Oppenheimer the film, a review

This film, directed and written by Christopher Nolan, currently on release and the subject of much publicity and hype, is well worth seeing on many levels.  It is a fascinating story, filmed with great artistry.  It is acknowledged to be based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird (2005). The authors view Oppenheimer as a tragic figure, a scientist of great stature who was brought low by a collection of people motivated by their own personal ambition, who saw Oppenheimer in the post-war years as the obstacle in their way and who accordingly took steps to remove him from his positions of influence, using whatever means came to hand.

The film is essentially a biopic covering the adult life and work of the famous US scientist, J (Julius) Robert Oppenheimer  (1904-1967), from his early days as a post-grad student in Europe (1924) up to the end of his role as a government scientist in 1954.  The film is densely packed at the beginning with names, faces and different institutions of both learning and government, and it helps to know the basic facts of Oppenheimer’s life before seeing the film, in order to keep up with the frequent switches between times and places.  If you see the film without this background knowledge, be patient and concentrate and by the end of the film you will have learnt who is who and where the various events that you are watching unfold took place, though the film does not give any dates – the writers presumably assuming that the main events are too well known to require such information.  On a practical note, as the film requires concentration, at 3 hours long it would benefit from an interval halfway through, as used to be the case with extra-long films when their standard length was just 1½ hours.  In terms of content, however, the film is not too long, as any cuts would damage both style and effect as well as risk leaving out information essential to an understanding of the man, his work and times (1).

In his lifetime Oppenheimer was given the soubriquet ‘Father of the Atom Bomb’. A renowned theoretical physicist before 1942, he was in that year recruited by the US government to lead a team of scientists and engineers on ‘The Manhattan Project’, which aimed to build an atomic bomb before the scientists of Nazi Germany could do so.  It was seen as race between the US and Nazi Germany and their respective allies by the scientists and others involved on the ground, but by the US government and military establishment (as later became clear) as a race between the US and the USSR.  In the event, despite the vast sums dedicated the project and the dedicated work of thousands of people, the first atom bomb was successfully tested only in late July 1945, two and a half months after the defeat and surrender of the German Nazi government on 9 May 1945.

The war with Japan was still continuing at that time, but it was grinding towards its close and the inevitable defeat and surrender of the fascist government of Imperial Japan. Pressure was exerted by President Truman on Oppenheimer and his team to complete a successful test-firing of the new, atomic bomb (the A-bomb) before the Potsdam Conference (fixed for late July 1945) and before the Red Army could join the war against Japan on the ground and potentially have a presence on mainland Japan. The USSR was due to declare war against Japan in August 1945 in accordance with the promise, made at the Yalta Conference (February 1945), that 3 months after Germany’s surrender the Soviet Union would join the war against Japan. At the Potsdam Conference on July 25 1945 terms of surrender by Japan were agreed between President Truman (US), Prime Minister Churchill (Great Britain and the British Empire) and General Chiang Kai Shek (China) and incorporated into the Potsdam Declaration. Stalin (USSR Commander-in-Chief) did not sign the Potsdam Declaration because the Soviet Union was still bound by the neutrality pact it had signed with Japan in 1941 (2).

Truman wanted to be able to boast at Potsdam that the US possessed a new and most powerful weapon, but he had no intention of discussing with his allies whether and if so when and where that weapon would be used directly against Japan. Scientists on the project thought that a test firing of the new bomb would be sufficient to induce the Japanese government to surrender without more fighting but it appears Truman was determined that only by dropping the bomb on Japanese cities would the lesson be learnt – and not only by Japan – of the tremendous lethal power of the A-bomb and, essentially, of the superiority of the US weapons programme.

The suspenseful climax of the film is the detonation of the first A-bomb on 16 July 1945 at the test site  near Los Alamos, New Mexico, a desert area of the south western United States, where the scientists, their support team and families, had been living and working in isolation and under tight security since 1942. After the successful test, Oppenheimer is reported to have commented: succinctly “It works!”. It was not a foregone conclusion; nor was there no risk that an unstoppable nuclear chain reaction would be triggered which would destroy the earth’s atmosphere and with it the globe as a habitable planet (a risk calculated as “near zero” by the theoretical physicists, but never wholly ruled out). That climax is reached late in the film.

The film opens with a prologue showing pictures of the intense heat and explosions on the sun’s surface, over which is written the message that Prometheus disclosed the secret of fire to mankind, for which act he was sentenced by the gods to eternal torture.  The scene is also overwritten by two cryptic words: ‘1. Fission’, and ‘2. Fusion’.  By these words the audience is reminded that the first, nuclear fission, has been achieved, resulting in the explosive force that is utilised in the A-bomb, whilst the second, nuclear fusion, which could provide infinite, clean energy, remains unconquered (notwithstanding occasional reports of experiments in which scientists claim to have achieved this feat, the holy grail of atomic physicists).

The story begins with a gaunt young Oppenheimer contemplating raindrops falling into a pond and creating ripples and there follow scenes of a confusion of natural phenomena, with snaking through them the wavy line of a graph, or electrical impulse or sound wave. The writers are giving notice that this film, unlike other biopics of prominent scientists, will be seeking to give an impression of the intense interior life of this brilliant young man.  He was a theoretical physicist who, according to his Cambridge tutor, was not good in the lab, and whose maths was not up to the standard required for this work. We see him in the lab at Cambridge conversing with Niels Bohr (3) who tells Oppenheimer that algebra is the sheet music of theoretical physics and what mattered was not whether he could read the music, but whether he could hear it.  Asked by Bohr whether he could hear the music, the young post-grad student Oppenheimer replied that he could.

As a matter of record, Oppenheimer was known for his many and varied insights which others then went on to prove by experimentation and observation. Had it not been totally overshadowed by the Second World War and the changed scientific priorities that conflict brought about, it is likely that Oppenheimer would have been best remembered for his conclusion that Black Holes must exist in the universe, resulting from the inevitable collapse inwards (‘death’) of stars. His paper setting out the theoretical basis for this conclusion was published on 1 September 1939, the day that Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland.  The truth of this proposition was not proved by astronomers until many years after Oppenheimer’s death, thus preventing him from receiving the Nobel Prize for this momentous discovery.

The film is constructed with three themes running throughout and these are portrayed in three threads of action.  These threads are woven together like a plait, the three themes running through the plaited story, with different emphases at different times, depending upon which stage of Oppenheimer’s life we are looking at. The three threads of action through which the three themes of Oppenheimer’s life, work and politics are revealed, consist of two very different hearings together with interlaced flashbacks to the events referred to in the hearings.

The main framework of the film is the hearing by a Board of Inquiry set up by the Atomic Energy Commission (April–May 1954) to consider allegations against Oppenheimer of conduct of his (as yet unspecified to the viewers of the film) which might lead to the withdrawal of his security clearance to work for the Commission, for other government bodies or in government-funded atomic research. We first meet the mature Oppenheimer as he prepares to read his statement to the committee, refuting the allegations. He is called back to his current surroundings from a reverie about his younger, intense self. He prefaces his statement with the observation that his refutation can only be understood in the context of his life and work. This sets the scene for the film. There follow long flashbacks –  interspersing portrayals of the hearing itself and the evident hostility of most of the Board members and their chosen counsel – which show Oppenheimer’s life as a student, researcher and teacher in Europe and the States, through to his most famous role as the leader of The Manhattan Project and his immediate post-war role as government adviser on matters relating to the development and use of nuclear weapons and as member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Board’s hearing and the flashbacks are all shown in colour. Interwoven with these two threads, there are scenes of another hearing, this one shown in black and white, which draws attention to the change of scene. The main character in this third narrative is immediately identified as one Admiral Strauss and we are made aware that it is a Congressional hearing to approve the nomination of Admiral Strauss to a post in the cabinet of President Eisenhower (1958). Strauss is assured by an aide that the hearing is a formality, though he is shown as anxious about his erstwhile support of Oppenheimer and how that might arise in the hearing. It is only at the end of the film, as these three narrative threads gradually come together, that the true role of Admiral Strauss in Oppenheimer’s life and work becomes clear.

Aside from his reputation as ‘The Father of the Atom Bomb’, Oppenheimer is famous for his subsequent fall from official favour during the McCarthy era of anti-communist witch hunts in the early years of the Cold War waged by the US against the USSR (4), its allies and supporters. The film shows how Oppenheimer, in common with many members of of the intelligentsia throughout the imperialist heartlands of the US, the British Empire and Europe, is drawn into the anti-fascist struggle and so into association with the communist movement, the main force in that struggle, under the leadership of the USSR, the CPSU(B) and the Comintern. Oppenheimer had no interest in politics whatsoever whilst a student.  When he returned to the USA in 1927 with his PhD from Gottingen, aged just 23, there was a further year of research shared between Harvard and the California College of Technology (CaiTech) and a visit to Leiden, where he impressed the students by giving a lecture on Quantum Mechanics in Dutch.  In 1928 he was made associate professor at the University of California in Berkeley. There he started to teach the new physics of Quantum Mechanics and to build a new department around it – the first such in the USA.

It was while he was working as a professor in Berkeley in the 1930s that Dr Oppenheimer first became aware of the persecution of the Jews in general, and of Jewish scientists in particular, by the Nazi regime in Germany. He had been born into a non-observant Jewish family in New York and was never religiously observant in that faith. However, he was nevertheless aware of his cultural heritage and identified with the persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany, especially the scientists. He had met many such while a student in Gottingen. Much later he observed that he thought Hitler would not devote sufficient resources to develop an atomic bomb in Germany, in spite of the scientists there being several years ahead of the scientists in the USA in the field of atomic research, because Hitler regarded Physics as a Jewish science owing to the preponderance of Jews among the most prominent academic physicists in German universities, and so was prejudiced against it. For whatever reason, Nazi Germany did not succeed in building an Atomic bomb before its defeat at the hands of the USSR and the Red Army on 9 May 1945.

At the same time as he was becoming aware of fascism in Germany, Oppenheimer became a supporter of the Republican government in Spain in its fight against the Franco fascists, as well as of the International Brigade of volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight alongside the Republican forces.  He contributed funds from his modest professor’s pay towards the escape from Germany of persecuted scientists and gave lifelong financial support to help Republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Such funds were inevitably channelled through communist-led organisations.  While he was at Berkeley he came to know many communists: his first serious relationship was with a member of the US Communist Party; his brother and his brother’s wife were both members, as was his wife before they were married, as well as many of his colleagues and friends. He also supported the new union for college teachers and staff, which was led by members of the CPUSA.  Oppenheimer always denied that he had ever joined the CPUSA as a paid-up member. He described himself, in the language of the time, as a ‘fellow traveller’.

It seems clear that Oppenheimer was no Marxist. Notwithstanding his boast that he had read Capital in the original German, he was more a mystic than a materialist. After he discovered the Hindu scriptures in English he taught himself Sanskrit so he could read them in the original.  It was a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that he kept on his desk thereafter and an extract from that book that he quoted in one of his last interviews:

“I remembered the line from the Bhavagad Gita. Krishna is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says ‘Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds’.”

Dr Oppenheimer was naive enough to believe that his association with CP members could not harm his career, as he considered his high standing as a successful theoretical physicist would protect him.  In this belief he was both right and wrong.  His intellectual brilliance as well as his self-confidence (aka arrogance to his opponents), led to his having ardent supporters (such as his Dutch students, who coined the nickname ‘Opje’, later Anglicised to ‘Oppie’), as well as enemies – individuals inspired either by professional jealousy or personal animus, but also opponents of his post-war views on the need for international control of both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy .

When the US entered the war in 1941, Oppenheimer was initially barred from joining the ‘Project’ because of his communist connections.  However, the government’s need of his expertise and leadership qualities led to him being granted security clearance and recruited to the leading role as Director of the newly-named ’Manhattan Project’.  His involvement with every aspect of the work, from the choice of location for the secret laboratories and the decision to build a town so the growing workforce could have their families with them for what would be a long haul, to his oversight and encouragement by means of regular meetings between himself, the scientists and engineers, was a major factor in the ultimate success of the Project.

When the A-bomb was successfully tested, Oppenheimer was heard to regret that it was never available to drop on Nazi Germany. But, after two bombs had been dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively, with immediate casualties far greater than had been predicted, Oppenheimer began to feel regret at the loss of life and at his responsibility for it, although Truman assured him hubristically that the decision to use the bomb, and therefore the responsibility, was his alone. Oppenheimer had been convinced of the necessity of using the bomb against Japanese cities by the argument that the bomb would shorten the war and save lives. He later discovered that that argument was specious, as the Japanese government was already on the brink of surrender before the bombs were dropped, just days before the USSR was due to enter directly the war against Japan. That was critical to Oppenheimer’s conversion to a public spokesman, through his work between 1945 and 1954 on numerous government advisory bodies and reports, for the international control of all nuclear power and the prevention of the further development, spread and use of nuclear weapons.  His stance brought him into direct conflict with not  only with Teller, the scientist who throughout had researched and advocated the possibility and desirability of a far more powerful Hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb (the H-Bomb), but also, more importantly, with the US government and sections of the military, who from 1945 were already flexing the country’s muscles against the USSR and who were determined  that the US should continue with the research and with the ultimate building of an H-Bomb. Oppenheimer’s war record and public standing made his an influential voice. The question for the advocates, in government and in the military, of the strategic use of nuclear weapons against the USSR, as well as the development of the far more powerful thermonuclear weapons, was how to silence his voice. They needed to find a way to remove Oppenheimer from the public arena. Colleagues on the various bodies who had supported Oppenheimer’s views had been quietly removed and replaced with hard-liners.  Oppenheimer refused to resign. His FBI file, with extensive details about his contacts and activities in the 1930s, was leaked to one WL Borden. Borden had previously been executive director of the US Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy and was known to be a rabid anti-communist, at a time when McCarthy was ramping up the attacks by the House Un-American Activities Committee upon all progressive forces in the States: trade unionists, sympathisers and supporters of the USSR as well as communists and anybody with leanings towards socialism (1950-54). Borden wrote to the AEC accusing Oppenheimer of leaking information from Los Alamos to the USSR, whose first test of an A-bomb had been carried out in 1949, sending shockwaves throughout the US government and military. It was never proved that Oppenheimer had breached security at Los Alamos; the accusation appears just to have been an excuse to rescind Oppenheimer’s security clearance.  In fact it was Klaus Fuchs who was shown to have passed information to the USSR regarding the research on the bomb (5). It had been a widely-held view among those working at Los Alamos during the war that their research should have been shared with ALL the allies of the US, including the USSR, though that had been prohibited and all involved were warned that to do so would result in trial and punishment for treason.

It was sufficient for the Board set up by Lewis Strauss. the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission to ‘convict’ Oppenheimer of his (long-known and open) association with communists – friends, family and colleagues.  Oppenheimer chose to have a hearing where the charges and his refutation could be put on record, rather than just resign when told of the decision to withdraw his security clearance, although the decision of the Board was never in doubt. In 1954 his security clearance was revoked by the Board and he was removed from his position on the Commission.  He was successfully side-lined.

It is clear that notwithstanding the decision of the Board to confirm the withdrawal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, nothing could be proved against him except his associations with communists, although he had already testified to this before the House Un-American Activities Committee seven years before, in 1947, without any consequences to his own career at that stage. He was never charged with any crime of espionage. The great prestige enjoyed by the ‘Father of the Atom Bomb’ could not be entirely extinguished.  Whereas many of his friends, family and colleagues who were found to have been paid-up members of the CPUSA were stripped of their positions and forced to find work as unskilled labourers to support themselves, Dr Oppenheimer was allowed to keep his prestigious, if obscure (as far as the general public was concerned), post as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (ironically dedicated to the principle of freedom of thought and investigation). Dr Oppenheimer was to be its longest serving Director, from 1947 to 1966 and oversaw much ground-breaking research whilst serving as its Director.

The film concludes with the presentation in 1963 to Oppenheimer of the Enrico Fermi Award (a scientific award conferred by the US government to scientists of international stature for their lifetime achievement in the development, use or production of energy, in memory of Enrico Fermi, a scientist who also had served on the Manhattan Project) and reports that on 16 December 2022 the withdrawal in 1954 of Oppenheimer’s security clearance was reversed – a gesture to public opinion and to mimic justice, as by then Oppenheimer was long safely dead and silent.

In conclusion, we can see that the US imperialist state used Oppenheimer just so long as he served its needs but spat him out as soon as he raised awkward questions and ceased to be an unquestioning instrument of imperial state power. While the US continues to trumpet itself as the home of free speech. imperialism will allow freedom of speech only so long as it poses no threat in real terms to its domination either at home or abroad.

Such are not the conclusions of the film, of course.  It leaves the impression that the story is one of the personal tragedy of one individual, deposed from his position of influence by other individuals motivated by their personal ambitions or resentment.  While it refers to Oppenheimer’s post-war position on nuclear weapons and on nuclear energy, it does not highlight the build-up of opposition to Oppenheimer in government and the military when those were dedicated to the development and strategic use of nuclear weapons chiefly against the USSR. Only that degree of government support would have enabled Strauss to withdraw Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954, when the same facts in 1947 did not prevent the latter from continuing in influential advisory groups nor prevent his appointment as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in that very year.

The absence of such an analysis is to be expected, as the bourgeois view of history will always emphasise the role of individuals as decisive and negate/deny/ignore any class struggle. Films made in Hollywood necessarily must conform to bourgeois culture or they will not be financed.  In Hollywood the need to make money trumps all else. Nevertheless, in telling this story so vividly, the film does an unintended service to the truth relating to one incident in the history of the working-class movement in the USA, as well as to the beginning of the ‘Cold War’, which the USA waged with unremitting fervour against the USSR until the latter’s fall in December 1991.


(1) One criticism of the film is that the two sex scenes are gratuitous and result in the film not being available to young audiences of 12 and over.  The relationship between Oppenheimer and his communist-party-member lover, Jean Tatlock, could have been shown in other ways (as was that between him and his wife, Kitty) and the revelation could still have been made that Oppenheimer learnt Sanskrit in order to read the Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, in the original.  The film is a gripping story, with aspects of science, astronomy and history that could appeal to many of secondary school age, as well as be educational, but which is rendered unsuitable and so unavailable to them.

(2) The neutrality pact between Japan and USSR had been agreed after years of conflict between the signatories on the Soviet border with China after the Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1932 and created a puppet state, Manchukuo, on the border with the USSR in 1934. The Japanese-Soviet war  (1932-39) had culminated in the victory of the USSR at the battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939.  The neutrality pact allowed the Soviet Union to concentrate its forces on the fight against Nazi Germany – an essential strategic requirement.

(3) Neils Bohr was a Danish theoretical physicist, pioneer in atomic and quantum theories, Nobel prize-winner 1922, teaching at Trinity College Cambridge when Oppenheimer was a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge. During the war, Bohr escaped from Nazi-occupied Denmark while he was working at Copenhagen University, via Sweden to Britain, from where he was recruited on to the Manhattan Project work in Britain, eventually going to Los Alamos in December 1945, becoming at 59 the oldest scientist there.

(4) In the 1930s the capitalist crisis following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – one of the periodic capitalist crises of overproduction – had resulted in a an economic depression notable both for its severity and its longevity.  Masses of working people in the imperialist heartlands as well as in the colonies were suffering chronic unemployment, with all its inevitable consequences of homelessness, hunger and disease.  By contrast the USSR, the first working-class state, as a result of the proletarian revolution of 1917, was entirely outside and unaffected by the international market and the Depression.   Because the Soviet working class had state power together with ownership or control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, there was a planned economy and the 1930s were years of continuous growth of the economy, of achievements of production ad invention, and of the development of all of the Republics within the Union.  It could be seen by all who cared to look that the workers within the USSR were not only working but were healthy and thriving, being well provided with housing, food, education, health care and cultural activities.  It was that evident record of achievement by the USSR that resulted in the enormous growth of the communist movement around the world.  It was visible poof that Marxism worked.

(5) Fuchs was a naturalised British scientist working at Los Alamos.  He was neither chosen nor appointed to the project by Oppenheimer. Fuchs was convicted in 1950 of passing secret information from the Project to the USSR via an intermediary and was imprisoned for 9 years in Britain before his release and return to GDR.  History shows that Fuchs did great service to mankind by sharing the allies’ research and enabling the USSR to build an A-bomb quicker than might otherwise have been the case.  Once the US no longer had a monopoly of nuclear weapons it became far more circumspect about their use in practice, as the threat of mutually assured destruction was a real brake on their use, especially once the general public (at the insistence of Oppenheimer among others) was fully informed about the nature and power of nuclear weapons.  The contrast between the fates of Iraq and Libya on the one hand and the DPRK on the other bears eloquent testimony to the likely outcome for nations who seek independence from the economic/political control of the USA and the system of imperialism without having any means of retaliating against attacks upon them.