The Oppenheimer File: Missing Cast and Forgotten Back Stories

In the early going of this marathon film, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) tells a hostile government committee that his testimony should be understood in the context of his life and work. Context also is important for movies, but Oppenheimer keeps key back stories off the screen.

Viewers see the “Hitler Invades Poland” headline from September 1, 1939, but do not see or hear anything about Josef Stalin’s Communist forces invading Poland on September 17, 1939. This joint invasion started WWII and came about because of the Stalin-Hitler pact of August 23, 1939. Viewers see nothing about the Pact, and no headline such as “Stalin Invades Finland,” marks November 30, 1939.

While the Pact was in operation, Hitler’s National Socialists (Nazis) invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and took over France by the summer of 1940. Under the Pact, the Nazi and Soviet intelligence forces collaborated and Stalin handed hundreds of Jewish Communists over to the Gestapo. Jewish scientists in America would have been well aware of that deadly exchange, but not a word in Oppenheimer.

Viewers never learn that for nearly the first two years of the war, Stalin and Hitler were allies. The Communist Party USA collaborated with pro-Nazi groups in America and did everything in its power to keep the United States out of the conflict. In Oppenheimer, no Communist is asked to account for what he or she did during the Pact, and why they stayed in the Party after many others left, never to return.

The Communist Party USA was founded, funded and controlled by the USSR and members pledged loyalty to the Soviet regime. Oppenheimer portrays Party members as misguided liberals concerned about the conflict in Spain. Viewers hear about “the brigades” but no character explains that the Abraham Lincoln Brigades were a Communist Party militia that opposed anti-Franco groups such as the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista. The POUM fighters included George Orwell, author of 1984, Animal Farm, and Homage to Catalonia. See also Cecil Eby’s Between the Bullet and the Lie.

Inquiries about Oppenheimer’s “left wing” associations fail to note that the Party had an open and secret membership, as Whittaker Chambers detailed in Witness. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr cite evidence that Oppenheimer was a member of a secret Party unit at UC Berkeley, where his friend Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French literature, was an active Communist. In the movie, Jefferson Hall plays Chevalier, and Oppenheimer resists his request to pass on information to the Soviets.

From 1941-1944, Stalin’s top spy in California was Grigory Kheifets operating under cover as a vice consul in San Francisco. Kheifetz was tasked with obtaining atomic secrets, and in a cable Kheifets claimed Oppenheimer was one of his recruits. A film that wanted to get at the truth might have noted that, but there is no Grigory Kheifets character in Oppenheimer.

The film does reveal that Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham), present at Los Alamos, was in fact a Soviet spy. So were American Stalinists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, a machinist at Los Alamos. There is no Greenglass character in Oppenheimer, and the American atomic spies were more responsible for nuclear proliferation than anyone in history.

They helped Stalin explode his first atom bomb on August 29, 1949. By that time, Stalin had absorbed Czechoslovakia and held Eastern Europe captive. In more than three hours of Oppenheimer, Stalin gets two brief mentions.

Nobody asks Oppenheimer or any Communist Party member what they think of the man who starved to death millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33, took over the Baltic States, or anything else about the man whose murder count far exceeded that of his former ally Hitler.

For all its undeniable artistry – Bruce Bawer called it a “Dishonest Masterpiece” – Oppenheimer is like those 1960s beach and bikini movies. What they reveal is interesting but what they conceal is crucial. Meanwhile, one of Oppenheimer’s students has a different take.

“As a physics graduate student at Princeton University in the early 1960s, I had occasional interactions with Oppenheimer, who was then the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies,” writes William Happer, emeritus professor of physics at Princeton and a specialist in radio frequency spectroscopy of atoms and molecules, radiation propagation in the atmosphere, and spin-polarized atoms and nuclei.

According to Happer, Oppenheimer was not very friendly to students at this stage of his career, but he remained a “sympathetic figure.” An “outstanding theoretical physicist,” Oppenheimer had an “easy act to follow” when he took over from Gregory Breit in 1943.

There is no Gregory Breit character in Oppenheimer. Tom Conti plays Albert Einstein but according to Happer, the Manhattan Project was “not the result of a brilliant theory” and not made possible by Einstein’s E = mc² formula. What made it possible, Happer explains, was “a rapid-fire series of accidental experimental discoveries in the 1930s, including a celebrated mistake.”

In 1932, James Chadwick discovered the electrically neutral projectile, the neutron, which could reach the surface of even the most highly-charged nucleus, uranium, with no hindrance from the nuclear charge. As Happer notes, “It was this accidental discovery that led to the Manhattan Project.”

Chadwick, a Nobel laureate for physics in 1936, was part of the Manhattan project and in 1944 lived at Los Alamos with his family. Nobody plays Chadwick in Oppenheimer, another significant omission.

“Most scientific breakthroughs result from accidents that smart people recognize as important,”  notes Happer. “Breakthroughs are not determined by committees, even Nobel Committees, by the consensus of experts, or by congressional legislation.” Or, one might say, by motion pictures.

In his quest for the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer mentions the American GIs fighting in the Pacific. The Americans fought at sea, on land and in the air, with huge loss of life. To a man, they were glad that a powerful new weapon brought the war to a close, so they could return home and get on with their lives.

Filmmakers, college professors and journalists, be careful what you say about these men, and know one thing for certain. The people in power today are not worthy to carry their shoes.

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: The first nuclear weapon (known as the trinity test) was detonated at this very spot in 1945. It was 18 kilotons and is about 200 miles south of Los Alamos in New Mexico. The building in the picture was an enclosure built to protect that last remnants of the green glass produced by the explosion.

Notable Replies

  1. I haven’t seen the movie so maybe this was touched on.

    There was a contingent of Manhattan Project scientists who were 1000% behind the program but suddenly went all weak in the knees after Stalin’s nemesis ate a bullet and the Germans surrendered. Almost like saving umpteen thousand Americans from death in Operation Downfall wasn’t worth it.

  2. Yes, they show that scene. That is when Oppenheimer brings up the still ongoing fighting in the pacific.

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