No Room for a Heroic Past

Like many others, I recently saw the Oppenheimer movie. I am not surprised by its popularity, as it is a movie for adults about a serious subject, an oasis of maturity in a desert of superhero and comic flicks.

It details the life of Robert Oppenheimer and the story of the Manhattan Project. The movie benefits from the intrinsic drama of the underlying story, which is not as well-known today as it once was. Along with the compelling story and the New Mexico landscape,  the imagery of the first nuclear explosion permits great visual storytelling, which director Christopher Nolan delivers with panache. That said, the three-hour movie chiefly focuses on Oppenheimer’s troubled personal life and the painful process by which his security clearance was revoked due to his relationships with various members of the Communist Party.

Oppenheimer mostly conforms to the Hollywood trope of treating communists as the victims of a paranoid and overwrought campaign of anti-communism, i.e., McCarthyism. While Senator Joe McCarthy perhaps went too far, there was a real problem with communists in the Manhattan Project and the entire American government in the 1940s and 1950s.

To its credit, the film does not completely dismiss this reality, but there are many notes of sympathy. It casts the young communists as overzealous idealists, rather than fanatics who endangered American society and cooperated with a foreign power. Oppenheimer repeatedly suggests that American anti-communism was both extreme and unwarranted, a practice rooted in prejudices commingled with popular anti-Semitism. But the facts point to a real problem.

For starters, there sure were a lot of communists in Oppenheimer’s circle, including multiple people on the project, his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law, one of his ex-girlfriends, and numerous friends. And, while portrayed as idealists, these people were communists at the height of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, when it was killing so-called Kulaks by the millions. Even under the intellectual premises of communism, these were people who forgave a great deal of brutality, remaining communists after the assassination of Leon Trotsky and the “liquidation” of the Old Bolsheviks and most of the Red Army’s leadership during the Great Purge.

You would not know from the movie how essential communist spies were to the Soviet Union’s own nuclear weapons program. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and David Greenglass were convicted of providing secrets to the Soviets, which helped them to develop their own nuclear bomb by 1949. You also would not learn that Ted Hall and Klaus Fuchs, who were actual participants in the project, also passed along nuclear secrets, even though Hall escaped prosecution.

The movie takes a firm stand that Oppenheimer himself was certainly no spy, even if he naively remained close to his communist friends out of personal loyalty. But this is not a settled proposition; there is at least one cable from a Soviet diplomat stating that Oppenheimer was, in fact, a communist party member and spy, who gave secrets to the Soviet Union through intermediaries.

Oppenheimer conforms to contemporary views of the American past, in which we are only allowed to see our collective flaws, a quality present in films ranging from Titanic to Platoon. In this mode of critique and “unmasking,” even our objective achievements must be brought down a notch, lest we develop excessive national pride. Instead of pride, we must atone for various sins, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb, overzealous anti-communism, and our failure more fully to appreciate and honor intellectual giants.

The actually interesting things about the Manhattan Project—its scale, the various technical problems the team solved, and the speed with which the bombs were created—are not fully explored. Not merely incomplete, the movie also is unfair. While the film points to an unavoidable conflict between individual genius and stultifying bureaucratic requirements, the actual American way was quite congenial to the contributions of scientific geniuses.

Our can-do spirit, a lack of rigid traditions and social hierarchies, the recent history of conquering the frontier, our openness to immigrants of talent, and the management skills acquired from an advanced industrial economy, all combined to form an authentic American character. This very real America was able to discover new scientific truths, develop new technologies, and mass produce them for our collective benefit.

Rather than this story, we are treated to repetitive scenes exploring Oppenheimer’s evident mental illness, his womanizing and penchant for destructive femme fatales, his genius and sensitivity, and, most prominently, his rivalry with the ambitious Lewis Strauss, who is cast as the villain for opposing Oppenheimer’s security clearance during the 1950s.

Compare all of this with a movie telling the similarly impressive story of America’s space program: The Right Stuff, based on the Tom Wolfe book of the same name. The Right Stuff, with its focus on the pilots-turned-astronauts of the Mercury Program, celebrates a confident and brave America, one with big dreams, along with the organizational skill and commitment to excellence that allowed those dreams to become reality.

Unlike The Right Stuff, Oppenheimer is tense, self-flagellating, and dismissive of a brash President Truman and the patriotic, but self-absorbed, Lewis Strauss. Instead of achievement, the nuclear bomb becomes a mixed symbol, where its power is overshadowed by the moral burdens it places upon us and the actual destruction it causes.

This would reflect appropriate nuance, even if the film otherwise evidenced a normal and healthy admiration of the American past. After all, while the nuclear bombs saved many Japanese and American lives by avoiding an invasion of the Japanese mainland and also prevented another world war, their use was inseparable from mass civilian death and destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This deliberate targeting of civilians represented a deeper departure from moral restraint intrinsic to modern, total war.

But the movie’s demoralization goes much further than this. By focusing on personal conflicts, the alleged excesses of anti-communism, and the supposed indignities visited on scientists by politicians and the defense bureaucracy, Oppenheimer does not even permit pride in the logistical and scientific triumphs exemplified by the Manhattan Project. These qualities—vision, innovation, organization, and single-minded focus—were the great virtues of America’s yesteryear and the source of
American greatness, the America of the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the ’67 Shelby Mustang, and the Apollo moon landing.

The new America is a land of opposites, which makes a virtue of victimhood, cowardice, timidity, and alienation. Not the communist Soviet Union, but the “arms race” itself becomes the enemy. In this way, instead of teaching us about the past and the achievements of our people, Oppenheimer reinforces and reflects the broken spirit of our age, where a celebration of our forbears’ visionary courage and love of country are both passe.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 17: General view of Universal Pictures' "Oppenheimer" premiere which was canceled in New York due To SAG-AFTRA Strike at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on July 17, 2023 in New York City. Members of SAG-AFTRA, Hollywood's largest union which represents actors and other media professionals, have joined striking WGA (Writers Guild of America) workers in the first joint walkout against the studios since 1960. The strike could shut down Hollywood productions completely with writers in the third month of their strike against the Hollywood studios. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. If I want the truth about something, I don’t go to Hollywood, I choose books. And I choose them carefully.

    Hollywood ruins everything, just like everything else the left touches.

  2. One would find it extremely difficult to find a single thing touched by the Left that resulted in an improvement of any kind----be it cities, the border, education, social interaction, or criminal justice. In seeking their goal of proving America bad, they must first make it worse. The Father of Lies is indeed pleased.

Continue the discussion at community.amgreatness.com


Avatar for Patriot Avatar for Everett_Brunson Avatar for system