Reflections on Oppenheimer

I grew up with the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings, the Cold War, and the Doomsday Clock ticking toward midnight because of the bomb, which is why I decided I should see Oppenheimer.

I don’t always see movies based on recent history that I know well, because reviews and other information often give me a clue that the history is wildly inaccurate. For example, I have never seen Mississippi Burning, because I am damned sure that no FBI agent was ever a hero of the Civil Rights Movement.

While there was a lot of history related to the story that Oppenheimer left out, the stories it did tell were generally accurate, as far as my knowledge goes. And it certainly worked well as a movie; I was caught up in it from the beginning. I suspect a lot of its success is rooted in the acting of Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer.

I am glad I saw it, but my thoughts about it have more to do with how it reflected both the current times and the times of the story. Note that there are probably spoilers in here; I see no reason to avoid spoilers in the case of stories where everyone knows, or should know, what happened. There are no twists in this movie.

Oppenheimer is a movie about men. I would argue that the bomb, and even the Manhattan Project itself, is, for purposes of the movie, a McGuffin. It’s not what the men in this movie are doing that matters; it’s how they deal with each other.

On Facebook, I said this movie didn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test, which generated a lively discussion. While at least one person speculated the problem was a dearth of women working on the Manhattan Project, a Washington Post article this week points out that 11 percent of the staff were women, and many of those women were scientists. (free link.)

And I am sure that during Oppenheimer’s years in Berkeley he ran in circles that included more women than the ones he slept with.

It would have been possible to make a movie that included more women in significant roles, women who did in fact talk to each other, if the filmmakers had wanted to.

One of my Facebook friends opined that director Christopher Nolan is concerned with “Masculinity” (definitely with the capital M), which I think explains this movie very well. It may also explain why I found it very watchable even as I noted the absence of women and, for that matter, the absence of men who were not essentially European in heritage.

(Some of the men were Jewish, including Oppenheimer, and that is of course very relevant to a story from that particular point in history.)

That is, I looked at it as an analysis of how men in a patriarchal society behave toward other men. That aspect of masculinity did not come off particularly well.

I don’t know if that’s the movie Nolan intended to make, but that’s the one I saw.

I gather from the movie — and I think this is right historically — that the US was not particularly advanced in the study of physics in the early part of the 20th century. Oppenheimer went to Europe to study.

He and many other US physicists of the time were acutely aware of the work of Heisenberg and others in Germany on understanding that could lead to the atomic bomb. Many of those physicists were also Jewish and were equally aware of the dangers from fascism.

I think — and the movie makes clear — that those two factors meant that Oppenheimer and other physicists felt it imperative to develop a bomb ahead of the Germans.

I have to say that if I had understood the things they knew at the time, I might have felt the same way, even if I also understood the various risks from the bomb — which included a very small chance of the end of the world as well as the obvious horrors of what it can do to human beings and other creatures on the planet.

Whether it was necessary to drop the bomb on Japan is a different question, as was the decision on whether to develop the hydrogen bomb and continue to make more terrible weapons. As the movie makes clear, those decisions were made by politicians and the military, not by the scientists.

Once the scientists had created the weapon, they no longer had any control over how it was used. No one listened to their objections.

These physicists are presented as brilliant and, frequently, as arrogant, and certainly as very male. As with many very bright men, they come across in the movie — and perhaps in real life — as people who assumed they had power.

The military men and the politicians were not as brilliant, but they were certainly as arrogant and as convinced that they had the right understanding of how the world worked.

Given the circumstances, it was not hard for the political and military types to bring the physicists into the war effort.

It was equally easy for them to stop listening to them after the war and even to throw some of them to the wolves.

I don’t think Oppenheimer expected that. Some of the others, such as Lawrence — whose name adorns major labs in the Bay Area — were better at protecting themselves. Others, such as Teller, were delighted to go along with the politicians.

One thing that struck me throughout the movie was that the security efforts all focused on people who had been Communists or otherwise on the left politically. There was no indication of investigations into possible German spies, even during the war, this despite the fact that we were allied with the Soviet Union and fighting the Germans.

Now some of this part of the story may have been omitted and some of it could be explained by German arrogance about their science. It is possible that they did not expect to find out much from an American project, though one would think they would have wanted to know what was happening.

But given the fascism present in the United States before the war, it strikes me that concerns about German spies and U.S. citizens who were overly friendly to fascists should have been addressed. I doubt that they were to the level necessary.

The focus of security in the movie — and the political focus of the post-war United States — was on the Soviets. There is a theory that the bombs dropped on Japan were meant as a warning signal to the Soviets more than anything else.

And of course the scientists had been inclined toward an international approach, especially before the war, which made them vulnerable to opportunistic and nasty male politicians.

We had some very nasty politicians in the 1950s. If you’re not familiar with the time, look up what HUAC did to people.

One criticism of the movie is that it did not focus on the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I think that’s more evidence that the bomb in particular was a McGuffin. This movie is not about nuclear weapons.

Another criticism is that the people who lived near the test site were affected by the tests — and in fact, people were displaced to build Los Alamos, a point that is tossed off casually in the movie. (I admit to being a little shocked that Oppenheimer wanted the project there because he loved that part of New Mexico.)

Again, though, that’s not what Nolan was making a movie about. That doesn’t mean those stories aren’t important — likely more important than the story Nolan wanted to tell — but given that any movie can only do so much, I’m not sure their omission from this one matters as much as the fact that we are generally not telling enough stories about the evils done in the name of war.

Ultimately, this is a story about a brilliant man who had his flaws — though a lot of men of the time would not characterize his relationships with women as a flaw — who was used by those in power and then tossed to the wolves. It’s an old story and not an unusual one, given the way male society is structured, but it is not an unimportant one.

In my mind, it argues for a completely different approach to the multiple issues facing the world. I’m not sure that’s the point that Nolan meant to make, but it’s the one I got.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on <i>Oppenheimer</i>

  1. I found Oppenheimer engrossing, with some particularly good performances (Murphy’s, Robert Downey Jr.’s, and Matt Damon’s) but ultimately not… engaging. It’s quite possible that Nolan didn’t want to make an emotionally engaging film (he’s a seriously heady director) but I went back and watched half a dozen of his earlier films, and he’s quite capable of drawing emotion from the watcher, so….

    I also found it interesting how unlikeable some of the women characters were. Unlikeable for reasons–Emily Blunt, playing Oppenheimer’s wife, is clearly doing what she has to do given the time she lived in, but she does not love being a wife and mother, and is not reduced to doting on him when he comes home. Having, herself, a good brain, she understands better than he does that being the smartest guy in the room is not going to be a hall pass when things go to hell.

    1. That’s a very good point — neither of the two significant women characters was likable and while it’s obvious why, as you point out, it was also a decision by the director, which makes one think he might share the attitude about women that was common among the men the movie was about.

      I did find myself caught up in the movie while watching, though. From what I have written about it after the fact, it sounds like I had my inner critic sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear, but in fact I watched it on its own terms. I will say that I did not lose myself in it as I did with, say, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. I was certainly watching from a distance.

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