Oppenheimer: Scientific Genius, Paranoid Politics

Reading a handful of top critics’ reviews of Oppenheimer, I realized that, unlike me, they are familiar with director Christopher Nolan’s entire corpus. However, many admitted that they hadn’t read Bird and Sherwin’s 1100-page American Prometheus, its 2005 source text. So after seeing the movie, I read the book, learned a lot, and satisfied myself that Nolan adapted it reasonably faithfully.

It is clear that Oppenheimer demonstrates Nolan’s approach to filmmaking: presenting events without regard for chronological sequence; deploying a large cast of well-known actors, many for cameos; showing spectacular images, here the atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert, enhanced by IMAX technology; and incorporating a pulsating dissonant musical score. All of this definitely holds the audience’s attention for a three-hour movie, presented without intermission.

Heroic and Tragic Fables

In my studies of narrative texts about politics, I developed a matrix of four fables, based on the narrative arc for both the protagonist and their organizational or societal context. In the heroic fable, both the protagonist and society are ultimately better off due to some action taken or led by the protagonist. The tragic fable is its diametrical opposite because the protagonist’s action makes both the protagonist and society worse off.

This typology applies perfectly to Oppenheimer. The first half of the film deals with the Manhattan Project, in which a team of scientists and technicians based in a secret lab at Los Alamos and brilliantly led by Oppenheimer, does something epic. Oppenheimer, previously a theoretical physicist with no managerial experience, is adulated by his staff and soon by the world. The US has the bomb that will end this war and, Oppenheimer hopes, that will be a deterrent to future wars. The moment in the film when Oppenheimer addresses his cheering staff signifies the culmination of the heroic narrative arc and would have been the perfect time for an intermission.

From this point onward, the narrative arcs for both Oppenheimer and society turn downward. The July 16, 1945 test successful, the military carts away the two bombs that have been built by the Manhattan Project. General Groves, the military commander of the project, leaves for Washington, vaguely promising Oppenheimer that he’ll try to keep him posted about future developments. The genie is out of the bottle and the scientists have lost control of it.

American Prometheus summarizes historical research that Japan was on the verge of surrendering when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that a key American objective in dropping them on August 6 and 9 was to induce Japan’s unconditional surrender before the Soviet Union was to declare war on August 15, 1945. Thus, two hundred thousand Japanese civilians died needlessly.

In his subsequent meeting with President Truman (discussed in the book and dramatized in the film), Oppenheimer – as much of a genius at persuasion as in conceptualization – is spectacularly unsuccessful trying to persuade the President not to pursue a belligerent policy of nuclear supremacy. Oppenheimer admits that he has blood on his hands, a sentiment that Truman adamantly refuses to share. Truman concludes that Oppenheimer is a “crybaby” and resolves never to meet him again. Oppenheimer has lost any influence over public policy.

Oppenheimer’s ultimate downfall, foreshadowed at the beginning of the film and then presented at length in the second half, plays out in the in camera hearings at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about whether to rescind his security clearance.

The movie ends with an imagined meeting between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, in which both agree that atomic weapons have made the world worse off. As a scholar rather than a film critic I generally have no aversion to including spoilers. In this case the lines with which the movie concludes are so memorable and disturbing that I will not quote them.

False Parallelism

Oppenheimer has numerous nemeses, but the most significant – and damaging – is Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the AEC at the time of the hearing. Nolan sets up a parallel narrative because Strauss suffers his own auto-da-fe in a 1959 Senate confirmation hearing in which his nomination as Secretary of Commerce is rejected. Nolan’s cinematic parallelism involves starting the film by foreshadowing both hearings, filming Oppenheimer’s in colour and Strauss’ in black and white, and referring to the former with the subtitle “fission” and the latter as “fusion.”

I think this is false parallelism because Oppenheimer is a world-class scientist and intellectual and Strauss an undistinguished apparatchik. Politically silencing Oppenheimer was more consequential than choosing one or another apparatchik to preside over a middle-rank government department for less than two years (from 1959 until the end of the Eisenhower Administration).

What’s worse is that the re-creation of Strauss’ confirmation hearing takes up a considerable amount of the film’s running time, by my estimate at least 30 minutes. In contrast, Bird and Sherwin devote a page to Strauss’s confirmation hearing, which seems to me about right. Nolan could easily have handled it with a text screen at the end of the film. (That Bird and Sherwin gave the confirmation hearing so little attention means that Nolan had to consult other sources for that part of his screenplay.)

Nolan could have used the time freed up for a number of topics the film critics thought were insufficiently explored, such as Oppenheimer’s relationships with his lover, wife, and children; more verbalization of Oppenheimer’s dilemma as creator of a genocidal weapon he wanted to be subject to international control; and depiction of the impact of the bomb test on people living near the site and the bomb itself on the Japanese. Finally – though one could hardly expect it of Christopher Nolan – the film could have had a Jewish angle because Oppenheimer and Einstein were secular Jews; the well-known physicist and Los Alamos colleague Isidor Rabi was an observant Jew; and Strauss was a court Jew in governmental circles and a macher in Jewish circles (President of Reform Judaism’s flagship Temple Emanuel in New York.)

Scientists as Crybabies?

The timing of Oppenheimer is certainly apt, with Vladimir Putin’s frequent threats to use nuclear weapons in his war against Ukraine. Beyond that, the movie speaks to the conflicted relationship between scientists, as both practitioners and advisers, and political decision makers. In addition to nuclear policy (regarding both weapons and energy), scientists are deeply engaged in understanding and developing public policy for pandemics, climate change, and artificial intelligence.

The person-in-the-street is often xenophobic towards other nations and naïve in their understanding of the physical world. Politicians often reflect the ignorance and prejudices of the electorate. As Truman called Oppenheimer a crybaby because of his apprehension about nuclear proliferation, contemporary politicians call epidemiologists crybabies because of their concern about the spread of pandemics, climate scientists crybabies because of their concern about global warming, and computer scientists crybabies because of their concern about the destructive capacity of AI. From this perspective, Oppenheimer is a cautionary tale about the failure of a brilliant, persuasive, and charismatic scientist in the political arena.

To conclude: go see the film, as it provides much to see and think about. And, if you have the time, the book is well worth reading, as it reinforces and expands the film’s message.

One response to “Oppenheimer: Scientific Genius, Paranoid Politics”

  1. Steve_Kelman@hks.harvard.edu Avatar

    thanks nice

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