History is the greatest storyteller, cutting deep and true to all within its grasp. The past is ripe for dramatic inspiration, with some stories revived thanks to cinema’s keen eye. Enter Christopher Nolan, whose 12th feature is an operatic epic of history’s justice, brilliantly captured in quite possibly his greatest screenplay to date.
Within its three-hour runtime, people of the past become characters of the current, speaking eloquently about everything from quantum theory to American politics. With one of the best assembled Hollywood casts to speak said lines, these are the best quotes in Oppenheimer.
10 “Now I am become death. Destroyer of worlds”
Taken from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita, this infamous quote has been closely connected to the real-life Oppenheimer. Originally, he stated these words 20 years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings on an NBC News documentary entitled “The Decision to Drop the Bomb”.
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In the film, it is spoken twice: once in a sex scene with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and later in the breathless wake of the Trinity test. The quote bookends Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) journey, showing the transition from his idyllic intellectual desires to his confrontation with the lived truth behind the words.
9 “Power stays in the shadows.”
Lewis Strauss instantly became an iconic villain standing beside Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown. Robert Downey Jr‘s assured performance-crafted a believable opportunist, horrific for how common his breed of politician is to this day.
This quote may as well be Strauss’ thesis, which is fitting given the black-and-white visual identity his scenes have. It’s a cold line that represents his objective and ultimately explains his downfall when he tries to emerge from the shadows unscathed after his manipulative actions against Oppenheimer.
8 “They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.”
While speaking to his scientific staff as they debate the necessity of the atomic bomb following Hitler’s suicide, Oppenheimer shares these words with a tonal gravity of desperation, expressing the bomb as a needed evil the world has to endure before this power is locked up for good.
The naïveté of Oppenheimer is glaringly apparent in how he thinks this one action would dispel nuclear war before it even begins. This quote allows the audience to understand the justification of the atomic bomb from its original inventors while painting a picture of what it was like when the power of this weapon was still a question mark.
7 “Hiroshima isn’t about you.”
One of the more devastating lines, after the bombings in Japan, has branded Oppenheimer “The Father of the Atomic Bomb”, he goes to visit President Truman (Gary Oldman). When he tells the 33rd President he has “blood on his hands”, Truman stiffly responds with this callous quote.
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What’s so ugly about this exchange, ending with another distressing line when Truman interjects “Don’t let the crybaby back in here”, is that nobody, not even the President, truly understood the weight of what Oppenheimer had to endure. Truman disgustingly can’t respect Oppenheimer’s clear struggles and tries to invalidate his trauma.
6 “Why won’t you fight?”
Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer is the underlying heartbeat of the film. A woman struggling to stand idly by as history consumes her, she repeats this line to her husband throughout, challenging him to write his own record of history.
The answer to the posed question holds clarity to Oppenheimer’s character, especially his moral attitudes following the Trinity test. He is a shell of a man, as seen in the horrifying gymnasium speech, and finding the courage to object to history as it’s being written is at the very core of this quote.
5 “Is anyone ever going to tell the truth?”
As William Borden (David Dastmalcian) reads his inaccurate and inflammatory attack letter at the behest of the Gray Board and Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), Oppenheimer quietly utters this line to his attorney.
The startling realization that dawns on Oppenheimer during his private trial that ultimately took away his security clearance is their ambivalence to the truth. It’s an example of when he recognizes his own naïveté and is shook with the perils of the new world he finds himself in.
4 “Zero would be nice”
When Oppenheimer only assures General Groves (Matt Damon) with a “near-zero” chance that the atmosphere will be engulfed in flames and kill the planet, Groves returns with this clever retort.
For a dark perspective into the human soul, the film does find moments of levity, most commonly in the character of Groves. However, this line also underscores the unknowns of what the Trinity Test would actually unearth, notching up the tension at a key moment.
3 “We’re not convicting. Just denying”
Spoken by Lewis Strauss during his duplicitous meeting with William Borden when planning their attack letter on Oppenheimer, this quote embodies Strauss’ personal justification for tearing down Oppenheimer’s social stature.
It’s a line that epitomizes Strauss’ professional pursuits. Later, he states the line again when he realizes his chance at becoming Commerce Secretary is unlikely after Dr. David Hill’s (Rami Malek) congressional appearance. Much like how “I am become death” is the bookend for Oppenheimer’s growth, this line is the same for Strauss.
2 “You don’t get to commit sin, and then ask all of us to feel sorry for you when there are consequences”
After the news of Jean Tatlock’s suspected suicide riddles Oppenheimer with pain and heartbreak, Kitty shakes him out of his stupor with this quote. She lets go of her restraint and for a brief moment shares her authentic self, a rare chance for her.
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Nolan was unafraid to depict the horrors of this story with the ambiguity it clearly deserves. In his moment of suffering, Nolan doesn’t let Oppenheimer off easy. Kitty maintains a dignity because of this line that most filmmakers would pass up for a more traditional husband-wife dynamic.
1 “I believe we did”
The shattering final words of Christopher Nolan’s screenplay find Oppenheimer admitting to Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) that he views his actions as changing the world for the worse. His act of discovery led humanity down a dark path with no escape.
Reserved yet wholly impactful, the entire film approaches this moment when Oppenheimer finally admits the danger in his creation. As he looks at the ripples in the rain, he begins to understand the reality ahead of him, both in his lifetime and in history’s memory. A stunning quote that captures Oppenheimer’s central tenets with power, poise, and prestige.
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