September 8, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By William Bell
Barbie’s partner summer movie event released on the same day to a crowd primed by hybrid marketing, triumphantly succeeded as the definitive codification of the United States imperial creation story.
Behind the production value and excellent performances, music, effects, and so on, one is reminded of an obscure, regionally distributed film from an eastern European country, glorifying one of its old politicians or heroic military units, which seems so parochial as to be a joke for a Western audience.
In terms of its place in our culture, “Oppenheimer” represents a parallel to, but also works to change historical consciousness on a much greater scale. This is the function of the film: it is clearly political propaganda, which is designed to create a new paradigm of support for a ruling/administrative structure that is anticipating challenges to its legitimacy.
The central thrust of the film is expressed in the taglines associated with its promotional material: “The World Forever Changes” and “the pulse-pounding paradox of the enigmatic man who must risk destroying the world in order to save it.” This is the most succinct way of expressing the teleological messaging that undergirds the narrative.
Director Christopher Nolan ramps up the drama and spectacle associated with the Manhattan Project, elevating it to a quasi-religious undertaking. J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, is portrayed as a tortured genius whose insights seem to forcefully spring forth from his consciousness like they are being delivered to him directly by a higher power. His work, and how the bomb developed more generally, are unsubtly cast as divine acts out of which a new chapter of history is born, like the biblical flood. As his character puts it to an assembly of top politicians, “The atomic bomb will be a terrible revelation of divine power.” There is no real opposition to this process within the film. The conflict is instead ostensibly moral and within the bomb production bureaucracy itself.
Instead, the moral conflict prima facie rides on the supposition that the U.S. must produce this terribly destructive weapon in order to defeat the Nazis, who will eventually develop the bomb themselves if left unchecked. This turns out to be false, of course, as the Germans surrender months before the bombings, and it has been revealed that their “Uranprojekt” was under-resourced and far from materializing a nuclear weapon when it was disbanded.
The next question, which is often debated, is whether the Japanese were actually going to put up enough of a fight to justify the bombings in the end. This is revealed to be irrelevant as well, and speculation about an invasion is given little coverage. The pragmatic attitude this film communicates is not a response to discourse on whether we needed to drop the bombs on the Japanese or the Germans to end the war. The question being treated here is whether or not we needed to drop the bombs to secure the U.S. empire against Soviet Russia through a spectacular demonstration of our power on the global stage.
The audience is posed this question during a scene in which they are discreetly allowed to question the morality of the bomb through the objections of a group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Oppenheimer reassures them, proclaiming that “They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it. When the world learns the terrible secret of Los Alamos, our work here will ensure a peace mankind has never seen.”
Not coincidentally, a documentary on National Broadcasting Company dropped spring of this year with the title “To End All War: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb.” The bomb here is also framed as the necessary evil for securing the Pax Americana: It seals the defeat of the fascist enemy in the recent past, it is the immediate phenomenal defeat of the oriental other, it is the insurance of U.S. power over the emergent Soviet communist threat in the near future, and a signal of the long term security of the capitalist order.
A crucial bit of Oppenheimer’s characterization, which the interrogator screams to us during a climactic moment in the film, is that Oppenheimer does not truly regret his actions. This version of him understands the logic of the film: that he must make this ethical sacrifice for ensuring the security of the U.S. empire long term.
Naturally, Oppenheimer is troubled with visions related to the destruction he has wrought, but the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not the real necessary evil. Nuked Japanese people figure nowhere in these scenes, nor anywhere in the film; they are not the source of Oppenheimer’s anxious visions. Rather, the true moral evil is simply the massively destructive power he has placed at the foundation of the new geopolitical order. It is this power, rather than the indescribable suffering it caused, which lends the film its captivating, yet sober tone.
Whether Oppenheimer really was so callous is a matter lost to history. This narrative secures his image as an American hero who was willing to make the tough decision for the greater good. An ideal which doubtless serves corporate and state interests in the immediate future.
Even if the real Oppenheimer had had enough reservations that he outright refused to join the program, the U.S. government was fully prepared to attempt to make the bomb with Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Vannevar Bush, and the other brilliant minds they had in thrall at that point. Although I am not an expert in the history of the project, it is unlikely that its success hinged totally on the efforts of a single man. Naturally, this is part of the dramatization.
We may well have ended up watching a film with a different title today, but the point is that it is in the interest of an established power to create this narrative, and Oppenheimer happens to be historically situated in the right place to serve as the vessel for it. The character Oppenheimer must be created in the collective consciousness to occupy the space real Oppenheimer could not fill.
In this sense, another parallel can be drawn, between “Oppenheimer” and the iconic “Forrest Gump.” Although “Forrest Gump” is fully fictional, an archetype of innocence and guilelessness, and “Oppenheimer” a representation of a real man, their narratives fulfill the same function.
The character Forrest Gump proves the myth of class mobility, The American Dream, through an ascension in rank that requires little more of him than his good, obedient, honest, persistent, American conduct. Saintly, Oppenheimer delivers the “terrible revelation,” and in this act, renders sacrosanct by its portrayal on screen, including ecstasy inducing sensory overload and securing the world order that we all know and love today. One is designed to directly influence the conduct of individual U.S. citizens, and the other to directly shape the political ontology of a perhaps an even broader demographic. Together they represent the passing from one era into another of on screen control strategies.
Other than the central narrative, the way leftism is portrayed here is worthy of discussion. The ideas of the U.S. Communist Party during that era are presented to the viewer as possibly good and oriented in the right direction. Of course, ultimately, they are too utopian and idealistic, and their organization is lacking.
The movie tacitly affirms the “Thatcherite” slogan in what will doubtless be understood by most viewers as an only reasonable framing of actual leftism in general. Oppenheimer’s engagement with them represents an early sort of folly, through which he demonstrates his moral qualms with the state of affairs he is to produce.
At his core, however, he really does understand his vocation, he knows what must be done. The viewer is expected to identify with Oppenheimer here, as a good U.S. subject is expected to have “considered”leftist ideas and perhaps seen their value in some capacity. But like Oppenheimer, their duty to the state is to abandon these utopian pretensions and face the reality of neoliberalism, perhaps expressing their ideals through pseudo-democracy or as a brand identity.
It is interesting to note that his leftist girlfriend in the movie, Jean Tatlock, is sacrificed as a part of this process, filling out the tragic shape of the narrative. Whether she actually committed suicide or whether the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intervened is irrelevant. Indeed, the event is presented in the film as ambiguous, with both possibilities flashing through Oppenheimer’s head. What matters is that in this narrative, she is the feminine sacrificial subject.
We must not forget that the atomic bomb was merely an instrument to secure capital control of the technologies that would really change the world forever: computing and the internet. The gesture of dropping the bombs and the ensuing global paradigm was just a prerequisite for computing to emerge.
Interestingly, in the film, the threat of global nuclear destruction is hinted at as a sinister, immense possibility, lurking in the immediate future after the film timeline ends. However, as we know the nukes did at least somewhat secure a Pax Americana. The explosive world catastrophe comes in the changes wrought by computing.
Obviously, there is a lot of overlap between the personnel involved with the Manhattan Project and the development of computers, John von Neumann being the most prominent example. Doubtless the manias and visions which may have affected him, Alan Turing, and William Lovelace could be dramatized in a way analogous to the way Oppenheimer’s are here. And that would be a much more honest film.
But that is not the purpose of this film. This film has tangible political impacts in the present and future. Consider the scale of the dissemination of this film. It is breaking multiple box office records and the critics are pushing it. It has fully infiltrated consciousness across classes and even in some cases international boundaries. It needs to function in some way, certainly it is not an apolitical entertainment piece. Rather, as I have written, it secures a narrative that is necessary for encouraging faith in the governing establishment in the 21st century.
The final detail of this film is the conspicuous absence of Japan or Japanese people at the moments of the actual bombings. Within the logic of the film, the bombings themselves are such inevitabilities that they do not warrant even a fraction of the dramatic treatment that the personal and bureaucratic conflicts are afforded. Indeed it is often taught similarly in U.S. classrooms, with the quintessential racist policy sin of the era being simply the heavy-handed internment operation. The human experience of receiving the bombs has been thoroughly documented, through various mediums, and I would hope that most Americans have at least some sense of the horror that was inflicted on these people. However, the degree to which it is abstracted in this film, which is at this point understood as the more or less definitive historical narrative by many people, is tantamount to erasure.
There is some expository detailing of the event, and Oppenheimer considers at least some of the phenomena associated with a nuclear explosion. However, one must remember Oppenheimer hallucinates and imagines nuclear destruction, not the specific nuclear destruction of Japanese people. Generally it is an inevitable fact that makes itself real through its authoritative communication by the president on the radio. What the U.S. did was mass scale civilian murder. The utilitarian equation cited by apologists, involving how many people would have died in the event of a theoretically necessary invasion, was based off of prejudiced speculation. However one can defend this speculation, the final decision was not made by some moral architect examining a pair of figures. It was made by an imperial power looking to secure itself. On a slightly larger scale, what the U.S. did was a psychological domination operation designed to completely subjugate Japanese people for the next century. If we examine their birth rates, perhaps we can say that the methods the U.S. has employed to mold Japan into its perfect offspring have worked a little too well.
Is this movie well made? Obviously. This essay is a criticism of the way it functions as a mass scale propaganda device. I’ve done my best to fully deconstruct this film and expose the real significance of it in a manner which is not excessively leftist. Whether you agree with me or not though, the truth I am getting at is that this film has a specific function, as confirming a certain narrative, for the benefit of a certain power, which exists as one of many powers that have existed throughout time on planet earth. And the essential claims that it sets up are manufactured for an implicit political purpose. Thus, my argument for “Oppenheimer” as the parallel “Forrest Gump” for our time. Enjoy the spectacle of “Oppenheimer” but remember that it is in the interest of our freedom to remain skeptical about such narratives.