Context is Key: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

Earlier this August my dad and I headed to our local cinema to watch one of Summer 2023’s hits: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. As two history enthusiasts, we wanted to experience the harrowing history of the Manhattan Project and its director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, for ourselves. Both of us enjoyed the movie as a piece of cinema; Nolan and his screenwriters employed a nonlinear storytelling format involving flashbacks and flashforwards which helped to build tension even in what was ostensibly a historical biopic where many would know the conclusion.

As a historical biopic, Nolan’s focus in Oppenheimer was, of course, the movie’s titular historic figure: the somewhat personally troubled, brilliant, and paradoxically pragmatic and naïve physicist who led the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear fissile bomb. While billed as a tale about the dangers of groupthink and ideological hysteria–Oppenheimer’s connections to American Communist academics and party members in the 1920s and 1930s led a kangaroo court of Cold Warriors to revoke his security clearance to advise the U.S. nuclear program in the 1950s–the movie to me was more a tale of the ways that rivalry and egotism motivated Oppenheimer’s rivals to defame this physicist using the Red Scare as a fitting platform to do so. That said, there was some context that the movie did not address directly which would have helped explain both the Manhattan Project and the tense clash Oppenheimer had with Cold Warriors on the Atomic Energy Commission over his security clearance. 

First, Nolan’s script doesn’t intensely deal with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is one scene wherein Oppenheimer and other physicists meet with Department of Defense officials to discuss both testing the bomb and potential targets. Oppenheimer seems to meekly cave over the need to continue the Manhattan Project, whether dissident scientists should remain as part of the project, and if the bomb should be used. The meeting adjourns after military officials decide that the city of Hiroshima would be the U.S.’s first target in Japan. This scene missed some key context. There was a larger debate in the Department of Defense about using the bomb against a Japanese city or detonating it on a remote island off the coast of Japan as a warning. Oppenheimer also shared the views of Manhattan Project scientists for and against the use of the bomb more vociferously as the discussions were underway, even if he disagreed with their protests. Presenting the decision to use the bomb as “the scientists” versus “the army” obfuscated a deeper debate. In fact, Eisenhower himself expressed misgivings about the use of the atomic bomb. This was not just a debate of the moral scientists which Oppenheimer let down against the immoral military. Moreover, Oppenheimer presciently deduced the truth of the Manhattan Project when his coworkers could not: developing the atomic bomb did not give scientists the right to dictate its use. That responsibility, for good and ill, fell (and falls) to elected officials

Second, the movie glosses over the real presence of Soviet spies who infiltrated the Manhattan Project. It depicts Manhattan Project scientists ignoring security protocols about sharing information, much to the dismay and disdain of army intelligence officers. While the compartmentalization of knowledge admittedly did not work well given the need for physicists to share research and discoveries, the Manhattan Project did also have a number of associated scientists who leaked information to the Soviet Union. I think the screenplay would have benefitted if the audience could have seen one of these spies in action to further contextualize the Atomic Energy Commission’s later hysteria about leaks. Senator Joe McCarthy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover certainly went too far in their disregard for civil liberties and their pursuit of character assassinations against supposed Communists during the Red Scare of the 1950s, but Soviet espionage did play an integral role in helping the USSR develop atomic weapons. Providing viewers with more visual storytelling about how that happened could have contextualized why Oppenheimer found himself in such a compromised position as his rivals dredged up his past associations and friendships with Communists to discredit him. 

The last key contextual element Oppenheimer lacked was a deeper discussion of the ways U.S. policymakers understood the threat of the USSR in the early Cold War. Fears of Communism may have been overwrought in the United States, but Stalin’s Red Army did achieve a huge feat at the end of World War II. Without much protest or contest, the Red Army liberated and then conquered all of eastern Europe from the USSR’s post-World War I border to the border that divided the U.S. and Soviet Occupation zones in Germany. Stalin installed sympathetic dictators to run Communist regimes in the nations the USSR liberated and conquered or absorbed these nations into the composite whole of the USSR. Dissenters were discredited and jailed while Soviet intelligence agents set up elaborate institutions to surveil Eastern Europe’s people. The Soviets then detonated an atomic weapon and formed a swift Communist alliance with Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party after the CCP won the Chinese civil war. These facts are not meant to justify what happened to Oppenheimer — which was motivated as much by rivalry as pigheaded anti-Communism — but rather to explain why the Cold Warriors aligned against Oppenheimer were so worried about the USSR.  

While his story may lack some of the historical context to paint a fully accurate picture of what happened to his central character, however, Nolan’s depiction of Oppenheimer as a tragic genius nevertheless rings true. He was a brilliant physicist who warned the U.S. that pursuing nuclear technology without arms control treaties and bilateral cooperation with the Soviet Union would escalate the Cold War and develop into an arms race. Yet Oppenheimer was ignored, pilloried as a Communist sympathizer, and relegated to obscurity during the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations. His later reservations about nuclear technology did not find a sympathetic audience in the White House or Pentagon; history and physics moved on without him as the Pentagon developed the hydrogen bomb in response to the USSR’s nuclear weapons testing. In that sense, Oppenheimer in a way restores its own kind of context to the Cold War, reminding us of alternate paths and viewpoints that the United States decided to ignore in its prosecution of the great ideological and geopolitical conflict of the latter twentieth century.

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