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How Historical Revisionism Hides ‘Oppenheimer’s’ Secrets

How Historical Revisionism Hides ‘Oppenheimer’s’ Secrets

Since its release in the summer of 2023, critics and fans have not stopped talking about Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. But the more I watch and read people’s views on the film, the more I suspect that a large number of us completely missed the artistic thrust of the project.

Oppenheimer, based on the Pulitzer-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, chronicles the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer—the man credited with the creation of the atomic bombs that were ultimately dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The drama centers on the inner turmoil and intellectual struggle Oppenheimer went through while creating the weapon.

Given that the subject of the film is one man’s personal experience, it’s astounding that some rushed to the theater, hoping to see an action-packed war movie. The onslaught of complaints about Nolan’s film suggested that there was too much talking and not enough action to warrant sitting in front of a screen for three hours. And there were others who claimed that Nolan didn’t portray the absolute annihilation wreaked on Japan after the bomb was dropped.

Nolan addressed why he decided to leave footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out of the film, saying: “We know so much more than [Oppenheimer] did at the time. He learned about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the radio, the same as the rest of the world.”

Nolan’s job was not to tell us the actual history of Oppenheimer’s struggle to create the nuclear bomb. Generally, a filmmaker’s job is to give the audience a compelling story that makes us think or feel in a way we haven’t before. Filmmakers are not historians. And Nolan had the wherewithal to address this commonly held view, saying: “[Oppenheimer is] not a documentary. It is an interpretation. That is my job. I think it’s narrative dramatic filmmaking.”

It can be easy to fall into the “presentist” trap. Presentism is the act of applying modern values and concepts onto historical events. Some people use this presentist view to claim Oppenheimer was an evil man for creating the atomic bomb that the United States government ultimately used on its wartime enemy. But, as Nolan said, Oppenheimer learned about the use of the atomic bomb like the rest of us: on the radio.

It’s also worth noting that Nolan’s portrayal of Oppenheimer does a great job of revealing what the theoretical physicist was up against. Oppenheimer did not just wake up one morning hoping to create the most dangerous weapon ever made. He was in a race against Nazi physicists, specifically Werner Heisenberg, who were trying to create their own nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer had a choice: stand down and allow the Nazis to construct a nuclear weapon, which they almost certainly would have used on the United States, or beat them to it.

Oppenheimer’s unique predicament was a painful one, and one that most of us will likely never have to face. That is what Nolan was trying to portray in Oppenheimer—and how it was effectively a lose-lose situation. Either hundreds of thousands of Americans were going to die, or hundreds of thousands of Germans or Japanese were going to die during the war.

Italian physicist Carlo Riveli said the following about the film:

I just saw the movie and I’m still under the spell. I think everybody should see this movie not only because it’s fantastic, but because the kind of questions that it raises are not just about the ’40s and general issues about morality of science. These are burning questions today. The doomsday clock that is supposed to estimate the risk of nuclear catastrophe has never been closer to midnight. We are in a situation where the kind of concerns that Oppenheimer was expressing — in his confused way — are our concerns today. I think this is what the movie brings out so strongly.

Everyone should watch Oppenheimer with the understanding that it is a narrative retelling of the life of a complicated physicist who was faced with an impossible decision. It is not a history; it is a film. And while we may never have to make as difficult or as world-changing a decision as did Oppenheimer, Nolan shows us the scientist as a human being, thus allowing us to relate to and empathize with him.

Image credits: Public domain (Oppenheimer); public domain (Trinity test)

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C.G. Jones
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  • Avatar
    Canute
    May 13, 2024, 4:06 pm

    I have to take issue with Mr. Jones' contention that the German effort to construct a nuclear weapon – "which they almost certainly would have used on the United States," is a valid contention. At no time during the war did Germany have the capability to delivery anything beyond "hit and run" military tactics in North America, nor were their technological advances making sufficient progress during the conflict to even consider delivering such a weapon on the far side of the Atlantic. Additionally, the key target of the German war effort was focused on Russia, which was without a doubt, their principle adversary.

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    • Avatar
      Nan@Canute
      May 13, 2024, 5:43 pm

      I enjoyed the movie and it did cause me to think about his situation in regards to the rest of the World at the time. As far as the German problem, have you ever delved into the theory that the Nazis had an underground base in Antarctica during and after the war, and that they were supposedly working on the flying saucer technology?

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    • Avatar
      Linda Weinmunson @Canute
      May 13, 2024, 5:52 pm

      First of all, we really had no way of knowing whether Germany was close to developing a nuclear weapon. Secondly, I don’t think we only wanted to beat Germany to the bomb. The Japanese just wouldn’t quit. If we hadn’t dropped the bomb on them they would have continued to kill Americans with impunity. And for those who would fault us for that, you can blame Japan’s leaders. We even warned the citizens to get out. That we were going to drop a nuclear weapon on them. We dropped leaflet in Japanese to warn them.

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      • Avatar
        Leo Grellede@Linda Weinmunson
        May 14, 2024, 3:26 am

        The article is a Hollywood interpretation of the History because: 1. The Germans never applied to build an atomic bomb. Hitler declared that he was absolutely against it and so did the Emperor of Japan. 2. The studies on the atomic bomb were stopped in Germany before the Second World War and Leo Szilard, together with his long-time friends and fellow Hungarian physicists, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, went to the USA to continue their study. 3. The "Manhattan Project" was financed by the Jewish banker Baruch (Manhattan was the location of his large apartment…) on the advice of Einstein and Mrs Roosevelt. 4. Eisenhower was against the use of this weapon because he and others knew that Japan had already been defeated. 5………..The atomic bomb is a crime against humanity committed by the Jews. Oppenheimer was a Jew.

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      • Avatar
        OBloodi Helle@Linda Weinmunson
        May 20, 2024, 10:05 am

        }}} Linda Weinmunson First of all, we really had no way of knowing whether Germany was close to developing a nuclear weapon. Secondly, I don’t think we only wanted to beat Germany to the bomb.

        1 — actually, "after the fact", information revealed after the war has shown that the Germans were never really close to it. But this was after the fact, not during the war. So they were acting on info they had, not info they would later learn.

        2 — No, I believe the driving force was concern that the Germans were going to create one. I don't believe its use against Japan was seriously considered, at least, not early.

        See my comments below, also, as they are indirectly relevant to your assertion about Japan.

        }}} Leo Grellede The article is a Hollywood interpretation of the History because: 1. The Germans never applied to build an atomic bomb. Hitler declared that he was absolutely against it and so did the Emperor of Japan.

        1 — Where did you get this preposterous assertion? If you made it up, shame on you. If you were told that, you should reject the informant for all future info of any kind. That claim is preposterously wrong, and the Germans CERTAINLY had an atomic bomb program even though, AFTER the war, it was discovered that it had not been advanced all that far.

        }}} Leo Szilard, together with his long-time friends and fellow Hungarian physicists, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller

        2 — ALL THREE of these men were JEWISH. They FLED to the USA to escape what the Germans were doing to Jews, not "to continue studies Germany no longer persued". Again, if you made this up, shame on you. If not, you need to damned sure NEVER trust the lying idiot anti-Semite that fed you this crock of excreta.

        }}} Eisenhower was against the use of this weapon because he and others knew that Japan had already been defeated.

        3 — ALSO a crock of excreta. There were two alternatives to the atomic bomb which would have applied to Japan — an invasion, which estimates of the time were that it would have cost a MILLION lives of American Soldiers, as the Japanese defense of the home island was expected to be quite fierce — largely due to lies the Japanese people had been fed by their government about how American soldiers would behave. The OTHER alternative was blockade — which many many utter fools have suggested was "more humane". Have you ever actually GONE HUNGRY? I mean — *seriously* hungry, to the point of starving, losing muscle mass, and generally having your body shut down? It's not pleasant. But you know what is worse? Watching your CHILDREN starve because you don't have anything to feed them. And you know what is worse than THAT? The LONG TERM DEVELOPMENTAL EFFECTS of starvation on children. We are talking about permanent and very non-trivial damage to those young, developing bodies… of which there were about FIVE MILLION on the island of Japan in 1945. So, yes, while the bombs were horrific, the alternatives — a million Americans and God alone knows how many Japanese citizens and soldiers dead, or 5 million children starved for months.

        Yeah, as horrific as it was, the bombs were actually the better of those three evils, and yes, one of them had to happen.

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  • Avatar
    OBloodi Helle
    May 20, 2024, 9:47 am

    }}} The doomsday clock that is supposed to estimate the risk of nuclear catastrophe has never been closer to midnight.

    Right there, with that comment, the speaker indicates they are not a rational person.

    Certainly it is increased from where it was in, say, 1998, but it is not even vaguely accurate to claim that it has "never been closer to midnight". That is just patently ridiculous and qualifies as over the top hyperbole even if you're being generous and assuming that.

    More likely, the person actually believes the comment is accurate. Which makes them highly untrustworthy on this or any vaguely related topic.

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