“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent,” theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said in a 1965 interview which aired on NBC.
Oppenheimer was speaking of witnessing the 1945 Trinity test in New Mexico, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, a test conducted by the United States Army as part of the Manhattan Project. At the time, Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos-based laboratory which researched and designed the atomic bomb.
“These institutions that are in positions of power, positions of influence, put more value on stories of men like Oppenheimer, like Truman.”
In Christopher Nolan’s cinematic take on the leadup to the nuclear denotation and its aftermath, many people are silent. Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a whopping three hours long. But the film leaves much out. Missing are the victims of the atomic bombs denotated in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, ostensibly to force a quick surrender by the Japanese in the Second World War. There are no Japanese characters or voices in the film, and the human cost of the bomb is alluded to only briefly in a scene where Oppenheimer hears a disembodied scream and seems to hallucinate while giving a victory speech.
Li Lai, founder of Mediaversity Reviews, a site that rates films and TV based on racial, gender, and queer inclusion, told KQED, “It was very chilling that you never get to see any Japanese or Japanese Americans in the movie….Was the erasure of Japanese voices purposeful or was it just lazy?”
Nina Wallace is the media and outreach manager at Densho, a nonprofit which preserves the stories of people of Japanese descent who were imprisoned during World War II. She told NBC News, “I don’t think we should depend on Hollywood to tell our stories with the nuance and the depth and the care that they really deserve. But it is true that these institutions that are in positions of power, positions of influence, put more value on stories of men like Oppenheimer and Truman than it does on the Asian and Indigenous communities that suffered because of decisions that those men made.”
Oppenheimer does not yet have a release date slated for Japan, where over 200,000 people, mostly civilians, died in the atomic blasts.
The People of New Mexico
Missing too from Oppenheimer are the people who lived in Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project built their laboratory, and in Trinity, where they tested the bomb. The film presents these places as completely barren, sweeping, and deserted landscapes to which Oppenheimer himself feels personally drawn. Instead, thousands of people were displaced from their homes for the Manhattan Project’s laboratory and test, mostly people of color.
Many Latinx ranchers and farmers had their land seized under eminent domain. As with the brief, impersonal allusion to the Japanese victims, Oppenheimer acknowledges the people of color living in New Mexico with a single, cruel aside. Talking about the land after the denotation, Oppenheimer says, “Give it back to the Indians.”
As Nadira Goffe writes in Slate, “There’s a reason [scientists] didn’t want to test it anywhere remotely near their ‘own’ backyard of Los Alamos. Instead, they tested it in the backyard of the native Hispanic population, the residents of the large indigenous Mescalero Apache Reservation, and the others who constituted the 149,000 or more people (according to the 1940 census) who had settled in that area.”
Goffe describes the film’s erasure of the people of New Mexico as “Oppenheimer’s Glaring Omission,” writing, “People were at those sites, and they suffered at the hands of the American government.”
Contributions of Women
The final erasure of Oppenheimer is that of women, a familiar criticism of Nolan’s past films, where many female characters are dead, their deaths and lightly-written lives used as motivation for the male heroes’ personal transformations. That’s true in Oppenheimer, where the titular character’s grad student girlfriend (Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock) dies by suicide after several sex scenes, throwaway references to unspecified mental illness, and few actual lines. Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) is also said to be dealing with mental illness, but the character, as Nardos Haile writes in Salon, “only exists in the roles of love interest, mother and Oppenheimer’s conscience.”
With few women existing as three-dimensional characters in the film, perhaps it follows that Oppenheimer denies the contributions of women scientists and other workers to the Manhattan Project, including women of color.
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We never see images of the victims. Indeed, we are led to believe that Oppenheimer is the victim.
According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “Many women worked on the Manhattan Project. Some worked in the production facilities as technicians, monitoring for leaks or adjusting the controls of the Calutrons at Oak Ridge; a small number of women were scientists involved at the highest levels of the project.” One female employee told the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “There were many women involved. You know, the men had been drafted. There was manpower shortage…And then the women worked. There was no problem getting a job.”
The film presents Oppenheimer and a slate of other White men as the sole minds behind the Manhattan Project. “Granted, Oppenheimer’s own perspective is to be expected in an Oppenheimer biopic,” as KQED writes. But does the film also have a responsibility to show the flaws in that perspective? What if that perspective is not accurate, as it was not only White men who created the atomic bomb and not an unpopulated valley where they tested it?
Haile argues, “It’s vital to point out the flaws in a filmmaker’s perspective when it’s used to only service a man’s story and nothing else.” Late in the film, a slideshow of the Japanese victims of the bombs focuses on Oppenheimer, the projector reflected on his face. We never see images of the victims. Indeed, we are led to believe that Oppenheimer is the victim.
The Obligations of Art
With Cillian Murphy’s empathetic performance, we do feel the suffering of Oppenheimer, his regrets for being the “father of the atomic bomb” etched on the actor’s tormented face, haunting his eyes. That the film expends most of its empathy on its White male star raises some troubling questions. Even if it is solely Oppenheimer’s story, should the rest of the world not be real in the film too, the women and people of color he encounters along the way not be fleshed out as characters—or at least humanized?
“I just wish that Nolan had taken a moment to make us care about these characters and their stories more, to help us understand the stakes, to get us to root for someone or even just against someone,” Erik Kain writes in a review for Forbes, acknowledging that history buffs might enjoy the film more. But if we are to take the film as a record, what responsibility do tellers of historical fiction, like Nolan, have to the truth? To more than one truth?
The problem of one-sided history relayed in art is not a new one. The former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, expressed publicly his disappointment with the 2013 film Argo, which dramatized the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, saying it diminished the role of Canadians. “In general, it makes it seem like the Canadians were just along for the ride. The Canadians were brave,” he said.
What responsibility do tellers of historical fiction, like Nolan, have to the truth? To more than one truth?
Another blockbuster historical film, 2001’s Pearl Harbor, depicted inaccuracies, including Japanese bombers torpedoing airfields. One of the film’s inventions, the Japanese attack on a civilian hospital, never happened and was inserted for dramatic effect, according to director Michael Bay. As Tom Taylor wrote, “To make such a truth more ‘barbaric’ for the sake of entertainment is a mindless act of cynical and reprehensible retrospective propaganda.”
One film certainly can’t do it all, can’t be everything to everyone, can’t tell every side of a complicated, intense chapter of history, one that is still incredibly hurtful to many people. Yet if “Oppenheimer” is a movie-goer’s entrée into the story of the atomic bomb, it’s a story that leaves out many sides while glorifying one. When history is entertainment, who gets hurt, and what truths are potentially lost? What inaccuracies—or even worse, stereotypes or hurtful mischaracterizations, might get repeated? As Masha Gessen writes in their New Yorker review of the Chernobyl mini-series, “One might say that the cost of lies is more lies.”
It is possible to tell a complex story in art with both more accuracy and empathy. Take, for example, the high expectations for Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film, Killers of the Flower Moon, which has a largely Indigenous cast and was changed considerably after consultation with the Osage Nation. Actor Tatanka Means told High Plains Public Radio, “I hope other studios [and writers] take [this] into consideration: go to the community, go to the people, speak with them, and work with them. That’s big.”
That is not something Oppenheimer has done. Perhaps the best lesson of Oppenheimer is to remind us to ask more questions about the art we consume, questions like who’s telling this story and why are they telling it? What is the vision or intention of the storyteller, and what do we gain or lose by consuming that vision without reflection?
The storyteller has responsibilities. The story consumer does too.