leads, with both Paul Newman (project supervisor General Groves) and Dwight Schultz (Oppenheimer) appearing uncomfortable.

The film is saved by the performance of John Cusack as composite character Michael Merriman, a scientist with moral qualms about the project, who dies saving the base when he picks up a dislodged bomb component, suffering a lethal dose of radiation in the process.

A vastly different – and more enjoyable take on the subject-matter can be found in Nic Roeg’s 1985 adaptation of Terry Johnson’s stage play Insignificance.