Hey Dr. Zoomie – I’ve heard about the new Oppenheimer movie. It sounds pretty good…but I don’t know how accurate it is. Have you seen it? What did you think?
To be honest, I was going to wait until it came out on a cable/streaming channel…but some friends were going to the movie the day after it hit the theater and invited me to join them – how could I refuse? So….
Before I start on the movie, I should say that I’ve been fascinated with the Manhattan Project and the personalities involved for decades. I’ve read several histories of the Manhattan Project (including Richard Rhodes’ classic history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and his follow-on book, Dark Star: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb) as well as a history of the German nuclear weapons program (Heisenberg’s War), biographies of Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Richard Feynman, and I actually had a chance to meet Edward Teller (albeit briefly) and to hear him speak several times about his role in the development of thermonuclear weapons. So, with that as a starting point….
I thought the movie was well-done, and it was more accurate than I’d expected. I especially liked the fact that most of the movie rang true to the books I’ve read – the major characters acted (for the most part) the same as the people they were portraying, the major events played out close to the way described in the books, first-hand accounts, and other documents I’ve read, and events largely played out as shown in the movie. So I have to say I was impressed that the writers and director fought the temptation to add “drama” to an inherently dramatic series of events. And, in particular, I thought it also did a good job of showing some of the complexities of Oppenheimer’s character and psychology as well as some of the moral issues he dealt with as he tried to bring to fruition a “sweet” scientific and technical project before Nazi Germany could do the same…all while fearing what so powerful a weapon might portend for the future of humanity. On the other hand, as a card-carrying nerd, I was disappointed that there wasn’t much about the scientific and technical challenges that accompanied the development and construction of the first nuclear devices – some, but not as much as I’d hoped. But what they did have seemed to be very close to what happened.
The movie concentrated on three basic chunks of Oppenheimer’s life – his work as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, his own struggles to retain his security clearance in the 1950s, and the struggle of another character (Lewis Strauss – Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission who was deeply involved in Oppenheimer’s story for many years) to be appointed as Secretary of Commerce in Eisenhower’s cabinet five years later.
What was somewhat disconcerting at first was that the movie jumped back and forth in time between Oppenheimer’s pre-Manhattan Project days, his security clearance hearing, his work managing the various scientists and bureaucrats during the Manhattan Project, and Strauss’ cabinet hearing. But it only took a few time jumps before I figured out how to (usually) tell where we were in time.
To be honest, I’d expected the movie to end shortly after the successful Trinity test, or maybe after the end of the war and was surprised at how much movie was left. But, then, this is a biography of Oppenheimer, not of the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer lived for an additional two decades after the end of the war – a third of his life lay ahead of him at war’s end, and the events of those years were important. During those years he took charge of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, he lost his security clearance and saw himself, his wife and brother, and his loyalty to the US attacked, and his partial rehabilitation (although he never regained his security clearance nor the level of influence he had once enjoyed). These events were also part of Oppenheimer’s life and the movie would have been incomplete without them.
I was particularly struck by the emphasis the movie gave to the hearings at which Oppenheimer’s security clearance was taken from him. If the success of the Manhattan Project was the pinnacle of Oppenheimer’s early life, the loss of his security clearance was the nadir of his post-war life. For those who don’t have a high-level security clearance it might be hard to understand – and even for me it’s not easy because I’ve never operated at the levels that he did. But think of it this way…a security clearance, especially a high-level clearance, is a sort of key that gets one in the room where important discussions take place, and if you’re not in the room then you can’t have a seat at the table. Losing his clearance meant that Oppenheimer was suddenly closed out of meetings that he’d once attended – he lost the opportunity to even participate in these discussions, let alone to influence the decisions that were reached. Losing his clearance meant that he went from being a central figure in developing the most powerful weapon in history to having virtually no say in how that weapon might be use, how many of them might be built, how they might be used, and so forth. He became a bystander.
It’s easy, looking back with the experience of nearly 80 years, to scoff at Oppenheimer’s concerns – but that’s because we know how the last 80 years of the story have played out. On the other hand, with the expansion of the “nuclear club” in the last few decades (Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran apparently moving along that path), we might well find out that Oppenheimer was exactly right in his fears.
There were a very few individual scenes that I did not much like, but the movie itself was quite good and I’ll watch it again when it comes to cable or a streaming service.