1 Comment

I do not disagree with your conclusion but a few marginal observations. The movie is based on American Promethius, a 721 page mangum opus that almost never made it to print ( because the prmary resarcher had a terminal case of writer's block. ). Oppenheimer's field of specialty was Black Holes. He was not a gifted mathematician ( something relative, since all physicists are capable of performing math mere mortals would faint before ) so why did Groves decide on Oppehneimer to lead the greatest scientific reserach project ever?

One of the historical theories for the rise of Joe McCarthy is the "shocks thesis." This is the theory that The Soviets exploded an atomic bomb long before anyone predicted, allowing an American enemy to possess a secret that it was thought only the US possessed. Then there were the revealations that Aermcian citizens partcipated in espionage that gave the Soviet Union these atomic secrets, the "Iron Curtain" that closed on Eastern Europe and led to another great power rivalry after just emerging from a second world war. Oppenheimer had a borther who had been a card carrying member of the communist party in the 1930s and many friends who were also fellow travellers, one of whom would later be revealed as a party recruiter who was also a spy.

Then there is the trueism that genius always bows to ordinary minds puffed up by possessing political power. That was true for Micahelangelo and Da Vinci, Galelio, and Thomas More. Oppenheimer's nobel internatonalist ideas ran afoul of the political class who saw the atomic bomb as something the United States funded and the United States should be able to exercise to advance its hegomony. The film makes it clear that Albert Einstein was also not invited to Los Alamos to work on the making of the atomic bomb because of security concerns. Oppenheimer is aware of the security dangers when he informs on someone who is a spy while trying to protect others who he thought were not ( but were later proved to be spys ),

Nolan never bothers to contemplate a personality whose sexual proclivities were never tempered by the damage to those with whom Oppenheimer was involved. Moral convetion was not for men of genius and if mere mortals were damaged in the process that was the price of genius. There is a line from Richard Feynman's biography that "to the general public all physicists are geniuses. To Physicists Richard Feynman was a genius." Feynman was at Los Alamos but in a very junior capacity. However, most of the greatest pre-war physicists were there ( Bohr and Einstein, the two greatest physicists of their generation were not ). To the general public Oppenheimer was a genius. To physicists who was a mediocrity. Oppenheimer's genius was not his scientific ability but his management of egos and his abilitity as a conciliator. The movie makes Oppenheimer out to be the equal of Bohr and Einstein. He was not. He was the director of the Manhattan Project so his power was political, not intellectual. Harnessing the power of the atom would give either side the power to win victory. That made Oppenheimer the equal of the great minds in international physics. Never does Nolan make this clear.

Why happens when a fictional work about non-fiction distorts the truth for artistic or political reasons? Sometimes those artistic decisions put the hidden problem in specific relief to make the hidden visible. We've seen this in the Netflix series, The Crown but many fictional works about real characters can illuminate historic personalities, as did Gore Vidal in his historical novel Lincoln. I do not think Nolan does this successfully in his film. Do you think you come out of this film understanding Oppenheimer as a person? HIs many infidelities, his refusal to heed his wife and actively fight the committee on his security clearence even though his lawyer and wife all know it is a kangaroo court.

Is Oppenheimer's politics naivety, an example of entitlement or privilege? Or are his views those of someone with loftier visions; a scientific Woodrow Wilson, whose dream of an international parlement a solution to end future conflicts? Nolan is uninerested in Oppenheimer's inner life. We have no idea about what he thought aobut his messy domestic life save he was a man of nobel sensibilities. But that is an assertion that never seems to be tested. It is stated and left punctuated but unsubstantiated. That is Nolan's narrative technique. State a truth about Oppenheimer's personality and never qustion it. Never present any complications and certainly never portray anything that would queston Oppenheimer's role as myrtar. You find Oppenheimer willing to turn in a genuine spy but try to protect his friend he suspects will be harmed by the investigation ( and with good reason since he is a spy ). There is an assumption that is asserted that genius in physics makes one a genius in politics. That is Nolan's thesis but it is always asserted and never demonstrated.

Oppenheimer is a very good film that has many flaws. It's length is not felt. At the end of its three hours you never feel the weight of time. It's narrative power propels it forward and maintain's the audence's interest. Scratch the surface, however, and its didactic preaching might cause one pause to consider if its advocacy is supported by the work of history on which the movie is based.

Expand full comment