Oppenheimer’s Politics Are Good, Actually

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pic/Melinda Sue Gordon

There are plenty of fair criticisms of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The film’s frenetic pace can make the viewer feel a bit like an Adderall-addled college student blitzing through the physicist’s biography before a midterm. The score veers toward the overwrought. Nolan finds a way to make a sex scene between Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh into one of the least titillating things I’ve ever witnessed. At stake in the first two acts is whether Americans or Nazis will be the first to bring hellfire to planet Earth; at stake in the third is the outcome of an administrative hearing concerning the renewal of a national security clearance.

Despite these flaws, I think it’s a good flick. In an age when superhero sequels dominate box offices, the fact that Nolan managed to turn a three-hour history lesson about one of the 20th century’s most important nerds into a blockbuster is a real achievement and a boon to America’s cultural life.

Nevertheless, the aesthetic critiques of Oppenheimer have been largely reasonable. The political ones have been less so.

The film has taken fire from both left and right. Critics in the former camp have derided the film’s failure to center the experiences of those harmed by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work, from Native Americans displaced by atomic weapons tests to Japanese civilians incinerated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They deem the film’s decision to withhold any images from the aftermath of those bombings to be cowardly at best and tantamount to a “glorification of mass murder” at worst.

On the right, meanwhile, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat argues that the film’s “simplifying anti-anti-communism” fails to give Oppenheimer’s McCarthyite adversaries their due. Specifically, Douthat suggests that the film does not adequately convey just how bad Stalin was.

Both of these takes seem misguided.

No one has any obligation to want to see a biopic about Oppenheimer. And it is completely understandable that those with close personal connections to those harmed in Hiroshima or Los Alamos would not care to spend three hours contemplating the interior life of the man who helped engineer their family’s hardships. By the same token, those descended from survivors of the Nanjing Massacre might struggle to watch a film that centered on the guilt of a Japanese World War II veteran. I myself have some personal experience with the psychological difficulties that such storytelling can present. My grandmother lost both her siblings and parents to the Nazis when she was 11 years old and just barely evaded extermination herself. When I was a kid, a remorseful veteran of the Luftwaffe came to speak at my elementary school. I walked out.

Still, I don’t think it makes sense to criticize a movie for not having a different subject. A biopic of Oppenheimer is not going to center the experience of Native peoples, which was (all too) peripheral to the physicist’s perspective.

You can argue that the film erred in choosing not to show footage from Hiroshima’s aftermath. But you can’t reasonably claim that the movie’s attitude toward that bombing isn’t one of abject horror. Nolan conveys this through Oppenheimer’s hallucinatory visions of nuclear annihilation. Perhaps this approach was less effective than real-life photographs of post-bomb Nagasaki would have been. But that is an aesthetic critique more than a moral one.

In truth, Oppenheimer is among the most left-wing blockbusters in recent history. The film is fervently anti-jingoist, critical of the U.S. security state, and sympathetic to the left’s historiography of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer is full of vaguely psychedelic depictions of menacing forces; dying suns, quaking neutrons, white-hot explosions. But perhaps the most menacing of all is stamping human feet.

After news of Hiroshima reaches Oppenheimer and his team, the physicist addresses a celebratory crowd. As he takes the podium, the assembled scientists are stomping their feet in pep-rally fashion. Nolan previews this scene before we reach it, flashing shots of the stomping shoes earlier in the film. Their frenzied motion and extraordinary volume parallel the film’s depictions of nuclear fission.

Oppenheimer finds himself torn between creeping terror at what his brilliance has just wrought and an impulse to play to the euphoric crowd. Between visions of the audience’s incineration, the physicist bellows that he’s pretty sure “the Japanese didn’t like” what just happened, and voices his regret that the bomb wasn’t finished in time to use on the Germans, sentiments that receive raucous applause. Moments after this grotesque oratory, Oppenheimer hallucinates stepping on the charred husk of a human body, then comes upon a less joyful scientist puking from guilt.

Nolan’s message is characteristically blunt: Jingoistic fervor is a force as destructive as the atomic bomb itself, one capable of turning humanistic geniuses into cheerleaders for mass death.

This idea is reinforced by the film’s final line. Before the Trinity test, Oppenheimer’s team believed that there was a small but real chance that an atomic bomb would trigger an unstoppable chain reaction that ignited the atmosphere and ended the world. After the war, Oppenheimer tells Einstein that this worst fear appeared to be coming to true: The bomb seemed to be setting off a chain reaction that would lead to Armageddon, only that reaction was transpiring at the level of geopolitics rather than physics. Nationalist struggles for global power, and the arms races that attended them, would be humanity’s undoing.

Nolan does not rob the Manhattan Project of all moral complexity. Oppenheimer’s conviction that the U.S. must develop the bomb before the Nazis do is portrayed as reasonable. And the stakes of defeating both German and Japanese fascism were indeed immense. Nevertheless, Nolan gives a nod to leftist historiography with Oppenheimer suggesting at various points that (1) Japan was already bound to surrender before the bombs were dropped, (2) the real aim of the bombings was to send a message to the Soviet Union, and (3) the Pentagon was determined to use any expensive weapon it developed (this last point is Oppenheimer’s rationale for opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb, which the U.S. has yet to use).

I can’t speak with any authority on the veracity of this general narrative. I do know that claims about whether Japan would have surrendered in the absence of the bombings — and on what timeline — are contested by historians. Regardless, though, Oppenheimer evinces sympathy for the least flattering account of Truman’s decision.

The film ultimately ends on a note of warning to scientists who work with the military-industrial complex. In a conversation with Oppenheimer after the war, Albert Einstein tells his fellow physicist that he must remember when receiving future accolades from the political Establishment that such gestures are never “for you” but always “for them.” This underscores the movie’s broader theme that Oppenheimer and his fellow researchers are fundamentally cogs in a war machine who have no agency over how the fruits of their work will be deployed and whom the powers that be will use and discard at will.

Suffice it to say, by the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, this is radical stuff.

It makes sense, then, that some conservatives would find the film’s politics offputting. But Douthat’s specific complaint — that the film is soft on communism — seems odd.

In the film’s final act, U.S. officials hostile to Oppenheimer’s calls for arms control conspire to have his security clearance revoked in light of the physicist’s personal relations with known communists and former communists. Douthat, quoting the historian Kai Bird, objects to the fact that this episode is portrayed as an instance of a “flawed genius” being “unjustly persecuted by ‘know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues.’” In reality, the fervent anti-communism of Oppenheimer’s adversaries was a product of the fact that they “saw Stalin clearly.” As Douthat writes:

What were all those hawks on about, with their fears about Soviet espionage and the influence of communist sympathizers, their desire to have the bomb as a potential weapon against our then-ally Stalin, their dismissive attitude toward Oppenheimer’s vision of nuclear power as something shared and tamed by international cooperation?

… They saw Stalin clearly. The Soviet leader had always been as predatory as Hitler, invading the same number of countries as Nazi Germany in 1939 and 1940, encouraging fascist aggression against the Western democracies while building his own brutal empire under the cover of neutrality. 

I think Douthat is wrong to read the film as either sympathetic to communism or contemptuous of defense hawks’ concerns about Soviet infiltration. Oppenheimer pointedly refuses to ever join the Communist Party and speaks disdainfully of its dogmas. Just about every character who is either remotely likable or sane becomes disillusioned with the Soviet Union and leaves the party in response. And the film repeatedly vindicates its hawks’ fears that Oppenheimer was too lax with information security at Los Alamos; after all, a Soviet agent really did infiltrate the project and transfer its secrets to Stalin’s regime.

But what is at issue between Oppenheimer and his postwar adversaries is not whether Stalin’s Soviet Union is a terrible empire. Rather, their disagreement is about whether humanity’s long-term survival would be best assured by international arms-control agreements or the United States retaining nuclear supremacy at the cost of an arms race. The film is clearly on Oppenheimer’s side in this debate. But the fact that Stalin was very bad does not do much to bolster the opposing case.

The reality is that, as Oppenheimer warned, building a hydrogen bomb did not give the U.S. nuclear supremacy for long but merely ratcheted up the existential risk posed by atomic technology. Mutually assured destruction has worked out okay so far, but this is a product of good fortune as much as anything else. At multiple times during the Cold War, we came within an inch of a nuclear exchange. At one point, the U.S. military very nearly accidentally nuked North Carolina. And in the grand scheme of our species’ lifetime, barely any time has passed since the atomic bomb’s introduction. Maybe we can make it through several centuries without a single state failure allowing an H-bomb to fall into the wrong hands or a war triggering a cataclysmic escalation. Maybe.

In any case, those seeking to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance were not typically motivated by a belief that he was a Soviet agent, but rather that his advocacy for arms control needed to be discredited. It is possible to defend this position. One can argue that the nuclear-arms race was strategically necessary and that mutually assured destruction is worth its tail risks, given its success in discouraging great-power wars. And you can also argue against the efficacy of international arms agreements. But emphasizing that Stalin was a monster doesn’t do much to advance either argument.

Anyhow, people should generally evaluate films on the basis of their aesthetic virtues rather than their political ones. But if you are allergic to apologias for the atom bomb or Soviet Union, fear not: Oppenheimer features neither.

Oppenheimer’s Politics Are Good, Actually