Oppenheimer was not right

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is a film as intricate as it is spectacular. In theory, it does not engage in propaganda. In practice, however, it offers too many one-sided conclusions. And yet, it was not the protagonist of the film who was right, but rather the advocates of the nuclear arms race. Today, we know this for certain.

Christopher Nolan’s earlier films, in theory, crime dramas (Memento, Insomnia), though still intimate, were twisted and one could say visionary. Later, whether he took on the Batman trilogy, a unique science fiction genre (Interstellar, Inception), or the history of World War II (Dunkirk), Nolan did not shy away from grandeur, large-scale scenes, and technical prowess. Great visual visions, even a certain sense of pathos.

At times, he overcomplicated things – his latest film in the sci-fi thriller genre, Tenet, was, for me at least, indigestible, although filled with astonishingly suggestive images and sounds. Nevertheless, Nolan has established his own style that cannot be imitated. He also maintains a certain independence from current trends related to ideological fashions.

History as it was

I took part in a debate about his cinema a few years ago. I argued about Dunkirk with two typical film critics. Both of them made the classic accusations dictated by political correctness: the lack of women and people of colour. But Nolan simply wanted to show the history of 1940 as it was. However, to my surprise, I learned that the film was shot from a one-sided, “nationalistic” perspective of Great Britain. The absent German enemy was dehumanised. So even the clash of democracy with Nazism is subject to contemporary relativization – so as to not offend anyone.

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Nolan wrote the screenplay for his latest Oppenheimer himself. It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographical book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. I confess that I have not yet read this historical report, but the director apparently captures the authors’ intentions to a great extent.

In Poland, the internet not only strongly debates this film but also revels in an unexpected additional “advertisement.” The hitherto unknown portal Kobiety Lewicy (Women of the Left) has discredited the film. Oppenheimer is said not only to tendentiously depict American leftists from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s as incurable gobemouches but also to omit people of colour and relegate women to subordinate social roles.

I repeat: Nolan tries to capture the nature and atmosphere of past eras. He avoids rewriting history in line with creating new realities according to today’s social and moral transformations. Such adjustments are devoid of logic. For example, if, in feudal England depicted in contemporary cinema, black people could be part of the nobility and populate royal courts, there is no talk of harm or later emancipation.

Contemporary adjusters in the spirit of progressive political correctness seem not to understand this. And incidentally, they forget that with all permissible tricks towards fantasising, when one tries to tell history, it is worth at least roughly telling the truth.

Nolan is not like that, hence the absurd accusations against Dunkirk, for example. Having said that, I must note that, as a historian of 20th-century United States, I do not agree with his portrayal of the father of the American atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. There is no primitive falsification of facts here. However, what is important is what is not said or shown. So we have a story about the birth of the Cold War seemingly taken out of context. A context that is becoming less obvious to the next generations.

Nolan’s complex narrative

I will start by saying that the film is made as if in opposition to the rules of contemporary pop culture, which passionately simplifies and ensures often spoon-fed clarity of action. The narrative is conducted here on at least four intertwining timelines. After an introduction set in the 1930s, we have an intriguingly outlined story of the Manhattan Project when the U.S. Army, seeking to match Germany in developing a terrible new weapon, relied on an eccentric scientist with communist connections because he brought quantum physics to the USA.
Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer. Photo Image Capital Pictures / Film Stills / Forum
But in the midst of these spectacular images from the Los Alamos base, culminating in the bomb’s test before dropping it on Hiroshima, the first post-war scenes are interwoven, depicting debates about whether to race against Russia in nuclear weapons or allow them access to atomic secrets.

Then we have two intertwined investigations from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency: a board appointed by the Atomic Energy Commission interrogates Oppenheimer, aiming to revoke his access to classified information, which would end his public career, while simultaneously, the Senate Committee deals with Oppenheimer’s case in the context of approving Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, as Secretary of Commerce.

Film critic Piotr Kletowski is right; these talkative displays would not be tolerable without suggestive filming, excellent roles, and especially moving music. And without constant jumps, mood swings, and fueling emotions.

  But it’s worth noting that both investigations spanned four years: Oppenheimer was interrogated in 1954, and Strauss in 1958. This is not apparent in the film at all. The complexity of both spectacles, as we constantly return to old threads and flashbacks chase retrospectives, can be a challenge for an uninformed viewer. Along with many other elements, dozens of characters, physicists, bureaucrats, military personnel, politicians appear in the film, and it is quite easy to get lost in this tangle.

The admiration for the actors remains. Not only for Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer but also for the difficult-to-recognize Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss or Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, who supervised the physicists within the Manhattan Project. And equally surprising, also almost unrecognisable, Casey Affleck as a ghastly U.S. intelligence officer.

A friend explained to me that for young viewers, temporal inversions in films are less challenging because, among other things, Nolan has accustomed them to such “jumping” storytelling. Maybe. But I’m not sure if they end up with a clearer, multi-threaded story with all its complications or a more general, pulsating impression of colours and sounds in their heads.

Communism as harmless hobby

The difficulty in grasping the action may also be related to the message. In the initial scenes, the theme of Oppenheimer’s connections with communists resurfaces several times. His brother, his lover, and finally, his wife are communists. Some part ways with communism, others do not. But communist involvement itself, or the orbiting of such involvement, as in Oppenheimer’s case, is portrayed here as a harmless pastime of a group of chattering eggheads. From the perspective of individual characters, it may have seemed that way. Where is the problem then, an inattentive viewer might ask, especially in scenes where these old connections are brought up in an unsympathetic investigation after years?

We won’t find out essentially (though there are a few references, such as the CPUSA’s attitude towards World War II) that communists were a dangerous sect not shying away from espionage against their own country. How can this be conveyed in a fictional narrative? This is a challenge for Nolan as a screenwriter.
Indeed, at the end of the 1930s, there was a kind of symbiosis between some of them (often crypto-communists) and the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Oppenheimer initially had nothing against the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, believing that Stalin was forced into it. Roosevelt supposedly thought the same, but he officially distanced himself from Stalin between 1939 and 1941, for example condemning the USSR’s aggression against Finland. In the film, we only hear that Oppenheimer’s priority, also as a Jew, is to fight against Nazism.

General Groves, the overseer of the Manhattan Project, says after the war during one of the investigations that none of the physicists concentrated in Los Alamos should have access to sensitive data from a national security point of view due to their views or entanglements. At the same time, to some extent, he defends Oppenheimer’s loyalty – after all, they entered into a symbiosis, and together, they produced the bomb. The U.S. army didn’t have much choice in the face of a common German-Japanese enemy.

Scientists, both those who emigrated from Europe and those born in America, were sympathisers of communism to a degree far deviating from the American average. In the scale of the country, the CPUSA was a small sect. However, scientific laboratories and intellectual salons were brimming with its influences. In the film, we learn about this incidentally. But while watching the film itself, will we understand the socio-political meaning of this dominance? Not quite, as political debates are largely omitted in it.

Sharing with the Soviets?

And there was a problem. Several times, we hear that Oppenheimer, having no objections to the bomb against the Nazis, and even against the Japanese, mumbles about sharing atomic energy secrets with the Soviets. After all, they are allies. Roosevelt apparently considered this idea for a moment, under the influence of the famous physicist Niels Bohr (played by Kenneth Branagh) shown in the film, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Denmark. But the American president, though he probably wouldn’t have engaged in an arms race with Stalin after the war, ultimately rejected that idea. Supposedly, under the influence of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

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The Harry Truman administration rejected such ideas once again at the famous meeting in September 1945 when “useful idiot” Henry Wallace, the former vice president and secretary of commerce, was the main advocate. Even the conservative Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, and American generals who still thought in categories of wartime alliances discussed the matter. The voice of the scientists wasn’t decisive in this case.

However, let’s imagine what would have happened if similar fantasies had been pursued by Americans. How would history have changed? Let’s consider this in the context of what we know about the completely absent communist, Soviet regime.

At the same time, Oppenheimer disregarded military suspicions that there might be a Soviet spy among the physicists at Los Alamos. This naivety of his is highlighted in the film and is not defended. Years later, it turned out that there were indeed several spies at various stages of nuclear weapons development. However, can we be surprised that during the period of reckoning, conventionally referred to as the McCarthy era, the once-praised “Oppie” found himself under various suspicions? During this time, ordinary Americans took revenge on communist and communist-leaning intellectual elites for several years. Sometimes blindly and with various excesses, but the confrontation with communist Moscow, though only potential, was truly potentially deadly. The Cold War remained a war.

In the film, Nolan shows that post-war accusers of Oppenheimer were puzzled by his acceptance of the destructive bomb during the war but not building new weapons against the Soviets. They considered it evidence of his lingering pro-communist sympathies. However, everything is more complicated in the film. “Oppie” does have doubts and a guilty conscience after the mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Under their influence, he warns against further arms race.

Was the bomb a crime?

This aspect is shown somewhat caricatured. Arguments from the government’s perspective are presented – that the bomb is an alternative solution to equally destructive conventional attacks on Japanese cities. And that the fear in Tokyo prevented the need for an invasion of Japanese islands with tens of thousands of “American boys” killed. Oppenheimer himself is inconsistent on this matter. But is that enough? What are we supposed to be convinced of?

Ultimately, Harry Truman played by Gary Oldman is portrayed as a simplistic, unscrupulous caricature. True, the real Truman was impulsive and straightforward, even when he called Oppenheimer a “crybaby,” as portrayed in the film. But in today’s times when the left considers the bombing of Hiroshima a crime, he would deserve a more nuanced treatment. This otherwise liberal and socially sensitive democrat was a larger-than-life character than the figure created by Oldman.

Admittedly, Oppenheimer’s dilemmas are morally understandable. The whole nightmare, along with the radiation diseases suffered by the Japanese, must have haunted him. However, at times, despite all the twists and turns of the plot, I felt like I was watching a copy of previous pacifist manifestos.

Oppenheimer sowed doubts about building the hydrogen bomb, terrified by the scale of the arms race. Another physicist, Edward Teller, who is shown in the film as a volatile eccentric, responded similarly to him. Truman agreed with Teller. Public opinion sided with that decision, especially after the Soviets conducted their own nuclear tests in 1949.

Scorpions in a bottle

Oppenheimer’s personal hell really came during the times of the next president, Republican and prominent WWII general, Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a military man, he came to power with a promise of even greater toughness against the USSR. Yet, as a person experienced in war, he had illusions that armaments could be restrained.
Oppenheimer and his adversary Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Photo Image Capital Pictures / Film Stills / Forum
Under Eisenhower, Oppenheimer wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in February 1953, right at the beginning of Eisenhower’s presidency, recommending a halt to the nuclear arms race. In that article, he compared the USA and the USSR to two scorpions locked in a bottle. Each could kill the other, but at the cost of its own life.

Eisenhower initially seemed to agree with Oppenheimer. At the time, Oppenheimer was the chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. But opposition followed. Congressman David Borden forwarded an FBI dossier on Oppenheimer along with an opinion that he might be a Soviet spy and the source of atomic leaks. This became the reason for the investigation by a special committee formed by the Atomic Energy Commission. Eisenhower sought this format, not wanting the famous Senate committee of Joseph McCarthy, which, regardless of reasons or lack thereof, did not respect secrets and often caused trouble for the administration (McCarthy was a Republican).

True, Borden’s accusations were unfair, and the committee’s proceedings were inquisitorial, partially based on classified documents. Oppenheimer had limited opportunities for defence. Although Nolan partly attributes inconsistency and naivety to him, in those long sequences of gruelling interrogations, he tries to evoke sympathy for him.

Strauss was right

Let me say it again: that time had its pathologies, the McCarthy committee acted blindly and not always justly. Possibly, this committee did so as well. But the truth is that Oppenheimer was wrong. In that sense, removing him from national security was a good idea. The highly forced arms race and America’s resulting technological advantage saved the world from Soviet domination. And you won’t learn this from the movie.

Similarly, we won’t learn that Oppenheimer faced the risk of losing access to classified data and thus his position in the Atomic Energy Commission. If a Soviet state official of similar rank and function started sharing his doubts about the sense of the arms race with Stalin, he would have been executed. In the times of Stalin’s deputies, he probably would have faced civil death.

As Oppenheimer’s antagonist, initially hidden, later open, Admiral Lewis Strauss is portrayed. A highly interesting character, also Jewish, son of a shoe salesman who rose to his position through hard work. A self-taught man with a perfect knowledge who became rich and later a state official. Under Truman, this Republican was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Under Eisenhower, he became its chairman. “The Russian government, an atheist government, will have no moral inhibitions to develop new types of weapons,” Strauss warned, advocating for the “Super bomb” (i.e., the hydrogen bomb). The film depicts him as a man offended by his rival’s alleged undermining of his authority among scientists and, in retaliation, he initiates a conspiracy against Oppenheimer.

Perhaps these motives were at play, and Strauss’s methods may have been regrettable. But it was also a serious clash of opinions that cannot be reduced to mere personal vendettas. And now I may offend tearful pacifists: Strauss was right. At least he had more reason than the physics doctor who, in the end, is crushed by him, though his own history also affects Strauss’s career blockage.

My goal is not to discourage anyone from watching Nolan’s spectacular, terribly long, but emotion-filled film. However, it just so happens that we know the endings of this and other similar stories. While McCarthy-era warriors committed many wrongs driven by party or community hatred, we know that the history of Cold War America speaks to the merits of risk in relations with the Soviets. Risks that may have seemed dangerous or morally reprehensible at the time.

I am not here to defend one party; there was a relative consensus on such matters in the USA – after all, I defend Truman, a Democrat, as much as Strauss, a Republican. It seems that Hollywood, even in its more original productions, cannot break free from certain patterns. And not just Hollywood. The film is an American-British production, and Nolan himself is British. In fact, this applies to the elites of the entire West.

– Piotr Zaremba

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on the set of “Oppenheimer”. Image Capital Pictures / Film Stills / Forum photo.
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