Telling a compelling story in an engaging way is a filmmaker’s challenge. Many stories that make it into film are not really worth telling. That’s not the case with the story of the atomic bomb, the most destructive weapon ever dropped on a civilian population in world history.
Oppenheimer is the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was not the scientist who invented the A-bomb, but he was the scientist who managed its development. With the Ukraine War and the intensification of the US-China conflict as the background, Oppenheimer is now the highest-grossing biopic of all time with just shy of $1 billion in ticket sales.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s movie unfolds in an engaging way, if not perhaps in an overly drawn-out way, with a total runtime of three hours. The movie is permeated with explosively striking animations that try to draw us into the excitement surrounding the splitting of the atom that leads to the development of the bomb. Visually, the movie is captivating.
On the surface, Oppenheimer is a relatively well-written, well-acted, and well-directed movie. But the approach that Nolan takes to the story of the A-bomb is deeply flawed on multiple levels.
Released the same weekend as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, it is easy to contrast the two. Whereas Gerwig does challenge gender norms to an extent, Nolan makes no effort to challenge anything in his movie. It is essentially a retelling of the US government’s version of events, spruced up for the 2020s.
Even on gender norms, Oppenheimer fails. Given that half a million people in the US were engaged with the government’s A-bomb development, it’s a bit surprising that there is not a single conversation between two women portrayed in this movie.
In Japan, the Barbenheimer social media releases caused a huge uproar. Images of Barbie with mushroom-bomb hair created such a backlash against the Oppenheimer movie that Universal Studios did not release the movie in Japan. It remains unreleased there, which points to the most serious flaw of the movie.
The movie is essentially dismissive of the horrific destruction of the A-bomb. Awareness of the flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 remains minimal in the US. It is deliberately avoided in US history or media, and in that sense, this movie continues to shield the American public from the true horror of those two bombings.
Immediately after the war, there was a significant backlash against nuclear warfare after the release of footage of the terrible deaths suffered by nearly a quarter million people in Japan. In Oppenheimer, there is no such footage. One brief scene shows the scientists’ faces watching news coverage of the aftermath in Japan. There are some involuntary looks of shock, but Oppenheimer himself refuses to look.
US audiences are also unlikely to learn how ordinary Japanese people view this movie; the decision to not release the film in Japan has received little media attention. In a very real way, the movie is a whitewashing of history.
One Bad Apple
Storytelling is always best when it involves people portrayed in all their conflicted complexity. However, history is not a random series of colliding individuals. Individuals and individual decisions are important, but only in the context of the systems that those decisions operate within.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer exaggerates the role of individuals, reducing history to a struggle between contending personalities. The director effectively celebrates J. Robert Oppenheimer’s abandoning of his values – he is only given the job working on the A-Bomb if he abandons the unionization effort taking place in the lab where he was working – and his conflicted feelings about the use of the bomb is portrayed as some kind of strength of character. In reality, the opposite is true.
Oppenheimer is actually a warning to all working people: if you are not a principled person, and you have no worldview, you will likely lose your way in this world and others will decide your direction for you. And in Oppenheimer’s situation, his abandonment of principles led him to create levels of harm of epic proportions.
Communism, Stalinism, Capitalism
The movie is essentially an attempt by the writer/director to rehabilitate J. Robert Oppenheimer for the establishment. Nolan endeavors to counter the arguments that Oppenheimer was disloyal to the US and to condemn those who accused him of being a communist.
The meaning of communism or socialism is never really explained but is instead portrayed as a youthful folly, as a phase that even good people pass through, and anybody deeply involved with unions and the labor movement was generally assumed to be a communist.
Nolan does not portray the establishment as wholesome, which would lose the film all credibility, but problematic individuals at the top of society are framed as that one bad apple The storytellers deliberately frame the plot to undermine the audience’s likelihood of drawing systemic conclusions.
Morality, in Oppenheimer, is centered around some vague notion of what America represents, to which we should all aspire to be loyal to. Only fleetingly are America’s problems addressed. You could blink and miss them.
One principled-to-the-bone socialist who appears in the movie is Albert Einstein. Einstein could have become a relative moral anchor of the movie, as someone more principled and more openly opposed to war. But the reality of 2023, in the backdrop to the Ukraine War and the developing New Cold War, is that the US ruling class does not want movies that argue squarely against the horrors of war. Any serious inclusion of Einstein in the movie would have required that.
Did the Bomb Drop Save Lives?
Only after the 1946 backlash against the bomb did the US develop the narrative that the bomb saved lives, a narrative very present in Oppenheimer. Truman argued that a full-scale invasion of the islands of Japan would have resulted in up to a million deaths, which were supposedly averted by the catastrophic assault on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The US strategy in World War 2 was the hope that Germany and the Soviet Union would exhaust one another. They began the Manhattan Project in 1942 to help establish itself as the dominant economic and military force after the war. It was a warning to the Soviet Union against expansion and against capitalism’s huge loss of markets.
During the Cold War, US foreign policy was dominated by this same idea of containment. In its frenzy against rising Stalinism, the US bombed Vietnam flat and converted Latin America into a prison house of dictatorships. After US imperialism robbed the world, it used that wealth to escalate an arms race to bankrupt all its enemies. The Cold War arms race was a significant factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union and Stalinism.
War And The Democratic Party
Hollywood is renowned for being a bastion of liberalism. The Democratic Party leadership routinely turns to the studios to bankroll its candidates.
One of the most serious omissions of Oppenheimer lies in the fact that it does not name names. The Communist Party is mentioned many times, but not once is there a mention of the Democratic Party. The Democrats remain as the only political party that has ever dropped a nuclear bomb on civilian populations.
Today while there is so much hardship, poverty, and debt in the US, President Biden spends billions on the war in Ukraine.
And while the big corporate movie studios say they cannot afford a raise for their writers and actors, they poured $100 million into this movie which turned a ten-fold profit.
And now this movie becomes a part of reinforcing the truth according to big business and our capitalist government, that the destruction of the A-bomb was a difficult but necessary thing to do. Try telling that to the working people of Japan.