Igniting the atmosphere: A review of ‘Oppenheimer’


The much-anticipated dramatic biopic “Oppenheimer” opened in U.S theaters late last month. The three-hour Universal Studios epic, directed by Christopher Nolan, stars Cillian Murphy as the title character—the charismatic and controversial Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and leader of the infamous Manhattan Project that gave the world the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ushered in the modern nuclear age.

The film follows events in Oppenheimer’s life beginning with his time in graduate school at Cambridge and Göttingen and ending several years after the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of World War II.

Overall, the film is quite entertaining with its excellent acting, dazzling sets, exquisite costumes, high-quality IMAX filming, and jaw-dropping special effects. Murphy’s Oppenheimer character is superb. The Irish actor’s portrayal of the tormented, chain smoking, and brilliant American scientist is convincing and relatable, and Murphy’s more than passing physical resemblance to the real-life Dr Oppenheimer nicely completes the package. Meanwhile, despite the over three-hour runtime, there is more than enough drama and intrigue to easily keep moviegoers engaged. For the most part, Nolan’s storytelling is clear and unencumbered by excessive minutiae, and the main plotline reigns supreme, completely unclouded by complex and distracting soap-opera-like sub narratives.

However, where the movie misses the mark comes down to several poor choices on the part of the screenwriters, some glaringly irresponsible physics errors, and some key plot elements that are either presented in a way that is at best misleading and at worst downright ahistorical. We will take up each of these issues in turn, beginning with the questionable screenwriting.

The most obvious fumble in the script has to do with the character development of Dr. Jean Tatlock, played by English actress Florence Pugh. Tatlock, the woman whom Oppenheimer had courted prior to his marriage to Kitty Harrison, and with whom he had an extramarital affair afterwards, had met Oppenheimer during his early days as a physics professor at UC Berkeley, while Tatlock was still a medical student at Stanford. This was at a time when Oppenheimer was beginning to develop his leftist politics, and many of his close friends, graduate students, and even his younger brother Frank were either members of or were gravitating toward the Communist Party. Tatlock herself was a card-carrying CPUSA member and active trade unionist, and was directly involved in the CPUSA’s worker organizing and desegregation campaigns of the time. However, instead of portraying Tatlock as the brilliant student, activist, and ultimate practicing psychiatrist that she actually was, the writers instead chose to hypersexualize her and make her leftist political activity seem like just a passing hobby. Indeed, most of Tatlock’s on-camera appearances have Pugh playing the role fully in the nude while simulating an intense sexual encounter with Murphy’s Oppenheimer, and this is done in a way that does absolutely nothing to advance the plot. In one disgustingly on-the-nose moment, it is during one of these sex scenes between Tatlock and Oppenheimer that the screenplay has Murphy reciting the quote from the Bhagavad Gita that the real-life Oppenheimer would later make famous: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Another problem with the script is its handling of Tatlock’s suicide, which took place in real life in January 1944. The movie would have the audience believe that it was a distraught and shallow Tatlock—heartbroken over having lost Oppenheimer to his marriage to Kitty—who took her own life in an act of lovesick desperation. This is a terribly reductive and insultingly heteronormative distortion of what actually happened. In reality, Tatlock had been struggling with her identity as a closeted lesbian while working in the field of psychiatric medicine at a time when sexual orientations other than straight were considered pathologies requiring correction through intensive psychiatric treatment.

A further problem has to do with the unflattering portrayal of the 1930s and 1940s community of American communists and other leftists. In general, these were serious activists, who engaged in political organizing in the labor movement, and in anti-fascist and desegregation campaigns. However, the movie portrays them as idle and idealistic ivory-tower intellectuals, lounging about at decadent cocktail parties, incapable of organizing their way out of a wet paper bag.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the film’s highly embellished depiction of the infamous poisoned apple incident. This was an event that supposedly took place while Oppenheimer was a graduate student at Cambridge, in which he is said to have laced an apple with lethally toxic chemicals before offering the apple to his thesis adviser Prof. Patrick Blackett. There is evidence that at least some version of this did actually happen, but at worst it would have only involved non-lethal chemicals that would have only mildly sickened Blackett had he eaten the apple. At any rate, it certainly did not involve Danish Nobel-winning theoretical physicist Neils Bohr, who in the movie is shown being narrowly rescued by Oppenheimer from biting into the poisoned fruit—of which nobody’s the wiser. The real-life Oppenheimer’s adult children have publicly taken serious offense at the movie’s narrative, as it implies an accusation by the filmmakers that their late father had engaged in attempted murder.

Now onto the physics errors: The most egregious of these has to do with the suggestion in the film that the actual labor involved in developing the atomic bomb was quite safe and basically all fun and games apart from the occasional bickering between physicists over their work. There are even a few scenes in which the Los Alamos scientists are seen partying with their families after work, with a young Dr. Richard Feynman whimsically playing the bongo drums in the background.

In reality, conditions were quite far from this. During the course of the construction of Little Boy and Fat Man (the uranium and plutonium bombs that respectively destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki), there were two so-called criticality accidents. This is an unintended event in which a sample of fissile material begins to undergo a runaway nuclear chain reaction, releasing copious amounts of extremely dangerous neutron radiation.

Criticality accidents are a concern with any type of nuclear bomb-making activity, and important precautions must be taken to prevent them. But in 1944, Manhattan project scientist Dr Otto Frisch, while attempting to experimentally determine the minimum amount of uranium-235 needed for a so-called gun-type atomic bomb, caused a criticality accident when he leaned his body over the pile of uranium bars he was stacking for his experiment. He had apparently forgotten that his body would act like a neutronic reflector, a device that bounces back into the reaction neutrons that otherwise would have escaped and become unavailable to help sustain the reaction or cause it to run away. Fortunately, Frisch quickly realized his mistake and was able to terminate the reaction just two seconds before he would have received a lethal radiation dose, and walked away essentially unharmed.

The next criticality accident was considerably worse. This time, Dr. John Bistline and two coworkers were investigating water as a potential neutronic reflector, and some water leaked into a part of the experiment where it wasn’t supposed to go. This immediately caused their sample of enriched uranium to go critical, and the three personnel who were present received acute non-lethal doses of harmful radiation and had to be treated for their injuries.

The first criticality incident to result in a fatality didn’t occur until late August 1945, a few weeks after the Nagasaki bombing. This involved the now infamous so-called “demon core,” which was a small plutonium sphere that had been manufactured for what would have been the third atomic bomb to be used against Japan had it been deemed necessary. In this incident, physicist Dr. Harry Daghlian, who was experimenting with a neutronic reflector, accidentally dropped part of it directly onto the plutonium sphere, forcing it critical, and giving Daghlian a lethal dose of neutron radiation. He died of radiation sickness 25 days later. The demon core would go on to claim one additional life and severely injure eight other people in a subsequent criticality accident the following year.

Despite these glaring omissions, the film does do a pretty good job of pressing the point that in the early days of the Manhattan Project, Hungarian-American theoretical physicist Dr. Edward Teller, who would later come to be known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, calculated that a nuclear detonation could initiate a chain reaction powerful enough to ignite the earth’s atmosphere and almost completely sterilize the planet. Needless to say, this sobering possibility gave Oppenheimer and the scientists working under him considerable pause. In the movie, we see a startled Oppenheimer bring Teller’s calculations to Einstein, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, for verification. This encounter almost certainly did not happen in real life; what actually happened was that Oppenheimer traveled to Chicago to consult with Nobel-winning American experimental physicist Dr. Arthur Compton, who was also part of the Manhattan Project, to get his take on the matter. Following this, German-American theoretical physicist Hans Bethe produced detailed calculations showing that the likelihood of atmospheric ignition would be “near zero.” Evidently “near zero” was good enough for everyone, and the project was able to move forward—and this is quite mind-boggling. This last part of the story is faithfully reproduced and rightly emphasized in the movie.

Another bit of physics which the movie gets right is the more or less correct retelling of the debate between people like Oppenheimer and Bethe on the one side, and Teller on the other as to the sense of hydrogen bombs (today referred to as “strategic weapons”). These devices are tens of times more powerful than Little Boy, and have the potential to completely wipe our species from the face of the planet. A memorable quote from the movie is when Los Alamos physicist Dr. Rossi Lomanitz says: “There is nothing defensive about these weapons,” and this is 100% true.

On the other hand, while the movie does manage to get some crucial physics right, there are other places where it wantonly and irresponsibly downplays the dire implications of nuclear weapons. For one thing, it fails to address the impact that the Manhattan Project had on the Indigenous communities whose land in New Mexico it occupied. In particular, there’s the Trinity test, the world’s first detonation of a nuclear weapon, which took place in July 1945 in Alamogordo, N.M., a remote desert close to Los Alamos. Indigenous communities in the surrounding area were adversely affected by the pollution and radiation resulting from Trinity and have been unsuccessfully lobbying for decades to receive justice. This matter was not at all addressed by the movie.

Now the historical errors: The big one is the almost laughably wrong depiction of the events around the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The movie evokes a recalcitrant Japan that was stubbornly refusing to surrender and could only be swayed by not one, but two nuclear explosions perpetrated against its homeland. This, of course, is entirely consistent with the official and mainstream bourgeois narrative. However, “American Prometheus” (2005), the very book that the movie is supposedly based on, tells quite a different story.

According to “Prometheus,” the Truman administration knew as early as June 1945 that Japan would not surrender for as long as their neutrality pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union remained intact. As long as the Soviet Union was neutral, Japan reasoned, there was the possibility that it could be relied upon to broker a conditional ceasefire agreement with terms at least somewhat favorable to Japan. From Japan’s point of view, anything would have been better than the unconditional surrender that the U.S. and its allies were pushing for. All of this changed when Stalin, not wanting to lose influence in the region, decided to void his neutrality pact with Japan and declare war, with plans to invade territory that Japanese forces had occupied. Crucially, this happened on Aug. 8, the night before the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb on Japan, the Fat Man implosion-type plutonium device. When Japan’s leaders met the following day to internally discuss unconditional surrender and subsequently did so, the Nagasaki bombing hadn’t even happened yet.

Meanwhile, the Truman administration knew beforehand that the Soviet war declaration was coming and that it would immediately obviate any excuses for the U.S. to even continue fighting Japan, much less deploy atomic weapons against it. And so, according to Truman’s personal notes—again, as reported in “Prometheus”—Truman made the calculated move to try to have the atomic bombing of Japan roughly coincide with the Soviet war declaration, and thus make it appear as if it was the powerful new U.S. weapon, and not the Soviets, that actually ended the war.

Socialists describe the major motivation for the use of the atom bomb even more clearly and succinctly: The U.S. hoped that by obstructing the ability of the Soviet Union to enter the war in a timely manner, they could limit the amount of political influence or territorial concessions that the USSR might claim in Asia—as it had already achieved in Eastern Europe. This was most crucial in regard to China, where Communist forces were threatening the rule of the neo-colonial Chiang Kai-Shek regime, which the U.S. supported.

Fred Halstead, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, listed an additional reason behind the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an article in The Militant (Jan. 25, 1965), he wrote: “The evidence strongly indicates that one major motivation of the A-bomb decision was precisely to test the bomb on live targets, so as to confront the postwar world with the proven fact of overwhelming U.S. military superiority. It also established the fact that U.S. imperialism not only had the bomb but had the ruthlessness to use it.”

There are other similar errors in the film, but there isn’t room to report them here. Instead, suffice it to say that it is important for a film such as this to get these sorts of things right because if not, the audience comes away from the movie with the impression that nuclear weapons can be useful for ending conflicts that otherwise would have dragged on and are therefore necessary. This is an extremely dangerous message to be sending to the American public at a time when we have the U.S. and Russia, two nuclear-armed imperialist rivals, becoming increasingly hostile towards one another in part over the situation in Ukraine.

In conclusion, the Oppenheimer movie is entertaining, expertly done, and well worth watching. That said, its value is really only as entertainment– it’s essentially a summer superhero movie. It is not to serve as any kind of education in the history and physics of the Manhattan Project, nor is it any substitute for reading the book that it is ostensibly based on.

One comment

  1. Thanks for this informed review. The author’s knowledge of both the history and physics was impressive. I wrote a poem about the bombing of Hiroshima that can be seen on my web page. Just type in Hiroshima on the home page. Thanks again.

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