Jim DiEugenio reviews the new blockbuster film “Oppenheimer.”
By James DiEugenio
Special to Consortium News
If Robert Oppenheimer had never existed, playwrights, journalists, authors and filmmakers of the world would have had to invent him. And for good reason.
No figure involved with the arrival of the atomic age ever represented that creation in all its awesome power and terror; or suffered through the drive to go beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki to something even worse: the hydrogen bomb.
It was Oppenheimer’s resistance to that bomb that resulted in his public humiliation and his exclusion from ever giving further advice on nuclear policy. That was the fate of the man who supervised the Manhattan Project.
Oppenheimer was a polymath who read Sanskrit, learned Dutch to give a scientific lecture in Holland, and studied Marcel Proust at night by flashlight. He was educated in chemistry and physics at Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Gottingen in Germany, where he earned a PhD. He then joined the faculty at Berkeley where, at age 32, he became a full professor.
By all accounts he was a challenging teacher who demanded the most from his students. In his published writings, he made significant contributions in theoretical physics, especially in the field of quantum mechanics. Some even give him credit for co-authoring an early paper on the “black hole” phenomenon.
It was his reputation in this field that brought him to the attention of the military during World War II. Colonel, and later General, Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers, had a major role in building the Pentagon. So when Franklin Roosevelt decided, on the initial recommendation of Albert Einstein, to begin work on an atomic fission bomb, Groves was placed in charge of construction of facilities at Hanford, Washington, Oak Ridge Tennessee and finally Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The first site was for production of plutonium, the second for uranium and the last for the design, experimentation and ultimate detonation of the atomic bomb.
An Odd Choice
Oppenheimer was an odd choice to supervise the scientific side of this project because he had no prior administrative experience; he was not even a dean at Berkeley. But Groves sensed that his wide scientific background, his communication skills, plus a smoldering ambition he detected in the man would make Oppenheimer a good choice for the position. And after a conversation on a train in October 1942 Groves decided that Robert Oppenheimer was his man.
To say that the Berkley professor rose to the occasion does not do justice to his success at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer attracted many of the finest scientific minds of his era, a virtual all-star team the likes of which had never been assembled before or since. This included a young Richard Feynman who worked under Hans Bethe.
He organized hundreds of people into groups and divisions under scientific headings and spent millions upon millions for equipment, chemicals and construction of laboratory facilities. In less than three years, he developed two workable designs for the atomic bomb: one for uranium, and one for plutonium.
On July 16, 1945 the Manhattan Project came to fruition when a plutonium bomb was exploded 210 miles south of Los Alamos. This should have been the capstone to a brilliant career. It was not.
Oppenheimer made three powerful enemies. These were J. Edgar Hoover, director of the F.B.I.; Lewis Strauss, member of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later its chairman, and finally fellow physicist Edward Teller.
After the war, Oppenheimer began to develop second thoughts that gradually became feelings of guilt about the bombings over Japan. Further, he became Teller’s nemesis on the development of the hydrogen bomb.
As Oppenheimer developed the highest profile of any scientist in America — making the cover of Time magazine — his enemies combined to arrange his removal from government.
Based on Hoover’s illegal taping and surveillance of Oppenheimer, and his questioning by Army Intelligence officer Boris Pash, Strauss confronted the scientist with a list of charges that he said would cause him to revoke his security clearance.
A Kangaroo Court
Knowing Oppenheimer would challenge these charges, Strauss arranged a hearing before the AEC over three weeks in 1954. Strauss controlled every aspect of what many historians have justly called a kangaroo court. The proceeding led to a 2-1 vote against Oppenheimer on the day before his consultancy would expire anyway, which revealed the political motivation behind it.
As the reader can see, this true story would be irresistible to anyone involved with making history into theater simply because the conflict between these men became a long, dramatic confrontation. And it did not end with the revocation of Oppenheimer’s clearance in 1954.
It went on for years after that, thanks in large part to the participation of John F. Kennedy, both as senator and president. Finally, in late 2022, Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. energy secretary, reversed the AEC decision, saying it was part of a flawed process arising out of a disagreement over policy on nonproliferation, plus the development of the hydrogen bomb.
Because of the complexity of Oppenheimer’s character and the monumental history involved, there have been at least three popular plays written about this affair, several documentaries, a few television films and mini-series and two prior feature films.
In his new three hour film called simply Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan is the latest film director to take on the subject. Nolan bought the rights to what is probably the best book about the matter, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and the late Martin Sherwin. He then set about writing the script and directing the film, while his wife, Emma Thomas, produced it.
Nolan decided to break up the chronology of the story into relatively brief segments. For example, the last scene in the film depicts Oppenheimer meeting with Albert Einstein at Princeton — which happened in the fifties — after we have already seen him receiving the Enrico Fermi award at the White House — an event which occurred in 1963.
In fact, in one section of the film, Nolan patches together three separate time frames in just a matter of minutes: Oppenheimer on a train, the Boris Pash interview, and Groves at the clearance hearing. Even someone like me, who understood the story, was startled by this swift juxtaposition.
I know it confused some people since one reviewer said that the last scene in the film was an imaginary meeting between Oppenheimer and President Dwight Eisenhower. Nolan tries to help the viewer by shooting some of the later events in black and white, like the senate hearings over Strauss’ failed nomination for commerce secretary.
With this kind of approach to the story, Nolan had to be well served by his cameraman and editor: respectively Hoyte von Hoytema and Jennifer Lane. He was, and the film is quite skillfully executed. If anything, the picture seems to me to be somewhat overdirected, with close ups of molecular explosions going off, and a very aggressive, loud soundtrack that, at times, competes with the actors’ voices to be heard.
Ignored Einstein’s Advice
Nolan even lapses into expressionism at times. For example, during Oppenheimer’s clearance hearing when his affair with Jean Tatlock, a former member of the communist party, is discussed, Nolan shows them nude and copulating right in the hearing room.
The script makes much of how rigged the security clearance hearing was. In fact, Einstein advised Oppenheimer not to go through with it and just resign his AEC consultancy. He ignored that advice. Oppenheimer’s problem was that Strauss was allowed to control the hearing.
The prosecutor, Roger Robb, met with the commissioners in advance to review the F.B.I. files, something that Oppenheimer’s attorneys were not allowed to do since they lacked a similar clearance. Robb also failed to turn over a witness list to the defense. He even wiretapped Oppenheimer’s lawyers. The lead commissioner, Gordon Gray, was essentially a surrogate for Strauss.
As historians Peter Kuznick and Richard Rhodes, both experts on the atomic age have stated, Oppenheimer was never a member of the CP. Any accusation he was or served as some kind of saboteur was unfounded. The hearing, and the revocation of his clearance, was a pure Cold War maneuver.
The film outlines the three major reasons that are usually given for Strauss’ animosity toward the illustrious scientist. First, Strauss — who made a fortune on Wall Street — was a trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He was in the running for the directorship, but the board chose Oppenheimer instead. Strauss extended the offer, but Oppenheimer delayed accepting it, something Strauss, for whatever reason, took personally.
Secondly, Oppenheimer had embarrassed Strauss in public by denying his claim that the export of radioisotopes for medicinal purposes was a security risk. And third, like Teller, Strauss favored an ever spiraling nuclear arms race by going ahead with the fusion-based, hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer opposed this on the grounds that the H bomb had little or no use as a tactical weapon.
But fission bombs, such as the Atomic Bomb, did. Teller later maintained he was going to testify for Oppenheimer at his clearance hearing. But Robb supposedly gave him an F.B.I. file while he was waiting outside the hearing room in the hallway. As historian Sherwin discovered, however, this turned out to be untrue.
Teller had instead met with Robb the night before to go over his testimony in which he said that he did not trust Oppenheimer or understand his decisions. As most commentators have stated, this clearly referred to their dispute over the fusion H-bomb.
If the idea was to cow any other scientist who disagreed with the AEC decision, it did not work. Almost 500 scientists from Los Alamos and over 200 from the Argonne National Laboratory signed a protest against the 1954 verdict. These protests continued until 1959.
Nolan got the senate hearing transcript from 1959 when Strauss, seeking to become commerce secretary, became the first cabinet member nominee to be rejected by the senate since 1925. At that hearing, Strauss made the outlandish request that he be allowed to cross examine hostile witnesses. Clinton Anderson, a Democratic senator from New Mexico — not a member of the Commerce Committee — was the major witness opposing the nomination.
Anderson testified for two days. Two scientists, David Inglis and David Hill — the latter played by Rami Malek in the film — also testified against him. To show the political divide on the issue, Teller testified in his favor. Strauss lost on a 49-46 vote.
Nolan spends a lot of time and effort depicting the Trinity test, for which he says he did not use any computer generated special effects. And this is a well done, suspenseful scene. But he does not show the damage to Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the film.
The closest he comes is when a woman in an audience whom Oppenheimer is addressing — played by Nolan’s daughter — has layers of her skin peeled off, a clearly subjective device. In another instance, we view Oppenheimer when he recoils as he watches films of the atomic destruction. We never see the films.
In this complex matter, another choice Nolan made was not to accent the fact that, in reality, there was no race for the atomic bomb. Yet this was the reason that scientist Leo Szilard gave to Einstein to push him to write his original letter to Roosevelt about the need to build the bomb.
In fact, the Germans were never close to detonating an atomic bomb. As scholars like Kuznick have noted, a major reason for continuing the program and dropping the bomb was to send a message to Moscow. To his credit, Oppenheimer later understood this in regards to the fusion H-bomb, thinking there should be an open debate about it.
This is a creditable and worthy film, especially when viewed against the background of how Marvel Universe has taken over Hollywood. If Nolan’s approach had been more straightforward, however, the emotional impact would have been more potent.
In 1983, director Phil Kaufman made a film about another high-tech scientific project. The Right Stuff was about the Mercury mission to send Americans into orbit. Although that film used a lot of special effects, sophisticated editing, and memorable photography, it was told chronologically toward a quite effective ending.
Kennedy & Oppenheimer
In dealing with the Kennedy aspect of the story, the film says in effect that Senator Kennedy voted against the Strauss nomination in order to make a name for himself. As the Sherwin/Bird book makes clear that was not the reason. Kennedy had been shown evidence by his Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy that Strauss had railroaded Oppenheimer at his clearance hearing. This was the reason Kennedy voted against Strauss.
In 1962, President Kennedy held a White House banquet for Nobel prize laureates. Oppenheimer did not win a Nobel, but Kennedy wanted him invited anyway. In 1963, Kennedy decided to complete Oppenheimer’s rehabilitation by awarding him the Enrico Fermi award at the White House. The award was accompanied by a $50, 000 check. Kennedy was killed before he could give him that award so, as the film depicts, President Johnson handed the award and prize to him.
But after the ceremony, Jackie Kennedy requested to see the recipient in private. According to the book, American Prometheus, she told him that it was one of her husband’s highest wishes to hand him that award in person and in public. Like Oppenheimer, Kennedy was against nuclear proliferation. I can’t help but wonder if that private meeting with the slain president’s widow would have been a more pungent, clear cut ending for the film.
This should not discourage anyone from seeing the picture. The Day After Trinity is the best documentary on Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Nolan’s film is by far the best feature film I have seen on the subject.
Seeing Nolan’s film and going to the Criterion Channel for the documentary will give the viewer a fine education about a huge, painful, and in some ways, tragic chapter in U.S. history. It is one that haunts contemporary America and the world. For today, there are about 15,000 stockpiled hydrogen bombs.
Unfortunately for us all, Teller won that argument.
James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is The JFK Assassination : The Evidence Today.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.