Note from the Editors: The following essay is the second installment of a III-part symposium on “Oppenheimer”.

Note from the Editors: The following essay is the second installment of a III-part symposium.

Christopher Nolan's Sleight of Hand

By Lafayette Lee · 7 August 2023

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”: A Symposium, Part II

“But we are only termites on a planet and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there’ll be a reckoning. Who knows?”
— Harry S. Truman, July 1945

We don’t go to the movies for a dose of reality – we go to escape. Yet in the darkness of the theater, as the laws of nature are suspended, and our pulse quickens with the shadows flickering on screen, we hope to experience truth. Truth, not imagination, is what makes a film a revelation, and separates the merely entertaining from the great. But the truth only appears when the filmmaker has first faced it himself.
 
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a great film that will likely stand for decades as a monument to one of the most decisive chapters in modern history. Nolan treats the audience to a sensory feast while unraveling a complex story about a complicated man. But Nolan‘s deference to liberal pieties ultimately does the audience, and himself, a great disservice. He hurries us right to the edge, inviting us to peer into the murky origins of this strange world we have inherited, only to suddenly pull back. And with that, the truth is lost.
 
The story begins in 1926 in an era balanced on a heap of contradictions. These are the années folles, the days of Mickey Mouse and Spengler’s Decline of the West. Beneath the roar of engines and brass bands, anxiety pervades — a sense of foreboding that prompted a young Whittaker Chambers to recall the words of the Roman historian Savinus: “The Empire is filled with misery, but it is luxurious. It is dying, but it laughs.” But prosperity and laughter cannot hide the fact that Europe is on the verge of suicide, the far East is in revolt and America, having returned to normalcy, mourns the closing of its frontier.
 
Science has already transformed the world, and a radical reinvention of physics now offers a new breath of life. We meet J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, a brilliant student of physics who epitomizes both the ingenuity and dissipation of the epoch. Oppenheimer is ambitious, fearless, vain, and tortured by his genius. For a brief moment, we are allowed inside his mind: we see eruptions of color and rolling waves of light. We also observe him nearly poison a professor in a half-baked attempt at revenge. The plot collapses at the last second, Oppenheimer is rewarded for his trouble, and the young scientist’s murderous ego takes him to even greater heights.
 
Oppenheimer follows the quantum revolution across interwar Europe as the drums of war start pounding in the distance. He meets Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and other pioneers in quantum physics. Returning home to the United States, and the University of California, Berkeley, he becomes a follower of Marx and Engels. Science has demystified the natural world; soon it will remake human society as well. Scientific socialism is the future, the leading thinkers all agree, and Berkeley is a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment. Artists, scholars, and scientists mingle at salons and house parties to analyze history and praise Lenin over Martinis and cigarettes. 
 
In terms of Oppenheimer himself, Nolan follows his source material, Bird and Sherwin’s 2005 biography American Prometheus, in portraying an aloof, naive scientist swept up in a fever of anti-fascism and social justice and drifting into the company of Communists. Among his most intimate relationships are card-carrying members of the Communist Party with ties to the Soviet underground. These associations earn him the notice of Hoover’s FBI and the disapproval of his midwestern Berkeley-colleague Ernest Lawrence, but Oppenheimer’s loyalties are never seriously questioned. Instead, hapless radicalism and a love of dangerous women are seen through the prism of American rights and privileges and hint at Oppenheimer’s self-destruction in the film’s final act.
 
By 1942, the war is in full swing. The clever and capable General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) is on the hunt for a scientist to lead the Army’s secret nuclear bomb project and chooses Oppenheimer for the role. Despite the latter’s questionable politics and associations, Groves understands that Oppenheimer’s personality and outsider status as the son of a Jewish migrant father will be essential to leading a team dominated by exiled Jewish scientists from Europe. Oppenheimer proves to be an ideal choice.
 
Like an Old Testament prophecy crying out from the wilderness, Los Alamos, New Mexico, a windswept otherworld deep in the heart of the Old West, is selected as the site for the Manhattan Project’s secret laboratory. Outcasts from a dying European world remove to the wasteland where the Colt made all men equal — and achieve a scientific miracle that will establish a world empire. Nolan captures this monumental achievement in a series of clever vignettes that illustrate the complexity of the personalities involved and foreshadow Oppenheimer’s defeat at the hands of federal bureaucrats.
 
At Los Alamos, Oppenheimer’s past associations come back to haunt him, and we start to see the setup for Nolan’s sleight of hand. Oppenheimer repeatedly violates security protocols to see his mistress, Jean Tatlock, an unabashed Communist. While this reckless disregard for the rules highlights Oppenheimer’s egotism, overwrought direction in these scenes almost presents the man as a martyr. Nolan dispatches Oppie’s wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt) to disabuse her husband (and the audience) of this temptation, but an air of ersatz sentimentalism lingers. Even as Oppenheimer dines with known Communist Party recruiter Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall), in the midst of the atomic bomb project, and is forced to rebuff an invitation to commit espionage, we are somehow expected to pity him. As Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists chafe under the Army’s onerous security measures a new villian slowly emerges: the shallow, scheming, and slightly paranoid regime goon.
 
Of course, the atomic bomb project is a great success, thanks in large part to Oppenheimer’s steady hand and the trust and cohesion he cultivated in his colleagues from the outset. The final scenes at Los Alamos are tense and deeply moving, and the cinematography is breaktaking. We are left to wonder if a similar triumph would be possible today. Even with ten times the budget, a longer timeline, and scientists handpicked from around the world, is there a man anywhere that could lead such an effort? Do we still produce men like that?

Oppenheimer (2023)

Oppenheimer (2023)

The film’s third act, which focuses on Oppenheimer’s dramatic fall from grace, is gripping and skillfully executed. But just as Nolan seems ready to reach for something great, he pulls back to keep us trapped in the illusion. Until the final act, we get a colorful picture of Oppenheimer’s complexity — his ambition and vanity weighed against his brilliance, strength, and courage. But as we approach the film’s climax, the protagonist is rendered into a stone-faced martyr serenely awaiting execution. At this point, the real villain of Oppenheimer comes into full form — not Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) but a cold bureaucratic machine, which has been patiently waiting since our first encounter with the FBI in Berkeley to sacrifice Oppenheimer on an altar of corruption and expediency.
 
The kangaroo court that condemns the “father of the bomb” is composed of boors and lickspittles. Only Strauss seems to possess the kind of cleverness Groves once relied on to keep Oppenheimer in check, but the audience is encouraged to view him as motivated by pettiness and vindictiveness. The accusers scrutinize every angle of Oppenheimer’s politics and questionable associations, verbally abusing him (and his wife) and doctoring evidence. Friendless and betrayed, Oppenheimer takes his licks with an admirable, Stoic calmness. Even when he consults with Albert Einstein, who was himself left friendless and betrayed years earlier, Oppenheimer hardly complains and, instead, reaffirms his patriotism. When he loses his security clearance we can’t help but feel that he has met a fate worse than death.
 

Oppenheimer has done an incredible service to his nation, but the nation betrayed him. Einstein reminds him that it isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last. The father of the bomb now shoulders the same burden that once belonged to the father of relativity. And one day, just like that, it will pass to someone else.

***
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a vivid reminder of what America — and Americans — used to be. We are now living in the twilight of a world created by Oppenheimer’s generation. And the further we move away from that crucial chapter — when a dying world withered away under a blossoming mushroom cloud — the more incomprehensible the present becomes. 
 
Around the time J. Robert Oppenheimer was spreading the quantum physics revolution in the United States, Washington was undergoing a revolution of its own. As Whittaker Chambers observed, “It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking.” Capitalism had failed, and given rise to a dramatic transformation in American governance. The New Deal consolidated the exhausted, broken and inefficient vestiges of representative government and replaced them with a revolutionary bureaucracy. 
 
The crises of the period were so acute, and this transformation so rapid and complete, that few Americans could articulate what had happened. Many struggled to remember what the world had been like before. But to the revolutionaries, these changes were inevitable. The authority of modern science, the laws of economics and history itself decreed it. 
 
To govern a complex world with such catastrophic potential, experts, specialists, and administrators were needed. It was this revolutionary bureaucracy that put millions of Americans back to work, launched the nation’s first welfare programs, and mobilized the country for war. The ease at which Communists and fellow travelers were able to permeate this revolutionary bureaucracy cannot be overstated. By the time Oppenheimer became involved with the Communist Party at Berkeley there were Soviet spy rings operating from Washington DC to San Francisco, with agents placed at the highest levels of government. These spy rings would ultimately come to count among their ranks a White House aide, senior State Department officials present at Yalta, the Assistant Treasury Secretary who became the main architect of the post-war financial order, and a handful of scientists who worked at Los Alamos. 
 
Jean Tatlock, Kitty Oppenheimer, and Oppie’s brother, Frank, were all members of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA), which, apart from being controlled and funded by Moscow, sourced recruits for the Soviet underground. Oppenheimer himself caught the attention of the FBI in 1941, only a year before joining the Manhattan Project, when he was picked up on a wiretap trying to arrange a meeting with Steve Nelson, a CPUSA leader and recruiter for the Soviet intelligence. It was from a wiretap of a later conversation between Nelson and an undercover NKVD official that J. Edgar Hoover first learned of the existence of the atomic bomb project. And in 1943, when Haakon Chevalier approached Oppenheimer to solicit technical information on behalf of the Soviet Union, it was not a chance encounter. Chevalier and Oppenheimer had both belonged to the same Communist faculty club at Berkeley, and Oppenheimer had previously used Chevalier to communicate with a liaison between the CPUSA and the Soviet underground. 
 
A debate has raged for years whether Oppenheimer was a just a harmless radical, a Soviet agent, or a Communist sympathizer who turned a blind eye to security risks at Los Alamos. Most scholars agree with Kai Bird (and with Nolan) that Oppie was an American patriot with a radical streak who saw US-Soviet cooperation as both inevitable and good — but never betrayed his own country. To be sure, Oppenheimer’s name does not appear in the Venona counterintelligence files. Documents from the Soviet archives indicate that Moscow knew about the Manhattan Project before Vice President Truman and wanted Oppenheimer for a source, but nothing came of it. Although one Soviet document does exist identifying Oppenheimer as an agent of the Kremlin – the infamous Merkulov letter – it has never been corroborated. 
 
We may never know why Oppie continually flirted with dangerous company and lied to both the Army and FBI. But when it comes the Atomic Energy Commission hearings, the consensus is clear: Oppenheimer was a victim, and maybe a martyr. As Nolan reminds us throughout the film, Oppie was at the height of his influence during the so-called McCarthy Era, when Communist subversion became a national obsession.
 
It is easy to be swept away by a narrative we know so well. America was triumphant, righteous, and on the cusp of becoming what it was always meant to be, but the forces of reaction used the specter of Communism to seize power, and debase our most cherished values. Nolan reinforces this narrative, and through a sleight of hand, relieves the audience of the need to more closely examine the revolutionary bureaucracy, then and now.
 
In May 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance. Seven months later in December 1954, McCarthy himself would be censured by the United States Senate. Both men were publicly broken and humiliated by a process, the same process: arraigned in front of a committee that doctored evidence, restricted access, and had its verdict predetermined from the start.
 
Just as the fall of capitalism replaced the power of business with the power of a managed economy, the invention of nuclear weapons transformed representative politics. Could humanity survive this kind of power falling into the hands of a demagogue like McCarthy, or a foolhardy narcissist like Oppenheimer? With an nuclear enemy like the Soviet Union, could we rely on the judgement of ancient legislative bodies comprised of used-car salesmen, Christian fundamentalists, and backwoods segregationists? With spy rings operating in the heart of Washington, could we trust some piece of 18th century parchment to keep us safe and secure? 
 
We have inherited this cold-hearted bureaucratic machine. Although it still calls itself a democracy, our system is defined in practice by a credentialed cadre of experts, specialists, and administrators legislating through regulation, procedure, and secret committees. Because ideological conformity is required to sustain this arrangement, we have our own blacklists, loyalty oaths, surveillance programs, and censorship protocols. Oppenheimer would have you believe that this machine is defined by reactionaries like the dread Joe McCarthy: the opposite of the truth. And so even as our cities become uninhabitable, and as the nation lurches towards war and annihilation year by year… as the most fundamental questions about human freedom are outsourced to regulatory bodies and committees, as the machine becomes totally incomprehensible and its functionaries prove unfit… we are told that, as long as the forces of reaction are kept at bay, everything will be alright. 

Read also: “McCarthy’s Red Specter” from our third print edition. Available here.

Lafayette Lee is an American writer and a contributing editor of IM—1776. He can be followed @Partisan_O.

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