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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

"Is anyone going to tell the truth about what is happening here?" – Oppenheimer

Updated: Aug 5

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Image: IMDb.

Christopher Nolan’s latest, Oppenheimer, is less about the perils of nuclear war, the need to move away from a capitalistic system, and the need to imagine peace as both a means and an ends. It is, instead, about clearing the name of The Father of the Atomic Bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, and affirming that war is non-negotiable. Admittedly, there are limitations to creative license in rendering a biopic – but portrayal, gaze, and subtleties in filmcraft can tell poignant stories that can catalyse audience introspection, instead of making decisions for them. Here, in this note, Oppenheimer’s story as a “tortured genius” who developed the atomic bomb is not in question inasmuch as the glorification of militarized masculinities and the complete disregard for the many lives that were affected by the bomb he created and tested.

Militarized masculinities

“I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t. We have no choice. – Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer is shown as repentant about the scale of destruction his creation might produce – but not about the fact that destruction is considered business as usual. We see men praying and hoping that their bomb proves successful. We see them watch with bated breath as a massive explosion ensues. We see them celebrate with scant regard for what this bomb might be used for, and for all the pain and destruction it will cause. In short, we see militarized masculinities in full display.

In the scenes that follow, we see Oppenheimer demonstrate remorse: But seldom is that remorse given full play in inviting the viewer to understand the implications of his creation a good many years later, in today’s world of deeply militarized interdependencies. The undercurrent in Oppenheimer is that war is inevitable, non-negotiable, and essential. The film neither interrogates this view, nor invites the viewer to process the possibility of an alternative to war.

The "good" Oppenheimer did was to ensure that the Nazis did not develop the weapon of mass destruction – he served the American patriotic dream of being an overwhelmingly strong presence in military terms. In that grand performance of his duty, he is presented as deserving – in pop culture, at least – a shot at being absolved. Oppenheimer is simply an exercise in whose patriotism is "right," or "acceptable," in absolving him and holding another accountable for the mistreatment he received. In sum, the film is one more narrative in the standard history of the bomb where the military industry complex is the star. The elite male scientist is neatly inscribed inside this canvas as a “tortured genius,” a courageous braveheart for raising a question on some of the moral dilemmas of the nuclear era.

Even as Oppenheimer was considered to be a "martyr to McCarthyism" in the scientific community, one can't help wonder at the gaze in the film and read in a subtle sense of revival of a similar narrative. The timing of the film does no favors here either - as Russia is raging on in Ukraine, the threat of a nuclear war looms large in the here and now, and Cocacolonization is alive and healthy. Aside from the overarching narrative of us versus them that runs through the film, there is also very little nuance in the way Jean Tatlock's story is told. Her death as suicide remains disputed, but Oppenheimer does not go into that. The allegory, through the subtlety of filmcraft and portrayal, presents Oppenheimer's affair with Jean Tatlock as a conquest. In this allegory, Tatlock's body is presented as a site of conquest - the Moral American is not a communist, no, by god no, he just "f***ed communism." The Moral American must thus be absolved.

Deterrence is marketed as a justification for the development of a weapon of mass destruction. The arms race finds a seed in birthing the nuclear weapon – as a character looks Oppenheimer in the eye suggesting that the significance of his creation will remain “until someone builds a bigger bomb.” There isn’t so much as a whisper of the mutually assured destruction that this aggressive arms race is guaranteed to offer. In the words of Klee Benally, “The race to develop the first atomic bomb (after Nazis had split the atom) never could be a strategy of peaceful deterrence, it was a strategy of domination and annihilation.”

The necropolitics of Oppenheimer

“If I could find a way to combine physics and New Mexico life would be perfect.” – Oppenheimer

The immediate outcome of the atomic bomb was felt in Japan - where death and destruction was immediate, followed by long-lasting effects. The bombings killed 90,000 to 146,000 people in Hiroshima, and 60,000 to 80,000 people in Nagasaki. Several months later, people continued to die from burns, radiation sickness, and injuries, and most of them were civilians. Survivors of these bombings, called Hibakusha ("explosion-affected people," number 650,000. They faced and continue to face discrimination and exclusion when it comes to their social lives, all because of the consequences of radiation sickness on their bodies.

Los Alamos, the facility housing Oppenheimer’s laboratory and the surrounding city for his team and their families, was indigenous land – (well, as is all of what we know as “North America” today). Oppenheimer's Manhattan Project and Trinity testing was a form of necropolitics in action that deprived several indigenous people from accessing and living on their ancestral lands, disrupted their ways of life, and contaminated their lands in ways that made it impossible to live and practice their lifeways. The Trinity Test set off a “chain reaction of devastation for Apache, Navajo, and Puebla nations, and several Latinx communities in the region.” Following this test, between 1946 and 1958, the US tested nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands and Bikini Atoll – tests that produced devastating effects as a result of radiation poisoning, lasting to date.

Oppenheimer completely ignored, in Laura Considine’s words, "the marginalised bodies and expansive, everyday harms of the development of nuclear weapons technology.” In Oppenheimer, death is an afterthought, tucked away inside a sentence and Cilian Murphy’s pale eyes. It is a mere statistic, a footnote. The film focuses on a tortured genius battling a reputational threat. We see more attention paid to clearing his name than to death working overtime somewhere else, somewhere far away, where the face and name of those it claimed were not White American.

In this, White Supremacist exceptionalism, imperialism and necropolitics are on full display: The Other can die, the Other can die a painful death, the future of the Other can be doomed, so long as “We” stay safe. Einstein leaves Oppenheimer with a grim reminder of the fragile ego-driven power trip that has come to endure in American exceptionalism: "You all thought I had lost the ability to understand what I had started. So the award really wasn’t for me, it was for all of you. Hm? Now it’s your turn. To deal with the consequences of your achievement. And one day, when they’ve punished you enough, they’ll serve you salmon and potato salad. Make speeches. Give you a medal. Pat you on the back, tell you all is forgiven. Just remember, it won’t be for you. It will be for them."

In choosing not to articulate, or even invite introspection on how the nuclear weapons program was built on the backs of the Other, the film reaffirms a longstanding imperialist agenda. As Klee Benally wrote, "The genocidal colonial terror of nuclear energy and weapons is not entertainment. To glorify such deadly science and technology as a dramatic character study, is to spit in the face of hundreds of thousands of corpses and survivors scattered throughout the history of the so-called Atomic age."

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