Writing a review of the block-buster “Oppenheimer” is no easy task. It’s an extraordinary film about an extraordinary episode in human history that changed the world.
Directed by Christopher Nolan, the film stars the gifted Irish actor Cillian Murphy in the title role, with Robert Downey Jr. as Oppenheimer’s arch nemesis Joseph Strauss (pronounced “straws”), Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, and Matt Damon as Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and directed the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. General Groves hired J. (Julius) Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist, to be the Director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II. The film is based on the history by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin called American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The musical score by Ludwig Goransson assumes a role as a “character” in the film. The direction, acting, music, sound, special effects, set design, editing, and wardrobe are likely, I believe, to be nominated for many Academy Awards, possibly in every category. I have never viewed a film like it.
It need not be said that nuclear bombs are weapons of mass destruction on a terrible scale. Their use twice against Japan in August 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in not weapons of war, but weapons of genocide. In the context of World War II, the movie shows that Oppenheimer personally was not opposed on moral grounds to building an atom bomb. He was fine using the bomb, especially as a Jew against Nazi Germany and/or Japan. He wanted the bomb to send the greater message that WWII should be the last war ever fought. He was deeply concerned that these weapons were so destructive and devastating that great nations like the United States should not be allowed to produce them unchecked. He believed that the Department of Defense had been infected with madness when he learned that the DOD developed a plan to attack the USSR and China as communist nations even if it meant killing of hundreds of millions of people.
Living in a world of relative morality, President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was taken based on estimates that hundreds of thousands of American soldiers would die if the war continued using conventional weaponry, and even far greater numbers of innocent Japanese men, women, and children would die than the estimated 110,000 to 210,000 combined who were killed outright and died later as a consequence of radiation poisoning.
There is a brief scene depicted in the film that occurred on October 25, 1945 in the Oval Office between President Truman (played unconvincingly by Gary Oldman) and Oppenheimer in which the scientist said, “I have blood on my hands.” Truman angrily retorted that he was the one who made the decision to drop the bombs. It did not go well for Oppenheimer as Truman said he never wanted to see that “cry-baby” again.
The film focuses on the years of development of the atom bomb and begins and ends with the 1954 “Oppenheimer Hearings” in secret 6-week long closed-door sessions in Washington DC in which Oppenheimer was tried and convicted of being untrustworthy of having access to the nation’s top secrets. It is initially unclear why Oppenheimer was being targeted by the government as a Soviet spy, except through guilt by association with his brother Frank (played by Dylan Arnold), a former lover Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh), and several others who were members of the American Communist Party. The back-story became clear later in the film.
When Dwight Eisenhower was elected President and began his term in January 1953, Joseph Strauss rose to become the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss hated Oppenheimer, which is explained in the film. In his new position, Strauss was intent on destroying Oppenheimer’s reputation through connivance and illegal FBI wire-taps that he arranged with J. Edgar Hoover. Strauss effectively and underhandedly persuaded the closed panel, though he was not personally present at the hearings, that Oppenheimer was undermining the arms race with the Soviet Union and was therefore a threat to American security. Both Joseph Strauss and Edward Teller (played by Benny Safdie), a former student of Oppenheimer who headed up the development of the far more destructive hydrogen bomb, felt that Oppenheimer, the most influential American scientist of his era, was standing in the way of their aspirations for the production of unlimited nuclear armaments. There was already suspicion among many in the defense community that someone at Los Alamos was passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviets, the impression of which was confirmed on August 12, 1953 when Russia exploded a hydrogen bomb for the first time. That figure was the German theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs (played by Christopher Denham).
William Borden (portrayed by David Dastmalchian) was a lawyer and the Executive Director of the United States Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy from 1949 to 1953. He became one of the most powerful people advocating for nuclear weapons development in the United States government. Borden outlined a series of charges against Oppenheimer and said at the hearing: “More probably than not, Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”
As a consequence of the hearing, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, though there was no credible evidence that linked Oppenheimer to passing any secrets to the Soviets or that he was ever a member of the American Communist Party. To the contrary, Oppenheimer was a loyal American citizen. Oppenheimer, naively, was stunned when he was stripped of his security clearance, and at last came to understand that he had been deliberately targeted by Strauss, Teller, Borden, the FBI, and the United States government to remove him from any role in the government’s nuclear program. It was a humiliating moment for a man who was credited with ending World War II and was known as the “Father of the atom bomb.”
Strauss wanted the US to build more and more nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the Russians, but Oppenheimer advocated for a limited supply of nuclear weapons as part of a larger arsenal of conventional arms. In 1954, America had 300 nuclear weapons. At end of the 20th century, it had 70,000. The Soviets followed suit.
Oppenheimer was a beaten man after the hearings. However, in 1963 President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the esteemed Enrico Fermi Award that was conferred by the President of the United States upon scientists of international stature for their lifetime achievement in the development, use, or production of energy. Granting Oppenheimer this award was regarded as a gesture of political rehabilitation.
Edward Teller was present for the award, and despite his treachery against Oppenheimer in the hearings, he held out his hand to Oppenheimer in a two-faced gesture of respect, and Oppenheimer strangely accepted it. Strauss, on the other hand, was furious that Oppenheimer received this singular honor.
Oppenheimer, a chain smoker throughout much of his life, died on February 18, 1967 from throat cancer at the age of 62. In 2022, the 1954 revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance was vacated by the United States Government.
Barbara and I saw the film twice. The second time we were able to follow more closely the story line, who were the central characters portrayed in nuanced performances of virtually all the actors, and the skilled and creative film-making techniques of Director Christopher Nolan and his staff. Between the two viewings, we read reviews and watched documentary histories of Oppenheimer. I suggest that you do the same.
Growing up in the 1950s, I was well aware of the threats posed by nuclear bombs, but had no idea of their devastating and destructive capacity. On the last Friday of every month at precisely 10 am, sirens sounded over all of Los Angeles. We elementary school kids were taught to “drop and cover,” as ridiculous as that sounds today in light of the now-known effects of radiation poisoning against which dropping and covering has no defense in a nuclear attack. New homes in my neighborhood were being built in the 1950s that included bomb shelters. When President Kennedy spoke to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962, I remember feeling terrified by the thought that we were close to a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.
Christopher Nolan has given us an extraordinary film of subtlety and power. One thing worth understanding if you have not yet seen the film. Nolan effectively uses color for parts of the film and black and white for other parts. This is not about morality – good vs evil. Rather, whenever color is used, it portrays the story from the perspective of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Whenever black and white is used, it portrays the story from the perspective of Lewis Strauss.
There are matters not addressed in the film, most especially what testing in New Mexico did to indigenous people living within a few miles of the testing site. Nor does the film address the test of the hydrogen bomb on November 1, 1952 on the small Pacific island of Elugelab at Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Joint Chiefs of Staff made the case to Truman that the hydrogen bomb “would improve our defense in its broadest sense, as a potential offensive weapon, a possible deterrent to war, a potential retaliatory weapon, as well as a defensive weapon against enemy forces.” The island “became dust and ash, pulled upward to form a mushroom cloud that rose about twenty-seven miles into the sky.” The outcome of the test was reported to Eisenhower this way: “The island of Elugelab is missing!”