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Christopher Nolan’s Forthcoming “Oppenheimer” Movie:
A Historian's Questions, Worries, and Challenges



By Barton J. Bernstein


I think we should not attempt a plan [to develop the weapon for radiological warfare] unless we can poison [enough] food to kill a half a million men.
                   J. Robert Oppenheimer to Enrico Fermi, 25 May 1943[1]

I can hardly believe my eyes when I saw a news release said to be quoting Oppenheimer, and giving the impression that there is no radiological hazard [in the A-bombed Japanese cities]. Apparently all things are relative.
                   Radiologist Dr. Robert S. Stone to Lieutenant Colonel Hymer L. Friedel[l], 9 August 1945[2]

[C]redible evidence exists which tends to show that Dr. Oppenheimer was a member of the Communist Party [in 1941] . . . This evidence [because of the source employed] is not available for use in court.
                    Assistant Attorney General Charles B. Murray to Attorney General James P. McGranery, 12 November 1952[3]

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer said [in his speech] that he has ‘no doubts’ [that the US‘s] development of the H-bomb was the right course.[4]
                    Palo Alto Times, April 1960

The people who know nothing [about Oppenheimer] are going to get the wildest ride [in the “Oppenheimer” film]. . . they need to know, because, you know, he’s the most important man who ever lived.
                    Christopher Nolan[5]


    The forthcoming “Oppenheimer” film, on the once- famous J. Robert Oppenheimer, reportedly received a large budget for the 2023 movie—about $100 million for the making, and about $100 million for the marketing. Directed by Christopher Nolan, whose earlier films have reportedly grossed more than $5 billion, the movie is likely to be a blockbuster.

    Rather ironically, it is likely to rival the “Barbie” film at the box office. Some critics, undoubtedly, will discuss American culture in the framework suggested by the two very different movies. “Barbie” has multiple, and profitable, product tie-ins with various items and firms. Such could not reasonably be the case for the “Oppenheimer” film, dealing heavily, as it does, with nuclear weapons.

    A widely admired director, Christopher Nolan has won laurels for his work, and his movies are often used as models in film-making classes. His “Oppenheimer” film was voted by a Hollywood critics group as among the most awaited summer movies. It is scheduled for release on July 21. It has already been discussed in various publications, and the publicity blitz may be near. The “Oppenheimer” film is apparently in many ways a joint project by Nolan with his wife, Emma Thomas, who served as the producer. “She’s the best producer in Hollywood, without question,” according to Nolan.[6]

    Nolan’s new movie is starring the gifted Irish actor, Cillian Murphy, as physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was often described, and greatly celebrated, as “the father of the atomic bomb.” The cast includes, among others, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, head of the A-bomb project, Robert Downey, Jr. as Lewis Strauss, an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chief and Oppenheimer foe, and Emily Blunt, as Kitty (Katherine) Oppenheimer, Robert’s wife. It is a distinguished cast.

    It’s revealing to read in some newspapers, as part of the Hollywood-generated publicity, of the committed preparation by the hard-working Cillian Murphy for his central role in “Oppenheimer.” Murphy stated, as the New York Times reported in Murphy’s words, “We are going into this guy’s [Oppenheimer’s] head, you have to be immersed in the essence so strongly that you carry the audience with you.”[7]

    The movie reportedly leans heavily on a major and justifiably well-respected, but sometimes also dismayingly flawed, book on the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had directed the wartime and early postwar Los Alamos laboratory, later headed the AEC’s General Advisory Committee (GAC), and became in 1947 the longtime director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.[8]

    After Oppenheimer’s impressive wartime work directing the secret Los Alamos laboratory in developing the two kinds of atomic bombs, he became, in the postwar period for a near-decade, an influential adviser on the US’s nuclear-weapons and related defense policy. Aside from the iconic Albert Einstein, Oppenheimer was probably the best known, and generally the most respected, US-based scientist.

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A Historian's Questions, Worries, and Challenges" »

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