We Don’t Want the Smoking Gun to the Head of Civilization To Be A Mushroom Cloud

It’s perplexing. Who thought that it would be a good idea to pair the premieres of the films, Oppenheimer with Barbie? Ultraviolence (I am become the God of Death — Bim-Bam-Boom!) and Ultrasex (in the guise of some toy’s anatomical incorrectness being solved by Margot Robbie’s Babylonian generosities). Do we need another sign that it’s over for human civilization? That the twin allures of Das Kapital have finally found a way to make us munch popcorn and weep to Oppie’s loss of national security status because he once had pinko ties, and that Robbie has bravely taken pink Barbie out of anorexia nervosa and hangs out with the horns of plenty now. Why no GI Joe, sporting a new 3D printer dick, included in the flick for Margot to bivouac with?

That’s the mainstream for you. They’ve totally bought into the America yin-and-yang, sex and death, just as Freud feared in Civilization and Discontents. Popcorning to a nuke movie. How about that! We just can’t take anything seriously any more, can we?

Pssst. What? Not anatomically corrected? Then why would you go to that movie? Is it a nod of homage to the non-binary orientalists? Is it some kind of an AI inside joke? A fist-up stand of solidarity for poor old Alan Turing and the Singularity ahead? Or is it just omnipotence versus impotence? What a double bill.

Naturally, what’s left of the Left have been wringing their hands, and playing old Dylan tunes again, in disgust at how wrong Hollywood got it. Oppenheimer should represent an important ‘teaching moment,’ as they say, for those of us who have a tendency to forget, and look at Jewish friends with bewilderment when they say, “Never again.” Whaddya mean, Isaac? we go. And they schlep off, muttering at the wall.

I watched Oppenheimer yesterday. The story has been told a number of times now. This particular version, directed by Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception), is based upon the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. It stars Cillan Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer; Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer; Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock; Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves; Robert Downey as Lewis Strauss; Tom Conti as Albert Einstein; Kenneth Branaugh as Niels Bohr; Jason Clarke as Roger Robb; and, Matthias Schweighöfer as Werner Heisenberger. It’s a stellar cast for the Blast from the past (although it might have benefitted from casting the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as General Grove). It’s an epic biographical thriller; but it’s too vanilla, and I feel that all that hellfire and angst(roms) should have broken my heart in twain for the last time. But, as Peggy Lee might have sang “Is That All There Is To An Atom Bomb Blast?”

Oppenheimer follows the Bird/Sherwin delineation and begins at the end of his career. In December 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission had suspended Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and a few weeks later revoked it, fearing that, although he could be regarded as a loyal American citizen, his past affiliations with communists, as well as his post-Hiroshima speeches regarding the need to control nuclear proliferation through UN measures, roiled rightwing militarists and political fascists, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy — and president Harry Truman, who referred to him as a “crybaby.” Their decision was influenced by an FBI report that stated that “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.” The three-hour film attempts to honor Oppie’s request to weigh his existential being in the totality of his life, rather than with reactionary jibes and jingoism.

The AEC move meant Oppenheimer could not work or know about future nuclear weapons projects, but more importantly the widely-publicized rebuke to his legacy as the Father of the Atomic Bomb left his name blackened and his mood blue. The full frontal assault led by Washington lawyer Roger Robb, known for his “ferocious cross-examination” technique, and played typecastically by Jason Clarke, who had us believin’ in torture from his role in Zero Dark Thirty. As the authors of American Prometheus put it:

In assaulting his politics and his professional judgments—his life and his values really—Oppenheimer’s critics in 1954 exposed many aspects of his character: his ambitions and insecurities, his brilliance and naïveté, his determination and fearfulness, his stoicism and his bewilderment.

This deeply contradictory and, yet, serene and highly literate Oppie is what director Christopher Nolan tries to capture in the film. Recently, Cillan Murphy summed up Oppie and how he approached the role of playing the enigma, whose rationale for continuing to develop the Bomb was the counter-intuitive notion that it would make war obsolete: “I do think that he believed it would be the weapon to end all wars,” Murphy recently told NME. “He thought that [having the bomb] would motivate countries to form a sort of nuclear world governance. He was naive.” Indeed, the United Nations has proven futile to stop the dominators amongst nation-states from nuclear proliferation. In the film, in a scene just following the successful explosion of the atom bomb (that’ll end all war), Oppie is talking with Edward Teller, when the former says he hopes that the message sent is that ‘all war is now unthinkable,’ but Teller immediately responds that, yes, maybe, ‘until a bigger bomb comes along’. Teller would go on to become The Father of the Hydrogen Bomb, a super fusion bomb 1000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.

Unfortunately, for my enjoyment of the movie, I’d read other accounts of the relationship between Teller and Oppenheimer. Daniel Ellsberg, for instance, who wrote in his last book before he died, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner — the book he says he wished he’d been able to get out before the Pentagon Papers — that when he came out of seeing Dr. Strangelove with a buddy they were convinced they’d just watched “a documentary,” and writes Ellsberg, “Teller was, along with Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and the former Nazi missile designer Wernher von Braun, one of Kubrick’s inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove, who wore, uncomfortably, the Glove that Vice President Dick Cheney would find the need to take off, but who was entirely self-satisfied with in the end. We got very little of this tension, or frisson, if you will, in the film. Director Nolan goes with “naive,” thereby painting all lefty rhetoric since the Double-Tap on Japan as ignorance of realpolitik.

A major question at the time of the development of the Bomb at Los Alamos was the actual urgency of its need. It has been presumed by politicians and military figures, and fed to the public for consumption, over the decades that the Bomb Chase was to get there before the Nazis did; that the prospect was real that if the Germans developed and used the device first it could have taken out the British and the Russians, ending the war a different way and leaving the world with the prospect of rule by super-fascists. Certainly the V2 rockets, already devastating London, were seen as a more terrifying delivery system for any super bomb.

In The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg actually paints a different picture and suggests that he opposed its immediate development, in part, due to the safety concerns that were being reflected in droll bets being made before the test of Trinity. In June 1942, Ellsberg writes, Albert Speer and Hitler were discussing the feasibility of the Bomb and whether it could done safely:

Actually, Professor Heisenberg had not given any final answer to my question whether a successful nuclear fission could be kept under control with absolute certainty or might continue as a chain reaction. Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule be transformed into a glowing star. [Following this discussion, Speer reported,] “on the suggestion of the nuclear physicists we scuttled the project to develop an atom bomb … after I had again queried them about deadlines and been told that we could not count on anything for three or four years.”

Essentially, Ellsberg writes, Hitler saw no urgency, while the US and Oppenheimer forged on with the WMD.

In Heisenberg’s War, author Thomas Powers, discusses the Myth of the German Bomb, and ponders why the project fizzled despite the genius of Werner Heisenberg. In June 1942, would-be Vater of Der Fuhrer Bomb deflated some Nazi bagpipes when discussing a bomb’s likelihood. Powers writes:

If we want to know why there was no German bomb, nor even any serious program to build one, we must decide why Heisenberg gave this advice…Was Heisenberg’s advice no more, no less, than his considered opinion, honestly given in the hope of sparing Germany an expensive technical folly? Or did Heisenberg deliberately take advantage of the moment, his prestige, and the uncertainties of an untried science to prick the balloon of official hopes?

Oppenheimer had met Heisenberg and Teller had taken his doctorate in physics under him. Hmm.

Oppenheimer fails on another front miserably and, now, loudly. Nolan chose to enact the famous Oppie quote from the Bhagavad-Gita in a way that the writers of American Prometheus probably would have found misleading, let’s say, and which, some Hindus were said to be deeply offended by. The quote we have heard over and over from Oppie-mism is: “I am become Death, Destroyer of worlds.” Nice sound byte. But it is a quote from The Song of God, which, in American Prometheus, Oppenheimer describes as “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.” But, in Nolan’s film, Oppie, while screwing Jean Tatlock, his then girlfriend, an aspiring psychiatrist, is forced to read (in translation) the stanza embedding the quote directly, while she rides his meat pony to heaven like Belle Starr and he constellates her firmament with, um, time-stars. (The actual BG sanskrit can be wonderfully listened to here.) Hmph.

Nolan might have explored Oppenheimer’s deeper inner mythopoesis not only by more fully contextualizing “the most beautiful philosophical song,” and showing how it applies to the problem at hand. He was also digging on John Donne. I’ve been there, done that; I understand how that can happen. Oppie was drawn to the Holy Sonnets, to the Trinity (he named his Bomb project after it), and, in particular, the “Batter My Heart” one, which I just love to death. It goes on about the hopelessness of being a sinner and the need to be ravished and bodily owned by the Lord; in short, it advocates consensual moral rape. Nolan’s having none of that. In American Prometheus, we find out that Oppenheimer had read TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” too. And while Oppie is shown briefly reading it in the film, it gets no further fob; it’s just a gesture to the more literate in the cinema crowd, who might go, dig it, man. I hate lilacs, too, man. Hell, the authors of America Prometheus even describe how Eliot came to Princeton on a short term fellowship at Oppie’s behest, during which the poet wrote The Cocktail Party (“the worst thing he ever wrote,” opines Oppie, in the book) and avoided such faculty parties while at Princeton. Nope. Too highbrow to explore. Welcome to messy Democracy and its Discontents.

Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for physics three times, in 1946, 1951 and 1967. He was never awarded the prize, but many physicists believe that he should have been. Oppenheimer’s work on atoms was groundbreaking. He was one of the first scientists to understand the nature of positrons, and he made significant contributions to the development of quantum mechanics. His work on black holes was also highly influential. In 1939, he and his student Hartland Snyder published a paper that laid out the basic properties of black holes. This paper was one of the first to describe how a star could collapse under its own gravity to form a black hole. I Am Become Death Twice.

Preceding Oppenheimer’s release by just a couple of weeks was another Oppenheimer film (documentary) that appeared on NBC, To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb. The PBS Ken Burns-ish feel doesn’t have the manipulative soundtrack, or the wonder-filled moment at how They pulled off that Bomb explosion on film without CGI, or the titty sexual romps of Oppie riding two women (tragic as a molecule fissioning), or the play to the plebs for entertainment rather than factuality. But To End All War does have a nice compact story that unfurls over a mere 83 minutes. And everybody plays themselves. Including, surprise, surprise, Christopher Nolan, brought in to talk Oppie. And I would recommend that shorter doco over the epic tragedy of the Left’s demise.

The Barbieheimer phenomenon is bizarre, as already duly noted. Now I ‘ve just read that Oppenheimer star Cillan Murphy has announced his willingness to be a Ken in the next Barbie movie. More Big Bang for the Buck. Ee-haaa! And what sacred text will he despoil in that one?!

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.