International atomic scientists declared this year that the world is closer to nuclear war than ever.
Given this, it may be surprising that the new film Oppenheimer, based on the life of the “father of the atomic bomb, “made it very clear it was a biopic and wouldn’t offer much political commentary.
The narrative of this theoretical physicist, Julius Robert Oppenheimer’s life, interchanged between his own perceptions and the political world that confronted him, is fascinatingly presented—yet disappointing.
The film’s concentration on this one individual mostly obscures the broader political dynamics, motivations and class antagonisms of the time.
A traditional historical focus on “great men” rather than the political groupings, open class struggle and imperialist rivalries of the time ensues. The film maintained this same-old Hollywood ambiguity—take from it whatever you want, and if you go to watch the film already pro-nuclear, you won’t be challenged.
Indeed, almost the only reference to those killed in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima compares it with the earlier blanket fire‑bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War, which killed 100,000.
The film suggests that only 70,000 were killed in Hiroshima. But in fact, twice that number died in the city on or soon after 6 August 1945. Three days later, another 60,000 to 80,000 were killed in Nagasaki.
Despite all this, it is unlikely that anyone will come away from a film screening saying, “I must go out and campaign against nuclear weapons.”
But the film did bring up a debate about the political responsibilities of scientists and demonstrated that science cannot be apolitical, although this argument is not fully fleshed out.
And the film approaches the politics of the times just as loosely the science. If you didn’t know in advance the politics of the United States Communist Party, the film won’t explain it.
You won’t get to hear what Stalin’s Soviet Russia represented following the defeat of the Russian Revolution or about the genocidal imperialist politics of president Harry Truman’s US.
All of this is important to understand the context of this period, yet all is omitted.
Listen very carefully, and you may hear that Germany had been defeated and Japan was in the throes of surrender before they dropped the bombs.
Standing in a period where nuclear war remains a real threat to humanity, should we be pleased that Oppenheimer achieved his goal of acclaim and rehabilitation? Should we cheer that he was finally awarded the prestigious Enrico Fermi lifetime achievement award at the command of president J F Kennedy?
And once the atom‑splitting genie was out of the bag, was the use of the bomb inevitable? Could the scientists have united, shared and disclosed state secrets to prevent the development of atomic warfare worldwide?
Yes, but putting the genie back in the bottle would have taken a revolution. And that remains true today. Decades of campaigning have ensured that UN treaty says nuclear weapons are illegal as weapons of mass destruction under international law.
Yet, the nuclear powers continue to invest in new “first strike” and “useable” systems.
No one expected Nolan to direct anti-nuclear propaganda. But the film could have done so much more to inform the debate about the ever‑increasing risks of nuclear war. Atomic weapons are probably too controversial due to their threat to humanity and all life on Earth for a truly honest film to be funded by Hollywood.
Perhaps the producers of Oppenheimer were scared they would be hauled up by the contemporary equivalent of Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare” 1950s inquisition. Our best hope is to build a united, militant and radical movement.