Scott LaFoyKelsey Atherton’s Barbenheimer

This is a guest post by Kelsey Atherton. Kelsey D. Atherton is a military technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work has appeared in Popular Science, The New York Times, Slate, and elsewhere.

You can find his work at Wars of Future Past.

This post is a companion piece to the Kelsey and Jeffrey’s excellent Arms Control Wonk Podcast episode, which can be found here!

Act I

Light travels faster than sound. How much faster is governed by laws of physics, the mediums through which photons will travel and sound waves reverberate altering the degree of difference on the margin but ultimately the effect is driven primarily by distance. How much room is there between the bright flash of insight and the shattering wave of repercussion? In film, that distance can be set to match reality, or it can with artistic choice and a technicians’ skill be teased apart, creating in the space and in the arrangement a changed understanding of causality.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which entered wide release July 21, 2023, bends the timing of its narrative to build plot lines from 1945, 1954, and 1959 into a crescendo at the first atomic test. Then, with a sharp pivot away from the parallel story structure, Nolan plays the Trinity test straight. The players, Oppenheimer’s motley crew of scientists and military men, gather to wait out the coming storm, then watch the first atomic detonation in human history.

There is a flash, then dead silence, then seconds later a shattering return of sound.

In the capable hands of Oppenheimer and Nolan, the question is not  “can the bomb work?”, but “what happens after Trinity?”

Here, Oppenheimer and Nolan both struggle.

Act II

By coincidence or spite from Nolan’s former studio, Oppenheimer shares a release date with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. The juxtaposition is enough to create the internet phenomena of “Barbenheimer,” pairing the films as though they were deliberately crafted as a double feature. That is how I, along with four companions, watched the movies on July 20.

In Barbie, revelation hits at the speed of thought, and then the changes reverberate outward, until they threaten to upend the world.

Barbie contemplates death, and nearly becomes the destroyer of worlds.

Protagonist Barbie is sent on a quest by Weird Barbie from Barbieland into the Real World, where she must find the person playing with her. Upon a successful mission, the premise goes, she will no longer have to contemplate death or cellulite, and the previous normalcy will be restored.

Her simple quest is derailed when Antagonist Ken brings himself along on the quest for discovery. With her perpetual admirer in tow, Barbie begrudgingly brings him into the real world. The dolls, now human in many (but distinctly not all) ways, immediately encounter Venice beach, and all its mundane human limits. Ogling and harassment lead Barbie to violence in self defense, and then a first encounter with the law.

By the time Barbie has reconciled with her human and decided to head back to Barbieland, she has already experienced tears, the beauty of the natural world, and felt the ambient anxiety of being objectified. She has also triggered a panicked response from the real world’s security state, which springs into action but not in time to prevent Ken from returning to Eden with forbidden knowledge.


Trinity detonates at about the two hour mark in Oppenheimer. Prior to that, the film has cut between three narratives: a linear telling of Oppenheimer’s life from graduate school to the test, a close hearing about revoking his Q clearance from 1954, and the narrative of Oppenheimer’s post-war life as told by Commerce Secretary nominee Lewis Strauss around his 1959 Senate confirmation hearings.

After Trinity, the bomb creation narrative winds down, letting the third act be dominated by the closed and public hearings. It’s a shame, because the parts of post-Trinity Oppenheimer Nolan does show are the most interesting attempts to reckon with the bomb itself. 

In a sign of the acts to follow, shortly before the Trinity test sequence, Oppenheimer walks into a meeting in Los Alamos of scientists who, aware of the imminent defeat of Nazi Germany, question if they need to continue their work at all. Germany, after all, was the country whose atomic program spurred the United States into action. It was Germany’s specifically genocidal actions towards Jews that motivated many in the project to develop the weapon. If the bomb was not to be built to deter or defeat Germany, need it be built at all?

Oppenheimer’s defense of the bomb’s completion and use is couched in the promise that the weapon is so catastrophic in power it could portend and end to all wars. This comes with a caveat, which Oppenheimer pursues lightly: if Russia can be informed of the bomb, and brought into knowledge about it formally, it might forestall an arms race over nuclear weaponry.

We live in the world where that didn’t happen, and after the lab is informed that the US successfully dropped the Little Boy bomb on Hiroshima, Oppenheimer gives a speech under a basketball hoop to the cacophonous crowd of assembled lab workers. His speech is made uneasy, and it is intercut with Oppenheimer’s first visions of the atomic dead. We see him see bodies turned to ash, skin melted off a face from the heat of the blast, couples bent over grieving. The visions continue as he leaves, where he sees a man bent over and vomiting as if from radiation sickness. The film assumes that the audience knows this is what atomic bombs do to bodies, though the specific nature of how the bomb causes harm beyond explosive force is only lightly addressed.

No actual victim of the atomic dead or atomic survivors is seen in the film. The closest we get is Oppenheimer, seated among other scientists, watching a video reel showing victims filmed weeks after the bombing, while an audio description explains what is happening on screen. Nolan’s camera remains firmly pointed at Oppenheimer’s face, capturing his face turning away from the horrors before him. Initial estimates of the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was 110,000, with at least a similar number injured, and the most Nolan offers on screen is the number, Oppenheimer’s visions of the dead, and the flickered reflections.

Act IV

Ken’s return to Barbieland before Barbie precipitates a drastic upheaval, as Ken brings from the real world ideas like “minifridge” and “SUV” and “patriarchy.” It’s a move about as subtle as an atomic bomb. Protagonist Barbie, together with Human Companion and Tween Begrudgingly Along For the Ride, set about undoing the new subservience of the other Barbies, with the help of Barbieland’s outcasts and misfits.

There’s a battle sequence, as the plan to liberate Barbieland from Rule by Ken involves turning the Kens on each other. A lack of actual weapons means the Ken War is conducted with sports equipment and prop toys, until it devolves into a dance battle. Perhaps the most remarkable part of Barbie is that, while fully aware of its existence as a toy brand film, it sticks closely to a vision of the dolls as toys not about fighting. (Between 1989 and 2002, Barbie had an explicit US military line, though if it showed up on screen in the movie I missed it.)

Barbie’s post-war origin story is at most lightly alluded to in the film. She instead arrives, immaculate, into a world of effortless abundance, bound by the aspirations of midcentury prosperity. Barbie only acquires a narrative, and the ability to change, once doubts about the contradictions of performed femininity creep in. Mattel executives, led on screen by Will Farrell, relate to their manifest creations mainly by trying to quarantine it from reality, impervious to the complications of the real world.

The film ends with Barbie, just Protagonist Barbie and not all the others, leaving Barbieland behind for the real world, and the fullness of human experience it entails.

Act V

After Trinity, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer leaves Los Alamos. His post-war life is seen through the hearing to revoke his Q clearance. This means forays into Oppenheimer’s variation associations, from his friendship with communists in the 1930s to his affairs to one specific affair with a communist. The fear, articulated throughout by the US military and some other scientists, is that Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project could lead to Russia developing the bomb. Oppenheimer’s outspoken left sympathies in the interwar era makes him vulnerable for such a line of attack, especially given unwarranted FBI wiretaps dating back to surveillance of communists in San Francisco.

There were spies and leaks at Los Alamos, but Oppenheimer was not involved. Because his clearance revocation hearing took place behind closed doors, and hinged on classified evidence, it became an impossible fight to win. Nolan uses the film’s final act to reveal that Lewis Strauss orchestrated the loss of Oppenheimer’s clearance as revenge for a public humiliation years prior, an act that comes back when another witness testifies as much at Strauss’ confirmation hearing.

It’s an odd end to a film about the creation of the deadliest weapon ever used in war. 

At one point, Strauss tells Oppenheimer that, because of his clearance loss, he “gets to be remembered for Trinity, not Nagasaki.” It is, I think, at most the second or third time Nagasaki is named in the film. 

It’s also a tremendous missed opportunity. With Strauss as the villain of the picture, it’s easy to see that framing as cynical. But Trinity and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like Gadget and Little Boy and Fat Man, are inextricable from one another. If Nolan was interested in conflating the histories of atomic research and atomic violence, he missed a golden opportunity to do so.

Act VI

There is a third film in the summer of 2023 we should consider alongside the two already discussed here. If Barbie is the post-war wake of consumer impulse in Pax Americana, and if Oppenheimer is an attempt to frame the creation of an epoch-defining weapon as a war-winning necessity, Asteroid City instead treats both realities as fait accompli. With its play within a play within a play structure, Asteroid City is free to offer the received idea of 1955 America is turquoise-bright technicolor.

There’s a part, near the opening of the central story, where an atomic detonation is witnessed in the distance outside a diner. It is felt, photographed, and then reset, as much a mechanical part of the world as the scripted police chase of a hot rod down the town’s one road. Asteroid City’s main structure takes place over a week, and so at the denouement of events, we see the atomic detonation again. This is the background radiation of the era.

In between atomic bookends, Asteroid City offers a gee-whiz tale of scientific discovery, a light riff on flying saucers, a speculative future of techno-wonderous weaponry based on science fair projects, and a reserved romance between adults whose lives are mostly running on the inertia of past events. The story Asteroid City most wants to tell is about the way the extraordinary becomes mundane through observation. Atomic weapons are a decade old in the events of the film. They become, if not mundane, predictable noise, worth a remark but no further action.

None of the protagonists are in a position to change the structure of the world. Instead, they must simply observe it, hoping that the next generation will manage. The brainiac child geniuses assembled in Asteroid City, written with seventy years of hindsight, offer that future: skeptical of official explanations, bent towards discovery without concern or guidance on the ramifications, and ultimately not understood by those responsible for their care and nurture. 

They are as much children of the anthropocene as Barbie and Ken. It’s a world Oppenheimer made, with an invention that foreclosed other possibilities. 


Film is a medium as much about choosing what to leave out of frame as it is about choosing what to put inside it. Divorced from his central accomplishment, the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer reads as colorful but not particularly fertile material for an explosive expose, as tales of eccentric professors with left-wing sympathies and affairs are not, particularly, unique. It’s the bomb, and his feelings and beliefs towards its use and development, that should give the film weight.

His associations are framed, largely, as liabilities, foreign hooks with nefarious tendrils stretching from his idealistic young adulthood into his respectable career. Oppenheimer’s firmest convictions are seen as the defense of democracies and in making war too terrible to contemplate. His efforts to defuse an H-Bomb arms race through international sharing of scientific research is framed as misguided, especially in light of investigations into his questionable associations.

Such an encompassing focus on the clearance revocation crowds out the broader horrors of nuclear weaponry, or the policy choices that could have been made to envision a different atomic future. In December 2022, the Department of Energy, as the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, vacated the revocation of Oppenheimer’s clearance. While Oppenheimer never got that justice in life, the film offers his 1963 Enrico Fermi Award ceremony as the next best vindication.

Oppenheimer ends the film next to a pond at Princeton, the screen flickering with radioactive static. Oppie is then left to contemplate global conflagration, not the harms done in the specific but the dangers of nuclear weapons in aggregate. It’s a future he set in motion.

If Nolan believes other futures for Oppenheimer or our nuclear world were possible, the way he tells the story, Oppenheimer’s past left him too compromised to make them happen.