Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer watch a documentary about Hiroshima in 1964

Los Alamos National Laboratory


Reviewing the Oppenheimer Reviews

Christopher Nolan's blockbuster has generated a torrent of historical commentary about the birth of nuclear weapons. Is there something missing from the conversation?

Blockbuster films often spark popular interest in historical figures and times past, and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is no exception. If you’ve seen it, there's a decent chance you left the theater amidst groups of pink-clad filmgoers who entered with little background on the man behind the Manhattan Project, and left wanting to know more. Even if you haven’t seen the film, it has so infused pop culture this summer that you’ve probably encountered at least one of the dozens of reviews, op-eds, deep dives, and podcast episodes exploring the "true story" of the Manhattan Project, or highlighting something the film left out. The buzz began before the film had even opened in theaters.

As is often the case with historical films, the first round of commentary following the film's release focused on the question of the film's accuracy.

From there, discussion developed in a few different strains. One was about what the film leaves out. (A lot, it turns out, despite its three-hour runtime!)

With the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings on August 6 and 9, as theaters were still packed, another strain of historical commentary reassessed the strategic justifications and moral considerations of the decision to use atomic weapons in war.

Finally, there were what we might call the backlash pieces, questioning the film's focus on Oppenheimer as the central, tragic figure in the story of the atomic bomb's creation.

One theme that has been largely absent from the historically-minded writing inspired by the film is the very real nuclear threat that persists to our times. Judging from the robust range of commentary that Oppenheimer has ushered in, the public seems ready for reflections about what has kept us from nuclear annihilation so far, and about how politicians, scientists, and activists have attempted to address the threat. Yet few pieces – even in the genres of what-the-film-got-wrong and what-the film-left-out – have addressed those themes in the atomic age.

Reviewing content for inclusion on this website, we have noticed authors grappling with these themes in two other recent contexts. One was the occasion of Daniel Ellsberg’s death in June. A frequent topic in the remembrances of Ellsberg was his discovery of just how close we came to using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and his subsequent activism for peace and nuclear disarmament. Perhaps it had something to do with people's sense of Ellsberg's place in history, as a policy analyst-turned-whistleblower. That moral arc – from his realization of complicity in wartime atrocities to his decision to risk the consequences of dissent – is considerably easier to frame as an inspiring story than is Oppenheimer’s.

The other context for public writing about the history of nuclear disarmament was the flare-up in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. As living memory of nuclear war fades, so does the visceral fear that has so far kept the nuclear powers from pushing the button. Nuclear war has become less prominent in our popular culture, and some suggest the way to bring awareness back to the issue is through a great film.

Despite its strengths, Oppenheimer is unlikely to be that film. It downplayed the political and moral aspects of nuclear arms control in favor of a drama about McCarthyism and vindictive personal politics, and left out much of the main characters' postwar stories. And so the field remains wide open for historically minded writing about the consequences of the past 80 years of the nuclear threat, both in terms of geopolitics and the socio-cultural effects of anxieties about nuclear war. Let's hope we don't have long to wait for it. The doomsday clock is only 90 seconds away from midnight.