oppenheimer history

Written by Hafsa Ammar 8:18 pm Articles, International Relations, Published Content

Oppenheimer: Recorded History vs Glossed Reels

In this day and age, everyone who is chronically online knows to take any form of media or information with a grain of salt; the same should be the case with Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking new film ‘Oppenheimer’ which was released just last month on 21st July 2023. Based on the book ‘American Prometheus’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the highly anticipated movie had a budget of around $100 million. Records broke around the globe as people rushed to theaters and cinemas to catch the earliest screenings. Nolan has been known to create intellectually challenging films such as Tenet, Inception, Interstellar, and more which make the viewers question not only the laws of physics but of reality as well. Oppenheimer, too, has not deviated from this path. Is the movie an accurate depiction of history, or has it instead been portrayed to advance American heroism?
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About the Author(s)
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Hafsa Ammar is a graduate of the National Defence University, Islamabad. Her areas of expertise are narrative building and propaganda warfare, centered around the Soviet Union and modern-day Russia.

What is the Movie About?

The movie focuses on the riveting life of Robert J. Oppenheimer, a renowned physicist, and how the American military recruited him for their Manhattan Project, an undertaking from history that forever stained the world with the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation.

It moves from his early start in Cambridge as a scrawny physicist to coming into his own at the University of Berkeley as a Professor of Quantum Physics to being recruited by General Leslie Groves, the man in charge of the project. From there, the town of Los Alamos is built in New Mexico where hundreds of scientists from across the world are resituated to build the world’s first Atomic Bomb.

The movie shows the professor having a moral dilemma in the second half, once the bomb has been made and successfully tested out. He seems distraught at the amount of destruction and terror that comes parcelled with this invention and is seen participating in many conferences and movements that work for nuclear control and disarmament.

Submissions 2023

Eventually, Oppenheimer is brought under scrutiny in kangaroo courts where his security clearance is revoked on account of suspicious ties he’d had with communist party members back when he was a professor at Berkeley – these members were his brother and former lover Jean Tatlock.

Overall, the movie focuses on the emotional upheaval Oppenheimer (and his wife Kitty) go through during the three-year-long period. The ideological background of ‘communism vs capitalism’ parallel to ‘American forces working for the greater good’ has been long overused by Western filmmakers, and Nolan is no exception to this.

Throughout the three-hour-long film, there are subtle undertones of the state machinery such as the military, government, and civilian scientists, working to defeat the ‘evil’ Nazis in this race of nuclear armament, while the villainous sentiments of armed warfare and defeating the opposition by any means necessary are sequestered to a few personnel such as General Henry Stimson who chose the Japanese cities to bomb, and Admiral Lewis Strauss.

The patriotic and morally tortured portrait of Oppenheimer has been accepted as fact by many of the movie’s viewers. The Smithsonian Magazine goes as far as to add the following statement in a release: “The father of the atomic bomb has long been misunderstood will the new film finally get J. Robert Oppenheimer right?” Was Oppenheimer misunderstood before this movie or has he been glorified on the screens?

Inconsistencies between Recorded History and Glossed Reels

Although much of Oppenheimer follows the correct trajectory of how the Manhattan Project became a reality, there are still some inconsistencies between what actually happened in history and what was recorded on camera.

The Poisoned Apple

The movie shows Oppenheimer as a student of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett in Cambridge. He has an unmotivated attitude regarding experimental physics and is seen blustering around the lab. For obvious reasons, he does not get along with his professor and injects an apple that is sitting on his table with cyanide in hopes of poisoning Blackett, but Bohr makes his way into the classroom and is about to bite into the apple when Oppenheimer smacks it out of his hand into the bin.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1944
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1944 

These events deviated a little from reality in which Niels Bohr was never near, much less holding the apple. It is not even confirmed whether it was cyanide that Oppenheimer injected into the apple with the intent to poison or just a random mix of chemicals to make his Professor fall ill. In real life, the authorities at Cambridge somehow got involved and Oppenheimer was subjected to academic probation – a light sentence because of his influential and wealthy parents.

Friendship with Albert Einstein

The movie insinuates a close friendship between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein – a dream for physicists to imagine. However, Oppenheimer himself wrote for the New York Review in 1966, “I knew Einstein for two or three decades, it was only in the last decade of his life that we were close colleagues and something of friends.” It was not as intimate of a friendship as shown in Nolan’s movie.

There is a part where the physicists are alarmed by the possibility of ‘a chain reaction leading to global annihilation’ so Oppenheimer takes his calculations to Einstein. A highly improbable event, most definitely shot under the creative freedoms of movie directors because it is unlikely that Oppenheimer took classified information and calculations written on a measly piece of paper to another scientist (and tried to leave it with him). The security risks alone would be unfathomable.

The Death of Jean Tatlock

Jean Tatlock was a former lover of Robert Oppenheimer and a member of the American Communist Party. She committed suicide in real life and even left behind a note – “I am disgusted with everything… To those who loved me and helped me, all love and courage. I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t… I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.” There is still some debate that surrounds Jean’s death, for some assume that it was only shown as a suicide and was in fact a murder.

‘I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds’

The famous phrase ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’ has been taken from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture. In the movie, the phrase was spoken by Oppenheimer as he read it out loud from a book on the orders of Jean Tatlock while they were in bed. This scene was met with criticism and condemnation by the Indian government for allegedly portraying their religion in a not-so-sacred light. In real life, however, Oppenheimer spoke the infamous words in an NBC News documentary in 1965 titled ‘The Decision to Drop the Bomb’.

Final Comments

Oppenheimer is an intriguing and intellectually stimulating movie that plays an important part in revisiting one of the most destructive turning points in human history, but it is important for all viewers to understand that the movie is based around some noble lies of deterrence and global safety. The events may be in order, but the lens is muddied to tip the scales toward American heroism.

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