Oppenheimer movie

Wood duck
J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves at the ground zero site of the Trinity test. The Wikimedia caption reads, "Rare government image of J. Robert Oppenheimer (in light colored hat with foot on tower rubble), General Leslie Groves (large man in military dress to Oppenheimer's left), and others at the ground zero site of the Trinity test after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (some time after the actual test)." I have made no attempt to identify any of the other people. Credit: United States Army Signal Corps. Work of the United States government, not subject to copyright.

To a physicist who is (barely) old enough to remember the controversy over Oppenheimer’s security clearance and who would also recognize most of the characters, the movie Oppenheimer was fascinating: one of the shortest 3-h movies I have ever seen. I gather, however, that it was somewhat less fascinating to the wife of such a physicist, who found the plot hard to follow and the characters too numerous to keep track of. I cannot entirely disagree: possibly I followed the plot and distinguished most of the characters because I knew them in advance.

The movie follows the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer from his beginning as a graduate student in Europe through his bringing quantum mechanics from Europe to the US to his shepherding of the Manhattan Project until his disgrace at the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission. Considering how they treated him, at least in the movie, I was surprised that they did not take his sword, break it over their knee, and send him off to Devil’s Island.

The movie seemed somewhat disjointed, and I frankly thought, for example, that they did not need to show us an imploding black hole every time the subject came up. They could have saved a lot of money on special effects and made a better movie. At any rate, Oppenheimer and colleagues discovered theoretically that a dying star would collapse forever into what we now call a black hole. The movie clearly thought that the black hole was Oppenheimer’s most important contribution. I am not convinced and suggest that possibly the Born-Oppenheimer approximation was substantially more important. Black holes are, as a physicist might say, very amusing, but the Born-Oppenheimer approximation allows chemists to calculate molecular wave functions and other properties of molecules. Oppenheimer’s Wikipedia entry, cited above, says that the original paper with Max Born remains Oppenheimer’s most cited work.

I am by no means an expert, but as far as I can tell (and unusually for what you might call a bio-pic), the movie is accurate. Despite his left-wing politics and connections to what later became known as card-carrying Communists, General Leslie Groves appointed Oppenheimer to run the Manhattan Project, against the advice of his security people. Oppenheimer wisely advised Groves to build an entire village and import the families of the scientists. Conceivably, without Oppenheimer, the bomb project would have taken a lot longer. The film kind of brushed it off, but in one scene he insensitively tells Groves that there will be no problem, only a small school and a bunch of Indians in the area.

Even though I knew precisely what was going to happen, I found the scene leading up to the explosion of the atomic bomb to be gripping. The countdown clock was a little slow, every second (I think) two or three seconds long, and after the blast I kept waiting for the sound and wondering how far away they were. I still wonder why Oppenheimer had to call his wife, when surely she must have seen or heard the explosion.

Ultimately, “the bomb” is dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. The film takes the position that Japan would not have surrendered, so the Allies would have had to invade, with tremendous loss of life on both sides. Dropping the bomb thus was justified because on balance it saved lives. I do not think that there was any mention of the Soviets at this point in the film.

After World War II, which I still think of as The War, Oppenheimer opposed building the hydrogen bomb and urged an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union. The film could have brought out the evils of the McCarthy era a little better, but at any rate Oppenheimer was soon “investigated” by the Atomic Energy Commission and stripped of his security clearance. In fairness, part of the evidence against him was that he failed to report what was essentially an offer by a Communist friend to help him, well, spy for the Soviet Union, though the friend did not phrase it explicitly. Oppenheimer probably would not have been publicly disgraced if he had not fought back and agreed to the hearing. On the other hand, much of the evidence presented at the hearing was known to the military previously, when they renewed Oppenheimer’s security clearance. But that was before the McCarthy era.

I had always had the impression that Lewis Strauss was the villain of the piece, but the film suggests beyond that, that he double-crossed Oppenheimer because of a perceived slight during Oppenheimer’s testimony. Indeed, as the hearings go on, we see a staffer (who may have been fictitious) grow increasingly disgusted with Strauss. Strauss, incidentally, pronounced his name Straws, which I had learned was because he did not want it to sound like a Jewish name, but Strauss himself tells Oppenheimer that Straws is merely a southern pronunciation, and he had in fact been president of his synagogue. I will let you watch the movie if you want to learn whether Strauss got his cabinet appointment, but it was amusing that the Senate approval apparently hinged on the vote of a young, unknown senator named John F. Kennedy.

Eventually, Oppenheimer was “rehabilitated,” though the reason is never made clear, and in a short scene President Johnson presents him with the Enrico Fermi Award. I can only imagine that it was cold comfort.

Incidentally, Truman really did call Oppenheimer a crybaby, though I do not know whether Oppenheimer was within earshot, and Oppenheimer really did say that he, himself, was an idiot. And yes, they really did consider the possibility of setting fire to the atmosphere. (In reality Oppenheimer consulted Arthur Compton, not Einstein, about this possibility. This emendation of the historical record, it seems to me, calls into question the accuracy of the entire film.)

Finally, some random thoughts about the movie itself: The movie may have been easier to follow if it had been presented in chronological order. Scenes that were seen from Oppenheimer’s perspective were shown in color, whereas scenes that were presented by an omniscient observer were shown in black-and-white; I am not certain whether this technique had any real value. The nude scenes were somewhere between silly and gratuitous, especially the fantasy that Oppenheimer had during the hearing. And finally, I found the music to be intrusive, sometimes to the point of masking the dialogue. My wife, a trained musician, added that it was insipid.

If I had to grade the movie, I think I might give it a B+. Others might find it perplexing and give it a lower grade. That said, I thought it was well worth seeing and would consider seeing it again. But I think next week I may take in Barbie.