In every generation there is a movie. He was a man, but he was more than a man. While other kids were playing with toys, he was contemplating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. While his classmates at middle-school were listening to the Backstreet Boys, he was writing grand operas for La Scala. By the time he was barely old enough to vote, he was already marked off as a man of destiny. Women desired him, but couldn’t understand him. Men tried to use him, but never really controlled him. In the end he was dragged down, not only by his personal demons, but by the vengeful mediocrities he barely deigned to notice, until they destroyed him. He is the sexy, misunderstood genius.
For late Boomers and early Gen Xers, he is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the raucous, fun-loving innocent of Milos Foreman’s 1984 movie Amadeus, the gifted composer driven to madness by his rival Antonio Salieri, who had no musical inspiration, but did possess a genius for evil. For late Gen Xers he is Will Hunting, a young working-class man from South Boston, who could solve complex mathematical equations beyond the ability of tenured MIT professors, but who not even Robin Williams could save from being a belligerent asshole. Early Millennials got the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a whole stable full of mutants and superheroes, Batman, Ironman and Captain America. Finally, in 2023, late millennials have gotten their own sexy, misunderstood genius, the man who made it possible for humanity to destroy itself, J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, the Prometheus who gave the secret of atomic fire to the American ruling class, but who in the end was done in by Tony Stark disguised as a Jewish shoe salesman turned politician.
Far be it from me as an unintelligent Polish American — hell I can’t even screw in a lightbulb by myself — to pass judgement on history’s greatest minds, but if I had to choose one of the three, Mozart, Will Hunting, or Oppenheimer, I would of course chose Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart genuinely enriched humanity. By driving him to an early death the demonic Salieri deprived us of decades of opera, symphonies, string quartets and clarinet solos. Will Hunting of course is a fictional working-class Bostonian who does manage to humiliate an arrogant preppy in a “Hahvad Bah” and confidently informs his psychotherapist that he has “the wrong fucking books,” but in general shows few signs of being a world historical genius unless we take the movie’s word for it. Will Hunting does, however, have one moment of unimpeachable integrity. When a bureaucrat from the National Security Agency (NSA) temps him to prostitute himself to the government in exchange for a steady high paying job and access to cutting edge technology, Will tells him in no uncertain terms to go straight to hell.
Christopher’s Nolan’s Oppenheimer, played to gaunt perfection by Cillian Murphy — the man actually looks like a genius — has no such working-class mistrust and contempt for the system. Why would he? He’s from a wealthy New York German Jewish family. His father was an art collector who decorated their palatial Riverside Drive apartment with original paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso. He’s gotten the best education money can buy, private schools in Manhattan, Harvard and Cambridge, a PHD from the University of Gottingen. But he’s no East Coast city slicker deprived of nature’s wonders. His family wealth has allowed him to spend extended periods of time hiking in the remote Southwest near a place called Los Alamos. True, he’s indulged in the fashionable left-wing politics of the 1930s. He sends money to Spanish refugees and passionately supports the republican side of the Spanish Civil War. But the Roosevelt administration doesn’t even have to ask him to sign onto the Manhattan Project. Quite the contrary, he never doubts the idea that the United States has to build its own atomic bomb to counter Hitler’s. Oppenheimer becomes the father of the nuclear arms race, not in spite of his left-wing politics, but because of them.
The ethical conflicts in Oppenheimer don’t present themselves in big dramatic moments. Instead they consist of little compromises made along the way so as not to derail the all important, ongoing project taking place at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer may not be a communist or even a socialist, but he is a good progressive liberal unwilling to enforce military discipline on scientists and their families. Even after he’s given clear instructions by his superiors, he won’t flat out order his subordinates not to organize unions sponsored by the Communist Party or hold cross departmental discussion groups that turn out to be a threat to the project’s security. Oppenheimer won’t join the Communist Party, even during the short lived American/Soviet alliance, but he has no problem socializing with communists, or even marrying them. It’s only later that those compromises, which in 1944 and 1945 feel like the acts of a good supervisor protecting his employees from meddling bureaucrats but a decade later during the McCarthy era look like treason, that his inability to confront trivial every day issues comes back to bite him. Ernest Lawrence, played by Josh Hartnett, is the voice of reason, and even a stand in for Christopher Nolan himself. “Tell your subordinates to keep their politics out of the workplace,” he implores his friend. “Why do college graduates need unions?” he adds speaking for every Silicon Valley tech CEO in despair over the idea that the employees at his latest startup have picked up one too many “woke” ideas from social media.
The social media controversy over the Irish Catholic Murphy playing a Jewish character was silly. Murphy nails Oppenheimer’s physical appearance so well I half want him to play every Jewish genius from 20th Century history. Someone cast him as Franz Kafka. He already looks the part. On the other hand, Nolan does not do full justice to the real moral conflict at the center of the film. The origin of the Manhattan Project was ultimately the 1939 letter Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard sent to Franklin Roosevelt warning him that Hitler was working on a German atomic bomb. The bomb detonated at Los Alamos was meant to be used as a defensive measure against a genocidal Nazi Germany, not as a genocidal act against the Japanese meant to intimidate the Soviet Union. Indeed, had Hitler gotten an atomic bomb before the Nazi regime fell he would have been far more likely to have used it at Stalingrad or Moscow than against Paris or London. The use of the bomb against Japanese civilians, and the later McCarthyite hysteria about communists in the American government was just the kind of fascist turn in the United States Oppenheimer wanted to prevent.
Nolan’s use of Lewis Strauss, therefore, an ambitious self-hating Jewish mediocrity, as the film’s main villain, therefore, distorts the real history of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s downfall. In the 1940s and 1950s history was moving at warp speed. It must have been indeed dismaying for progressive intellectuals like Oppenheimer to see the crowning achievement of his life’s work used by the American ruling class to intimidate China in North Korea or to develop a monopoly of destructive power over the global south. Indeed, Richard Nixon and John Foster Dulles lobbied Eisenhower to offer the French use of three small tactical nukes at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but Eisenhower, who had felt the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary, wisely refused. “You boys must be crazy,” Eisenhower told them. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for a second time in less than ten years. My God!” When even a conservative, and racist, Republican President is reluctant to commit atomic war crimes against a non-European people, it must have been galling for Oppenheimer.
That Harry Truman, played by Gary Oldman, had no such scruples about ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, lays the basis for one of the film’s best scenes. As good as Robert Downy Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss may be, he’s no Antonio Salieri. We know exactly why Salieri wants to destroy Mozart. The pain the Italian mediocrity feels over Mozart’s ability to create beauty that he can understand but will never compose himself is real. We understand why he’s a damned soul. Strauss’s hatred for Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is ultimately based on one interaction at the Institute for Advanced Research at Princeton where he incorrectly believes Oppenheimer is responsible for a snub by Albert Einstein. It feels forced. Truman’s crude brutality — he offers Oppenheimer a tissue when Oppenheimer expresses his guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — feels very real.
It also aligns perfectly with the right wing Nolan’s elitism. Nolan presents Oppenheimer as a hero, in spite of the scientist’s New Deal liberalism, because he sees him as a superior man, a superior man who was sadly too sympathetic to the left wing politics of his inferiors. He should have been more like Truman, Nolan seems to imply, or at least recognized the presence of a fellow superman above good and evil. His sincere confession that he “has blood on his hands” to such an crudely brutal and amoral politician feels degrading, weak. Similarly a tech CEO like Elon Musk, should feel no hesitation about breaking unions and letting his employees know who’s boss. Ultimately Oppenheimer is the tragedy of a superior man brought down by a misguided sympathy for democracy. J. Robert Oppenheimer, to paraphrase Will Hunting, has read “the wrong fucking books.” It should have been less Marx and more Nietzsche.