Sam Miller reviews Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer,’ arguing that although the central character is less Promethean than the opening epigram implies, the film is still effective as tragedy due to its nesting of Oppenheimer’s life story in the broader world of U.S. Popular Front Communism.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.1
So opens Christopher Nolan’s recent historical drama blockbuster, this mythic epigram setting the tone for the film. Over the course of the following three hours, Nolan does his best, in his typical spectacular fashion, to prove this thesis: Oppenheimer was a Promethean figure who gave humanity a dangerous but promising gift and was ultimately punished for it by the powers that be. Rather than a history of the man or of his time, the film creates a myth, embracing parts of the accumulated popular culture understanding of J. Robert Oppenheimer and rejecting others, an argument for seeing Oppenheimer as this Promethean symbol more than a real human being. And yet, what the film presents is very much not the Prometheus story. Rather than solely featuring the mythic tragedy of a larger than life man, the film turns the whole era of the 1930s and ‘40s into a myth that parallels Oppenheimer’s story. But how close are these two parallel tragic myths, intertwining with one another, to the story of Prometheus?
In his fragmentary play Prometheus Bound, the ancient Athenian tragedian Aeschylus also presents a version of the Promethean narrative. While not the only version of the myth, Aeschylus’ rendition presents a worthwhile point of comparison with Nolan’s attempt. His Prometheus is a radical figure, who knew the potential consequences of his actions and took them anyway, righteously mocking his jailors. Nolan’s American Prometheus (he took the cue for the mythological comparison from the biography of the same name) is a very different figure, one who knew some but not all of the future ramifications of his actions when he began, brought down not really by enemies of justice punishing him (as much as the film tries to present “Oppie” as a fundamentally good man brought low by conniving enemies) but rather by his own hubris and naivete.
In this way, the film parallels Oppenheimer’s tragic arc with that of the larger world of the Popular Front and the Communists within it, a vibrant political counterculture that had taken the country by storm in the 1930s and, in Oppenheimer’s California, was effectively in the mainstream. Similarly to Nolan’s so-called “Prometheus,” the American Communists eagerly threw themselves into something only some of them knew the future consequences of, only to be crushed under the weight of what was brought down on them: war, McCarthyism, and the American military-industrial complex. It is the very same persecutors that Nolan’s film ends with, dragging Oppenheimer through the coals in a hearing that looms over the film’s narrative. Oppenheimer and American Communism parallel each other throughout the film, forming a double tragedy, a tragic myth of an era destroyed by itself and a man who exemplified that era. But the myth presented in the film’s opening is not the myth it tells. To better describe that, we will have to take a step back.
Oppenheimer The Tragic Prometheus?
In his Poetics, Aristotle typifies tragedy with six elements, most important of which are the centrality of plot and emotional catharsis. By centrality of plot, Aristotle means that action is more important to tragedy than character. In his words, “tragedy is a representation not of human beings but of action and life.”2 Aristotle argues there are three parts to a tragic plot: reversal, “a change of the actions to their opposite,” i.e. a character ends up doing the opposite of what they would be expected to do, recognition, “a change from ignorance to knowledge,” and suffering.3 While plot is “the origin and as it were the soul of tragedy,” catharsis is its ultimate function, at least in Aristotle’s view.4 Catharsis refers to the expurgation of emotion from witnessing a tragic narrative, letting out a negative emotional experience in a controlled, fictionalized environment. While art and storytelling is much more complex than Aristotle’s starkly defined categories, this Aristotelian view can help contextualize both Aeschylus’ play and Nolan’s film in the tragic context.
Up until the romantic movement of the early 19th century, Prometheus Bound was considered a failed tragedy for not adhering to Aristotle’s typology.5 Central to this view is the issue of plot. Compared with such archetypal tragedies as Oedipus, with a single central character who begins the play at his height and falls from his heights due to his own actions and the knock-on effects thereof (another point which Aristotle touches on, remarking that “the characters should be good” and that undesirable traits in characters should be avoided or handled with care), Prometheus Bound is practically without plot, in the terms Aristotle uses.6 Everything which occurs in the play is in the shadow of a single event, that being Prometheus’ theft of fire, but the famous moment happens before the play even opens! Instead, Aeschylus opens in media res as Hephaestus agonizes over having to hammer Prometheus’ chains into place. The story is more made up of starkly defined characters drifting on stage and conversing with Prometheus than it is out of concrete actions.
In downplaying the inciting incident and centering on dialogue between characters, Prometheus Bound becomes almost like the dialogues of Plato. The play opens on Hephaestus and the spirits Might and Violence (servants of Zeus), who urge Hephaestus to do as he is ordered, while he bemoans acting against his will in punishing Prometheus. The bulk of the play is made up of a back and forth between Prometheus and the Chorus, broken first by the sudden entrance of the titan Oceanus and then by that of the mortal Io. Oceanus counsels Prometheus to avoid speaking ill of Zeus and of his newfound rule over the gods, lest his punishment be made worse. Io, meanwhile, wanders in from a mysterious journey with no knowledge of where she is headed or why, and asks Prometheus a series of questions, all of which he answers before Hermes, Zeus’ messenger, enters and threatens Prometheus. Zeus, in Prometheus Bound, is not simply the king of the gods, but a tyrant, and one which Prometheus declares shall fall “from his seat of power.”7
Yes, Aeschylus is so bold as to openly feature declarations that Zeus, the paramount god of Greek religion, was nothing more than an oppressive tyrant! He was no stranger to atypical messages in his work; another of his tragedies, The Persians, goes out of its way to depict Athens’ Achaemenid enemies in a sympathetic light, for example. But Prometheus Bound’s declaration of Zeus’ tyranny is more than a controversial commentary on religion. Zeus represents tyranny in general, and Prometheus democracy, situating the Prometheus narrative in a context directly comprehensible to its audience, namely the struggle against Peisistratus in Athens, and similar struggles in other Greek cities.8 Rather than overthrowing Zeus himself, however, Prometheus, fittingly for his name (“Forethought” in Greek) unerringly foresees Zeus’ downfall. He declares to Hermes:
…You are young
and young your rule and you think that the tower
in which you live is free from sorrow: from it
have I not seen two tyrants thrown? The third,
who now is king, I shall yet live to see him
fall, of all three most suddenly, most dishonored.
Do you think I will crouch before your Gods,
–so new–and tremble? I am far from that.9
Here, Prometheus reflects on lessons from history, the falls of previous tyrants, Kronos and Uranus, to conclude as to the future. Reading this response to Hermes directly, it shows Prometheus thinking historically, extrapolating out from existing data his view of the present and possible future. And, notably, it points to the fall of tyranny as an inevitability; obviously this does not mean the success of democracy is an inevitability, but one is the precondition for the other. Prometheus foresees, based on previous evidence, the fall of Zeus, leaving open the possibility of a better order for the universe.
One should be wary of placing too much weight on this historical thinking, however; while I believe it is a valid reading, Prometheus does also have the literal ability to see the future. But Prometheus was not the only one who had such forethought. Aeschylus mentions Prometheus’ other, lesser known gift to man. In addition to fire, stolen from the Gods, Prometheus “placed in them [humanity] blind hopes.”10 In other classical Greek works, such as Plato’s Gorgias, there is a story that in the time of Kronos, as well as “when Zeus was newly king,” people knew the days of their death, which brought injustice and suffering.11 This small piece of foreknowledge held human potential back. In the words of classicist David Grene, “the gift of reason, the supreme ally in [humanity’s] struggle with nature, made them fight on against death in ‘blind hope,’ even when the day of their death had come.”12 Prometheus’ gifts, then, were what gave humanity the urge to strive against the odds, to struggle against tyranny, to interact with the world around them. Grene also remarks that fire, Prometheus’ most famous gift, “is a symbol of practical, not speculative reason,” a view which fits well with a view of science and human intelligence that emphasizes labor and the material over abstract rationalism.
So Prometheus, more than an origin myth for humanity, is the story of humanity, or an advocate of humanity, being unjustly punished by power and tyranny for using practical reason and ceaselessly struggling to the end. As with all great art, the play has many layers which each strengthen and reinforce the others:
Aeschylus has made this story significant on a number of different levels, though each level involves the conflict of two opposing principles. For Prometheus is, politically, the symbol of the rebel against the tyrant who has overthrown the traditional rule of Justice and Law. He is the symbol of Knowledge against Force. He is symbolically the champion of man, raising him through the gift of intelligence, against the would-be destroyer of man. Finally, there is a level at which Prometheus is symbolically Man as opposed to God.13
The tragedy in Prometheus, especially given its presumed original audience in the Athenian democracy (even keeping in mind its’ terrible limits), comes from seeing this staunch, principled, and respectable advocate of humanity, democracy, and knowledge so mistreated. The catharsis comes from seeing this injustice enacted before the audience’s eyes. Now, this is not the only version of the Prometheus myth, so perhaps it isn’t the particular one Nolan was inspired by. But, it is undoubtedly one of the more prominent renditions, and one which should be of obvious interest to socialists, communists, and Marxists of all stripes. How does Nolan’s story of the American Prometheus compare?
To begin with, J. Robert Oppenheimer is more than the film’s protagonist. He is its hero, always striving for what’s best to his knowledge but brought down both by outside manipulation, villainy, and his own failures of character: hubris and indecisiveness. Oppenheimer is undeniably a film in the long tradition of myth making surrounding the “father of the atom,” attempting to transform the symbol of supposed American genius wracked by guilt over what he created into a singular genius brought down by forces both within and without himself. Cillian Murphy puts in an effective, nuanced performance of this figure wracked by internal conflict and external punishments, but does the film succeed in painting Oppenheimer as the tragic Prometheus, nailed down on orders of Zeus for giving humanity a great gift?
In establishing the singular genius of Oppenheimer, the film’s first forty minutes or so is dedicated to his meteoric rise from student to professor, as he brings European quantum mechanics to Berkeley, just on the cusp of heading the Manhattan Project. This portion is by far the film’s weakest section, both in terms of pacing and content. It has a manic pace, going from event to event in the younger Oppenheimer’s life in a constant barrage, interspersed with loud abstract visuals of spiraling atoms and waveforms that come to the physicist in his sleep like terrifying visions out of a Lovecraft story, alongside cutaways to testimony from decades later. These disordered testimonial segments are admittedly interesting, but when mixed in with the slapdash pacing and abstract visuals meant to communicate Oppenheimer’s burgeoning genius, they confuse the narrative. While the filmic purpose of the whirring atoms, his dilettantish discussions of world literature ranging from the Bhagavad Gita to Capital, and other narrative clues of his tortured intellect is clear in trying to set up the later creation and regretful aftermath of the atomic bomb, it comes across as little more than cringeworthy genius-worship.
Once the film gets on its feet, however, it has an incredibly strong second act and an interesting ending. The story of the Manhattan Project is told incredibly well. As a film narrative, this middle portion of Oppenheimer is nothing short of a masterpiece, with clear and effective characters, a focused plot with nothing extraneous, and an incredible climax with the Trinity test. It is telling that, in a movie as overwhelmingly loud as Oppenheimer, the pivotal moment where the “gadget” is finally tested is done in complete silence. Notably, this middle portion of the film also lacks many of the asynchronous cutaways which, despite their interesting uses earlier in the film, confused and muddled the flow of the narrative.
It is perhaps the film’s third act which is most relevant to the characterization of Oppenheimer as Prometheus. After the Trinity test and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when J. Robert Oppenheimer is appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission and the Institute for Advanced Study, he butts heads with AEC member (later chairman) and IAS chair Lewis Strauss, and is ultimately dragged before an anti-communist witch hunt hearing put together by Strauss and his allies. The film’s conclusion centers on Strauss, here played by Robert Downey Jr. in a stellar performance, when his role in bringing down Oppenheimer is brought up at a senate hearing to confirm his appointment to the cabinet, resulting in the senate’s refusal to confirm. Scenes from Strauss’s perspective, including from the senate hearing, had been interspersed throughout the film up to this point, always signaled by a shift from color to black and white. By the tail end of the film, it is the narrative focus. This complete shift from a more or less straightforward presentation of Oppenheimer’s meteoric rise and tragic fall to a drama from the backrooms of the U.S. government is somewhat strange, but it serves to reinforce the film’s narrative about Oppenheimer’s Promethean punishment, with Strauss as the tyrant Zeus, orchestrating Oppenheimer’s downfall.
However, Strauss is only one half of tyrannical Zeus. The other, larger half is more abstract: the American military-industrial complex. Military men lurk behind every corner in this narrative, from Matt Damon’s General Leslie Groves to the slimy, uncanny Kenneth Nichols, portrayed with an ominous air by Dane DeHaan. Oppenheimer is brought down in a fit of McCarthyist subterfuge on the grounds that he posed not a threat to American democracy, but to American military secrets and interests (which, in the circumstances of the early 1950s United States, included nuclear infrastructure and the development of the hydrogen bomb, to which Oppenheimer was consistently opposed). In that hearing room, where Oppenheimer is dragged over the coals and has his dirty laundry aired out in front of his wife and friends, there is no pitying Hephaestus, beyond some remorseful witnesses; there is only a gaggle of Mights and Violences, acting as Zeus’ agents.
However, that narrative requires a bit of reading between the lines. While it is undeniable that anticommunism and militarism are fundamental to the conflict at the heart of the story, Strauss is straightforwardly the villain, with the terrible power of the military-industrial complex backgrounded. Ultimately Strauss’s struggle with Oppenheimer comes down to personal squabbles that have been blown out of proportion by proximity to power and moments of humiliation turned into a terrible grueling spectacle. In the literal filmic narrative, Strauss is the one who initiates it; but, when read closer, it is apparent that the only reason that Strauss could have possibly brought down Oppenheimer was because the American military-political establishment was primed for it. Strauss set off the powder keg of the American military, and the conservative, anticommunist turn after the Second World War.
But who really lit that powderkeg? It wasn’t Strauss, who so expertly set it ablaze and used it against Oppenheimer. Nor, in the narrative of the film, was it really the generals and officers who always saw Oppenheimer as a security risk, albeit a useful genius. No, it was Oppenheimer himself who prepared the powderkeg that spelled his own doom. The FBI had been gathering intelligence on Oppenheimer for decades by the time he was brought before the hearing, and yet they hadn’t used it against him beyond hurdles he had to jump over to head the Manhattan Project. That was the kindling, the foundation for the blaze; and it was Oppenheimer’s bomb which did the rest of the work. By building the atom bomb and doing the military’s legwork toward using it on Japan, Oppenheimer inadvertently contributed to creating the very military-industrial complex which, with Strauss’s help, brought him down. His hubris in creating something so dangerous to humanity, and his naivete in thinking that the powers that be would be at all open to sharing it with the Soviet Union, only made things worse.
Oppenheimer is less Prometheus and more Icarus; he flew too close to the sun on wings of his own creation, hurtling down to the earth because of his own hubris. He thought he could get away with opposing American militarism and the hydrogen bomb after the war, but the very nuclear-armed military he helped to build shot him down when the right opportunity presented itself. The splitting of the atom was a genuine gift to humanity, for nothing else but the potential unleashed by nuclear power as a possible alternative to fossil fuels, but the other side of this coin was a new and most cruel bomb that held within itself the potential for humanity’s extinction. Prometheus’ fire, symbolizing enlightenment, could be read as having such an adverse side as well, but a clearer comparison can be made with Icarus’ wings, which have the potential to unleash humanity from the shackles which hold us to the earth, but when misapplied led only to death and destruction.
Oppenheimer, when receiving his Promethean punishment at the hands of Strauss’ hearing committee, also lacks the staunch radical assertiveness of Aeschylus’ Prometheus. Instead of Prometheus’ stand for justice in the face of terrible odds, Oppenheimer has a silent, almost stoic acceptance of what comes for him. His wife, Kitty, portrayed by Emily Blunt in an astounding performance, confronts him during the hearing after he is forced to recount a visit to Jean Tatlock, the woman he was having an affair with, saying, “You sit there, day after day, letting them pick our lives to pieces. Why won’t you fight?”14 He says nothing in reply. Like the vultures picking at Prometheus’ liver, the men on this committee pick at his and his wife’s lives. Yet unlike Prometheus, who uses every opportunity to mock the rule of Zeus and commit himself to the downfall of tyranny, Oppenheimer says nothing. For all the focus on the trials and tribulations which Oppenheimer receives at the hand of the military he helped empower and the man he had worked with for years, Oppenheimer the character silently accepts all that comes for him. It is telling that in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the tyrant Zeus, who has chained Prometheus to the rock, is doomed to fall; while in Nolan’s film, the ultimate fate of J. Robert Oppenheimer is to feebly accept an award from president Johnson in his old age, long made irrelevant to the country and the world that he thought he was dedicating himself to – a symbol sapped of power and vitality, paraded out a decade after his fall like nothing even happened.
The Double Tragedy
Throughout Nolan’s film, two parallel tragedies twist about, each reflecting the other. In the foreground is the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American Prometheus. Alongside this is the tragic life of the larger left-wing, Communist Party USA-centered counterculture, from its peak in the 1930s through its decrescendo into flag waving patriotism and its subsequent destruction. By the late 1940s, the hoped-for America of Henry Wallace became the America of Joseph McCarthy, and the Century of the Common Man became the American Century.15
With this double tragedy, Nolan’s film becomes truly epic in scope. Not only is it the story of a single man, following his meteoric rise and subsequent fall a la the figures of Greek tragedy, it is the story of a society which destroyed itself. The second tragedy is in the background, other than brief moments where it intersects with Oppenheimer’s life. Oppenheimer’s position relative to the larger Popular Front-era left-wing counterculture is especially notable here. The film’s perspective on the left, on antifascism, and on communism is tempered and defined by Oppenheimer’s relative distance. While the narrative of the “fellow traveler” which has so dominated discourse on the Popular Front is imperfect, Oppenheimer was the epitome of the fellow traveler. Never a member of the Communist Party, his interest in socialism was at once intellectual and circumstantial, his antifascism a more overriding concern. He fits in among the other leading lights of the Popular Front more so than its real rank-and-file in the CPUSA, CIO, Socialist Workers’ Party, or Trade Union Educational League, and sees the coming collapse of the world in which he has operated far too late to do anything about it.
This is what makes Oppenheimer more than a typical historical drama, and what really makes it worth watching and engaging with. The double tragedy, for all its inaccuracies or faults regarding the history or the larger social picture of the time, is an incredibly compelling, almost mythic, narrative. It is not history, and should not be treated as such; but these two narratives, one foregrounded one backgrounded, provide such a depth of story that might otherwise be flattened if the film solely concerned itself with the events of Oppenheimer’s life. Despite how some have criticized the movie, it is more than a Wikipedia-esque synopsis. Whether or not it was intentional, the double tragedy allows the viewer, assuming they can look past the spectacle, to examine history and memory, and to have the kind of catharsis which typified the classical tragedies.
The World Of American Communism
The backdrop against which Oppenheimer’s McCarthyist Icarus story is set is the world of American communism; not simply the political realm of the CPUSA, but the larger social world which, by the 1930s, had been built up around the party. By the time of the Popular Front, a whole network of organizations grew in intricate relation to the Communist Party, the Democratic Party, and the newly established Congress of Industrial Organizations, a milieu which is harder to define than simple party membership counts. In Oppenheimer’s California, the Popular Front was mainstream to a certain extent. The San Francisco longshoreman’s strike of 1934 had won sympathy and support for unionists, famous novelist Upton Sinclair had come close to winning the governorship in his “End Poverty in California” run (which, as an aside, was attacked by the California CP for social fascism before the real onset of the Popular Front proper). In 1938, the Democratic candidate for governor, Culbert Olson, won the position with the open support of the Communist Party and his slogan of a “united front against fascism.”16 By 1938, the California CP had grown to more than 6,000 members out of a total national membership of around 75,000, a significant portion for a single state. The Party had an even larger network of workers, intellectuals, and sympathizers active in various organizations ranging from workers’ schools like the Tom Mooney Labor School to the League of American Writers and everything in between.17 It was a whole new political world in development, and one which was especially prominent in California, which was also an epicenter of the Party’s cultural activities, including musicians such as Woody Guthrie and others.
This interconnected network of activists, organizers, workers, and intellectuals also built around itself a real subculture, a cultural ecosystem which left its mark on American popular culture. This was the era of newspapers like the Weekly Worker or the Californian Western Worker, influential and widely read novels such as John Dos Passos’s U.S.A trilogy and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and openly interracial dances put on by the Communist Party to foster socialization between black and white workers and fight segregation. This was a subculture aspiring to reshape the dominant culture in its image, grown around industrial democracy, anti-racism, and the New Deal (each to varying degrees depending on the year, the organization in question, and the region of the country). It is in this active subculture that Oppenheimer is set. The Popular Front culture of Nolan’s film is less the world of interracial dances than that of white academics and middle class fellow travelers. As a result, the film is limited in its perspective of the larger social universe that was the Popular Front, but even only this fraction gives us a view into the tragic arc of American Communism.
This subculture arguably has its roots before the Popular Front proper, in the period of the early 1930s when the CPUSA was adhering to its Third Period line of opposition to social fascism, namely Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. The beginnings of the left turn in the culture occurred outside of the realm of the Communist Party. The CPUSA transitioned to the Popular Front strategy over the course of 1935-1936, which had the close involvement of Sam Darcy, leader of the California CP and at the time liaison between the American Party and Moscow, who facilitated the conversation between CPUSA chair Earl Browder and Georgi Dimitrov that led to the CPUSA abandoning opposition to FDR. After this turn, the party quickly became one of the most active epicenters of that subculture. By the late ‘30s, as mentioned above, it had become mainstream, almost the epicenter of the Popular Front, with sections and members active in the CIO and other organizations, and, in California especially, being active in campaigns for a number of New Deal candidates. This was not to last.
The ideological rationalization of the Popular Front on the part of CPUSA leadership, was encapsulated in Browder’s infamous slogan, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” After a brief break from alignment with much of the rest of the Popular Front following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, the Communist Party threw itself with open arms into the most rank opportunism, tailism, and chauvinism. After Pearl Harbor and Operation Barbarossa brought both the United States and Soviet Union into the war together, the Party fully returned to the broader world of the Popular Front… except the Popular Front of 1941 was a rather different beast from that of 1936 or 1938. Now, everyone was an anti-fascist, and the people who were anti-fascist before America joined the war were labeled “premature.”18 Where before there was a subculture that centered CIO industrial democracy and CPUSA anti-racism, now there was patriotic flag waving. The CPUSA now acted less as the left wing of the New Deal and more as the left wing of the US Army. Nothing encapsulates this more than the wartime anti-strike provision and the Communist Party’s support for Japanese internment. That the Party fell so quickly into such chauvinist and tailist politics is a terrible historical shame for the Communist Party, even as the earlier Popular Front subculture had many victories. It is an unfortunate fact that it was all too easy for the Popular Front to rally behind American chauvinism during the war.
Despite the hopes of the leaders of the Communist Party and the Popular Front more broadly, transforming themselves into the loyal left wing of the wartime Democratic Party did not safeguard their position. The CPUSA and its leaders in particular came out the other end of the war in a considerably weaker position than they entered it; but this was not immediately apparent to the likes of Browder. Membership numbers were way up, but with political independence flushed down the drain (most atrociously in Browder’s decision to dissolve the Party and reform it into a Communist Political Association in 1944), that meant far less than the smaller number of members meant in 1936. Class collaborationism, opportunism, and chauvinism weakened the Communist Party and any trust that its real working class base had. Browder himself was left open to attacks from the Comintern leadership when the war ended and he kept up his patriotic drumming, ultimately leading to his removal from leadership. The Party itself, which had rallied behind the American military during the war, became the target of American intelligence and scaremongering after.
This is the tragedy of American Communism, the second tragedy of Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Mirroring and providing a foundation for J. Robert Oppenheimer’s meteoric rise and tragic fall at the hands of the monster that he helped to create, the Popular Front Communist Party rose to national and regional prominence, became a loyal left wing to the capitalist-imperialist American state, even defending its worst excesses in interring hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans and dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was ultimately torn apart after the war by a McCarthyist inquisition, political trials like the Rosenbergs’, and FBI investigation. The Popular Front of the 1930s was full of promise and struggle. How could one not appreciate the longshoreman’s strike, A. Philip Randolph’s work organizing African American labor, the Communist Party’s interracial dances, or the writings of Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and other Popular Front authors? But, just like Oppenheimer, the Popular Front bore within it the seeds of its own destruction. When it succumbed to jingoistic flag waving, the Popular Front helped uphold the very thing that would obliterate it.
Oppenheimer is the latest in a loose pattern of films which are sympathetic to their Communist or fellow traveler protagonists during the McCarthy era. For instance, 2021’s Being the Ricardos about Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, similarly presents the victims of a McCarthyist witch hunt in a sympathetic, even positive light. Besides simply being a less artistically interesting film, Being the Ricardos balances its attempts at sympathy with a general anticommunism, with being a communist presented as an artifact in the distant past of the protagonist. Oppenheimer, comparatively, treats its communist characters with much more humanity while they are communists, and beyond the presentation of characters who are anticommunist and a general wariness of the politics of the CPUSA, it is by far the recent film most sympathetic to early 20th century American communists. It is notable, however, that films like Oppenheimer and Being the Ricardos are softer (more or less) with regards to anti-communism only after the better part of a century has elapsed and only with white historical figures. This latter day reappraisal of the McCarthy era by Hollywood liberals has its limits. But, to check those limits in Nolan’s film, we must examine its major communist characters.
The central communist character in the film, other than the on-again-off-again party members related to Oppenheimer by blood or romance, is Haakon Chevalier, so central a communist to the film’s narrative that they flatten multiple different party members into one! Chevalier was a fellow academic and a (perhaps informal) member of the CPUSA. Based on his account, he was part of a University of California faculty group that was affiliated with the Party and through which he paid dues without having received a membership card. This group, at times described as a party club at others as a discussion group, was of a common sort for the California party at the time. There was a whole network of people who considered themselves communists, even Communists with a capital C, paying into the Communist Party, while not being listed in central party membership lists. Chevalier, and Oppenheimer for that matter, illustrate the inadequacy of the “fellow traveler,” given the dynamic and permeable relationships that American socialists could have with the CPUSA at the time.19 In Chevalier’s own words, “We both were and were not.”20
In Nolan’s film, however, Chevalier is straightforwardly a party member, serving as Oppenheimer’s contact into the larger party. In reality, not only was Chevalier’s relationship with the party more complex, he didn’t even have the major role in party circles that the film makes him out to have had. Oppenheimer, in the frantic first third of the film, attends a party at Chevalier’s place, where Chevalier encourages Oppenheimer to donate to the Communist Party in order to get funds and support to the frontlines in Spain more directly. This exchange did happen in reality, but with a leading party member completely omitted from the film! Dr. Tom Addis, a physician, scientist, and professor at Stanford who had become a staunch support of Soviet Communism (and an early advocate of universal healthcare in the United States!) after a trip to a medical conference in Leningrad, is the one who told Oppenheimer, “If you want it [money for the Spanish Republic] to do good, let it go through Communist channels… and it will really help,” not Chevalier!21 Addis served as Oppenheimer’s contact with the upper echelons of the party in California, not Chevalier.
While this may seem a minor historical nitpick, this flattening of two historical figures into one is an example of Nolan’s tendency in Oppenheimer to flatten the vibrant, complex, and dynamic world of American communism into a simple cast of characters against which his tortured genius Prometheus can be compared and contrasted. Chevalier takes on the role of Party leader in his story, in addition to being a close family friend of Oppenheimer’s. can only be one Party leader, and the film has decided to combine traits of the more vaguely affiliated academic Chevalier with the open Party leader Addis.
On the other hand, Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s tortured love interest and perennial affair, is presented more straightforwardly. Rather than being conflated with other prominent communists, she is a flat caricature of the historical woman who was a genius in her own right. The daughter of a Chaucer scholar with her own interest in literature, a Jungian psychiatrist, a “complete red when anything at all” but on-again-off-again Party member, and journalist for the California Communist Party’s Western Worker, she was a well-rounded intellectual, a woman commented upon as “the most promising girl I ever knew, the only one of all that I saw around me in college that even seemed touched with greatness,” by a classmate of hers.22 It is a terrible tragedy in its own right how such an intelligent, independent, and political woman ultimately committed suicide, and that she is forever in the shadow of Oppenheimer. It is worse how she is presented in this film!
Tatlock is introduced in a scene at Oppenheimer’s landlady’s house, a party attended by a number of Party members and sympathizers. This is the same scene where Chevalier encourages Oppenheimer to send money to Spain through the Party. This also features that line that made every Marxist active in online spaces cringe and crack jokes. When confronted as to why he isn’t a member of the Party, Oppenheimer pithily retorts:
CHEVALIER: Robert here says he’s not a Communist.
TATLOCK: Then he doesn’t know enough about it.
OPPENHEIMER: I’ve read Das Kapital. All three volumes. Does that count?
CHEVALIER: That would make you better read than most Party members.
OPPENHEIMER: It’s turgid stuff, but there’s some thinking… ‘Ownership is theft.’
TATLOCK: ‘Property,’ not ‘ownership.’
OPPENHEIMER: Sorry, I read it in the original German.23
Yes, the scene where J. Robert Oppenheimer attributes a Proudhon quote to Marx and declares that he read Capital in the original German in order one up Jean Tatlock. In isolation, this would be little more than a one-off opportunity for a joke, little more than a nitpick. But, more than a simple mixing up of nineteenth century socialist quotes, this moment illustrates how the figure of Jean Tatlock has been done a disservice by Nolan’s film.
This small exchange serves only as an opportunity to paint Oppenheimer as the more nuanced, more thoughtful, less doctrinaire genius, diving deeper and with more subtlety into subject matter that the communists are so passionate about. Despite the subsequent scenes of Tatlock’s and Oppenheimer’s emotionally heightened romance, she is in this scene little more than a springboard for Oppenheimer’s characterization. He challenged her understanding of Marx, thus showing him off to the audience to be the deeper thinker. This despite, in reality, Tatlock having been the impetus for many of Oppenheimer’s political decisions! “It was Tatlock who ‘opened the door’ for Robert into this world of politics,” introducing him to Communists and members of the larger Popular Front, and it was her “passionate nature to push Oppenheimer from theory to action” (especially resonant with the film’s “theory will only take you so far” theme!).24 While he had been a supporter of Republican Spain before meeting Tatlock, it was Tatlock who inspired him to become more actively involved in fundraising for it, chiding him for his tendency to settle for being on the periphery of the action: “Oh for God’s sake… don’t settle for anything!”25
Jean Tatlock was Oppenheimer’s inspiration for politics. he was the person who introduced him to the world of American communism, the woman who pushed him to be active in support for the Spanish Republic. Nolan’s film flips this relationship around, turning Tatlock into a character put down intellectually by the more nuanced Oppenheimer, yet sexually titillating, a woman who inflames Oppenheimer’s passions rather than his mind. In reality, their relationship appears to have been much more mutual, much more political and intellectual as well as passionate and sexual. Nolan’s film abandons much of that, and flattens the fascinatingly complex character of Tatlock into little more than an object of Oppenheimer’s attraction made difficult by their respective relationships. Changing around historical events or characterizations to suit the needs of a narrative is fine. Beyond any historical inaccuracy, the handling of Tatlock is generally negative, even as Pugh puts in a great performance.
While commentary on the film’s lack of women characters and the mishandling of Tatlock’s character are true, the film’s other most important woman, Kitty Oppenheimer, presents a much more complex mirror to Tatlock’s one dimensionality. Blunt puts in an incredible performance as Oppenheimer’s wife, including what is easily the best exchange in the entire movie; if anything, while there are multiple great performances in the film, Blunt outshines all the rest. She brings a powerful mix of tortured melancholy and staunch assertiveness that makes Kitty into a character with real depth, a perfect foil to Murphy’s wavering hubristic Oppenheimer.
The high point of Blunt’s portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer comes when she is dragged before the committee at Oppenheimer’s hearing, and questioned as to her membership in the Communist Party. Mrs. Oppenheimer curtly counters the attempts by the committee to pin her in a red-baiting corner, mocking them and asserting her presence without the morose defeat that colors Robert’s responses. Along with the beauty and impact of the silent Trinity test scene, Kitty Oppenheimer’s testimony is one of the strongest scenes in the film. With regards to its treatment of American communism, however, it is the all too telling bow on the story of defeat which runs through the tragedy of the Popular Front in the film.
At this point in her life, Mrs. Oppenheimer is not a communist. She has not been a communist for the better part of two decades, and she asserts now her strong anti-communism. The climax of the scene comes when she is confronted for Oppenheimer’s continued support for refugees of the Spanish Civil War which he provided for through Communist Party channels and responds assertively:
KITTY: I don’t like the phrase ‘having anything to do with the Communist Party’ because Robert never had anything to do with the Communist Party as such. I know he gave money for Spanish refugees. I know he took an intellectual interest in Communist ideas-
ROBB: Are there two kinds of Communists? An intellectual Communist and a plain ordinary Commie?
Kitty laughs the laugh of the free.
KITTY: I couldn’t answer that one.26
This is the one time where I must include the direction from the screenplay. It is telling that the script notes her laugh is the laugh of the free. In this moment, she is flaunting her freedom from the men on the committee, taking on the exact opposite stance which her husband has taken. Her complicated relationship to communism and to the Communist Party is displayed here, not through a shameful recollection of a questionable past, but through an honest and free appraisal of her experiences snaking around the committee’s questions.
It is true, however, that Kitty Oppenheimer had long not been a Communist by the time of the Oppenheimer hearing. In her words, she hadn’t been a Communist since she left Youngstown in 1936. Her husband there in Youngstown, Ohio had been active in the Party, and she along with him, but by the time of her marriage to Oppenheimer she had long put Communist organizing behind her. This pattern bears out through the rest of the communist and once-communist characters. Most tragically, Tatlock was dead, having committed suicide in her bathtub. The fates of the film’s other communists are briefly summarized partway through: “His brother [unlike Oppenheimer, he and his wife were active and open CPUSA members] was blacklisted by every university in the country… Lomanitz wound up working the railroad, laying track… Chevalier went into exile…”27 By the film’s final act, the vibrant world of the Popular Front is well and truly dead, its last thread in the narrative Oppenheimer himself. Every communist in the film has either ceased being a communist, died, or been forced into obscurity. The world of Oppenheimer’s 1936 Popular Front has been tragically obliterated.
History And Myth
Moreso than some other historical dramas, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is strongly interested in history itself, and in how its characters relate to and represent history. This is more than a simple recounting of events; despite how one commentator characterized it, the film is much more than a brief biography of Oppenheimer’s life. Most notably, the film gets a number of key points factually wrong as to better serve the narrative!28 The film treats J. Robert Oppenheimer as a man burdened by the great and terrible force of history, by the intersection of his own faults and shortcomings with events well out of his control despite his own efforts to control them. Ascertaining a singular coherent philosophy of history from the film is difficult, because ultimately, Oppenheimer is not a work of academic, analytic history. Rather, it is history as myth and art.
This is why the double tragedy is so significant; not only does the film treat Oppenheimer as a tragic figure caught up in history buoyed by his (according to the film) incomparable genius, it also depicts the history of the Popular Front and American communism as the tragedy that it was. It is deeply invested in the mythology of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atom, the man who grew to regret the terrible thing he had created, and it similarly attempts to mythologize the very epoch of American society out of which Oppenheimer and his bomb emerged. The atomic bomb is, in a sense, the birth of the twentieth and twenty-first century world, the fiery birth of American world hegemony and, with it, the Cold War and all the repercussions which reverberated out from that world-conflict. Inevitably the Communists, for all their efforts to be loyal American citizens after 1941, would be tragically caught in the crosshairs of History, and with them, Oppenheimer himself. Just as Aeschylus presented the tragedy of Prometheus in an effort to explain his present world with its newborn democracy, so too does Nolan’s film present the tragedy of the American Icarus to explain the birth of our world, with the closing scene of his own impotence representing the ceaseless march of history. A much more pessimistic appraisal of history through myth than Aeschylus!
But do the myths of Oppenheimer, Father of the Atom, and the supposed Popular Front-peak of American Communism, need to be retold? Perhaps not. Oppenheimer is a figure prominent in the American popular imagination of the Second World War. His popular image as a tortured genius and enlightened pacifist wracked with guilt only after the invention he and his team had worked on had killed hundreds of thousands isn’t one that ought to be reinforced. The Popular Front, while not nearly as prominent an image in the American popular imagination these days, is an era whose cultural products have cast a long shadow. On the Left especially, the era can be sometimes uncritically praised. And yet, the film was worth making and is worth seeing. Even as these myths have pernicious shadows, the movie still says something interesting and meaningful in its tragic portrayal of the assisted self-destruction of a scientist and a political culture. Depicting Oppenheimer and Popular Front-era communism as intertwined tragedies gives the audience catharsis over their ultimate fate and provides opportunities for reflection over both.
However, what of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There has been much discussion over the handling (or rather, lack thereof) of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Oppenheimer, and how that centers the film’s narrative on the conflicted feelings of its white American characters rather than the horrible suffering wrought on Japanese people by the United States. Rather than showing the effects of the bomb on Hiroshima, or even the very act of dropping it at all, the film instead shows Oppenheimer anxiously waiting for news of the bombing, and then terrible visions of a charred corpse and flesh melting off faces during his triumphant speech following the atomic bombing.
Additionally, the film simplifies the debate within the United States’ military over the atomic bomb, condensing the question of whether to even use “the gadget” on Japan into two short scenes. In the first, “Oppie” finds a flier outside of Los Alamos promoting a discussion on “The Impact of the Gadget on Civilization.” When he enters a room filled with physicists speaking on shutting down the Manhattan Project in light of Nazi Germany’s impending defeat, he curtly declares that, while the Germans are on the brink of defeat, “the Japanese still fight!”29 What may have begun for the antifascist Oppenheimer who, earlier in the film, reminded a coworker at Berkeley that “it’s not your people they’re herding into camps! It’s mine!”, as a crusade against antisemitic fascism had seemingly transformed, just as it had among the larger New Deal coalition and within the CPUSA, into a jingoistic fight against America’s enemies.30
In the other scene, Oppenheimer is one of a few physicists in a room full of military men and politicians, meeting with the secretary of war to discuss the locations to drop the atom bomb. Oppenheimer is also the advocate of avoiding using the atom bomb without communicating clearly with the Soviet Union, to avoid an arms race. He is not only resigned to using it on Japan, but believes that it could “end all war, if we retain the moral advantage.”31 The implication is America will only retain the moral advantage so long as they share this new and most cruel bomb with the Soviets, and use it sparingly. That thousands of Japanese will be turned to shadows on the ground or given radiation poisoning, cancer, and birth defects seemingly does not challenge this moral advantage. After all, this is the same meeting where the secretary of war notes that they will strike Kyoto off the list of potential targets not just for its cultural significance, but because he and his wife vacationed there before the war (an improvised line supposedly based on an actual justification the secretary of war gave). The lines which open the meeting ring true:
STIMSON: The firestorm in Tokyo killed one hundred thousand people. Mostly civilians. I worry about an America where we do these things and no one protests.
MARSHALL: Pearl Harbor and three years of brutal conflict in the Pacific buys a lot of latitude with the American public.32
Left unspoken is the assumption on the part of many Americans, whether believed consciously or subconsciously, that the Japanese were less than human.
This whole process leaves the viewer thinking that the use of the atomic bomb on Japan was widely accepted, if not among the scientists and engineers at Los Alamos, then among the military top brass. It gives in to the myth, a far more harmful one than any heroizing of Oppenheimer, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unavoidable, when in fact many American military men spoke openly after the war that it was not the only option, and that the Japanese likely would have surrendered even had the United States not dropped the atomic bomb. Eisenhower himself, when first informed of the bomb at the Potsdam conference, even declared it “wasn’t necessary to hit [the Japanese] with that awful thing.”33 Much of Oppenheimer’s guilt, in reality, was connected to his having been misled into thinking that the bombing was an absolute necessity, when even military leadership did not think so. Perhaps the film does not show the more complex exchanges over the dropping of the bomb because it is told from Oppenheimer’s perspective. He was under the assumption that the atom bomb had to be used on Japan, as shown by an offhand line that “We bombed an enemy that was essentially defeated.” Even so, it is just as likely that the film simply does not examine the common assumption on the part of many Americans that it was necessary to end the war.34 The unfortunate effect, no matter the intention, is to confirm that terrible assumption. At least it later shows Truman as what he really was: a mean, rude brute who dismisses Oppenheimer and his concerns as a “crybaby.”35
However, I believe it is a good thing that the actual atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are left unshown in the film. Not only would doing so break with the film’s generally tight commitment to Oppenheimer’s (and, at times, Strauss’) perspective, but any direct depiction of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would teeter dangerously close to simple jingoistic spectacle. Had the film gone out of its way to show an American pilot flying high in the sky over Hiroshima before dropping Little Boy on the unsuspecting populace, it would have been crass and tasteless. I sincerely doubt that Nolan could have depicted Hiroshima with even half the power of the crucial scene from Barefoot Gen, for instance, so disorienting and grotesque with its visuals that suddenly break from the cartoon style of the rest of the film. It is a difficult tightrope walk; the film does not show the suffering of any Japanese person, and doesn’t even mention the internment camps. Yet, had it shown the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would have been little more than war propaganda.
It is still true that the impact of the film’s tragic mythmaking is hampered by a handful of moments which veer into little more than the worst kind of 21st century blockbusterisms. Names dropped with such airs of reverence around them, most egregiously a Kennedy namedrop at the end with the atmosphere of a Marvel sequel hook, a clumsy handling of sex scenes, and the aforementioned frantically edited pacing of the film’s first third show the tension between the historical tragedy reading and little more than historical fandom in action. My experience of the film will be forever colored by the moment in the theater when, during the incredibly awkward sex scene between Tatlock and Oppenheimer, Tatlock pulls a book off of Oppenheimer’s shelf and, finding it to be written in Sanskrit, has Oppenheimer read out the famous line, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds,” quote. A group of people at the front of the theater then burst out into applause. I laughed at the time, but this moment was postmodern fandom crystallized. That way of approaching art is antithetical to the more nuanced tragic myth-making which the rest of the film employs.
This tension is what makes Oppenheimer so interesting and valuable as a film. It is a work of art rife with contradictions, between the almost impulsive need to drop well known quotes with reverence and the desire to show its genius hero being torn down and doing nothing about it, between the empowering democratic tragedy of Prometheus and the pessimistic atomic tragedy of Icarus. The film has a real depth that is surprising to see in a major blockbuster, and with this depth comes contradiction, imperfection, and uncertainty;, just like J. Robert Oppenheimer and the world of Popular Front American communism in which he matured.
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- Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan (Universal Pictures, 2023).
- Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 8.
- Ibid., 14-15.
- Ibid., 7-9.
- David Grene, “Introduction to Prometheus Bound,” in Aeschylus II trans. Seth Benardete and David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 132.
- Aristotle, Poetics, 19.
- Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound,” in Aeschylus II trans. Seth Benardete and David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 167.
- Grene, “Introduction to Prometheus Bound,” 133.
- Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound,” 175.
- Ibid. 148.
- Grene, “Introduction to Prometheus Bound,” 135.
- Ibid., 136.
- Ibid., 134.
- Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997), 10.
- Robert W. Cherny, “The Communist Party in California, 1935-1940: From the Political Margins to the Mainstream and Back,” American Communist History volume 9, no. 1 (June 2010): 6. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14743891003665044; Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (London: Atlantic Books, 2005): 115.
- Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 115.
- Bernard Knox, “Premature Anti-Fascist,” The Antioch Review Vol. 57, No. 2, Essays: Personal and Political (Spring, 1999), 133-149.
- Denning, The Cultural Front, 5-6.
- Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 139.
- Ibid., 121-123.
- Ibid., 111-113.
- Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 115, 121.
- Ibid., 121.
- Richard Brody, “‘Oppenheimer’ is Ultimately a History Channel Movie with Fancy Editing,” New Yorker, July 26, 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/oppenheimer-is-ultimately-a-history-channel-movie-with-fancy-editing
- Kit Klarenberg, “‘Oppenheimer’ Distorts History to Promote War,” Kit’s Newsletter, August 10, 2023, https://kitklarenberg.substack.com/p/oppenheimer-distorts-history-to-promote?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=552010&post_id=135920180&isFreemail=true&utm_medium=email