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  1. The Weekend Essay
9 March 2024updated 13 Mar 2024 10:44am

What Christopher Nolan got wrong about Oppenheimer

I spent eleven years writing a biography of Oppenheimer. Does Nolan’s film “capture” him in all his complexity?

By Ray Monk

“J Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived. He made the world we live in, for better or for worse.” This extravagant claim was made by Christopher Nolan prior to the release of his enormously successful biopic. It seems a bit like nit-picking to even ask: but is it true? Well, no. Oppenheimer wasn’t even the most important scientist at Los Alamos. Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman and Edward Teller, to name but a few, made more important contributions to physics than Oppenheimer. And, outside Los Alamos we have Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein, while in the past we have Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz and James Clerk Maxwell. Outside science altogether, are we really going to say that Oppenheimer was more important than Jesus Christ, the prophet Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Plato, Shakespeare, Leonardo, etc?

As for Nolan’s justification for his claim (“He made the world we live in”), a much better case, it seems to me, can be made for saying that the world we live in was made by Alan Turing. Turing’s notion of the “Universal Computing Machine” lies at the basis of almost every aspect of modern life, from personal computers to the digitised music that we listen to on our phones and the digitised movies that we stream into our living rooms. We are living through the Digital Age far more than we are living through the Age of the Atom Bomb.

However, a modified version of Nolan’s claim does bear up to scrutiny which is that Oppenheimer is one of the most interesting people who ever lived. Indeed, Nolan’s movie bears testimony to this. As of January 2024, it had taken a staggering $952m at the box office, becoming the highest grossing biographical movie ever made. By comparison, The Imitation Game, the 2014 biopic about Turing, took $233m worldwide. And, for all their importance as scientists, does anyone think that movies about Bethe, Fermi or even Feynman (who is a much more interesting character than the other two) would attract anything like that interest? No, Oppenheimer exerts a fascination that is rivalled by very few.

I spent 11 years writing a biography of Oppenheimer, and not once during that time did my interest in him flag. I found him inexhaustibly interesting. Because I had written that book, in the week that Nolan’s movie was released I found myself deluged by requests for interviews from journalists wanting to satisfy the desire of their readers to know more about this remarkable man.

So, why is Oppenheimer so interesting? The fact that he was director of the laboratory that produced the world’s first atom bomb certainly plays a part in that, but I believe it is a combination of that and the multi-faceted nature of the man. He was a physicist who made himself fluent in Sanskrit so that he could read the Hindu classics in their original language, a US bomb-maker who was a member of, as he once put it, “every communist front organisation on the West Coast”, a German Jew who denied being either German or Jewish, and, above all, he was an enigma. No one who knew him felt that they really understood him. He was, his friend Isidor Rabi once remarked, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters”, who “never got to be an integrated personality”.

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Such a person presents us with a challenge, the challenge of understanding him, not, as it were, from the outside, but from the inside. It was partly in light of that challenge that I called my book Inside the Centre. Nolan, for his part, has said: “What I wanted to do was take the audience into the mind and the experience of a person who sat at the absolute centre of the largest shift in history.” The idea of getting inside the mind of another has a controversial history and has been debated by biographers for hundreds of years. The great English man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote many biographies, also wrote a couple of essays on the genre in which, in response to the question “can one know the inner life of another person?” replied in the negative. “By conjecture only,” he pronounced, “can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments.” And yet, ironically, he himself is the subject of a biography – the incomparable Life of Johnson by James Boswell – that shows how, exactly, the biographer can present to their readers the inner life of their subject, and that is through quotation. Johnson is quoted on virtually every page of Boswell’s book and thus we gain insight into his character and inner life. As Virginia Woolf memorably put it:

“So Boswell spoke. So we hear booming out from Boswell’s page the voice of Samuel Johnson. ‘No, sir; stark insensibility,’ we hear him say. Once we have heard those words we are aware that there is an incalculable presence among us which will go on ringing and reverberating in widening circles however times may change and ourselves. All the draperies and decencies of biography fall to the ground. We can no longer maintain that life consists in actions only or in works. It consists in personality.”

Film-makers have an advantage over biographers in this respect, for they can not only allow us to hear the voice of their subjects, but they can also show us other things that express personality: the way a person walks, the way they relate to others, and, above all, their facial expressions. It helps, in this respect to have an actor of the calibre of Cillian Murphy and the luxury of using large-format film (the movie was shot in 65mm, much of it in IMAX). And so, several times throughout the movie, we have closely cropped shots of Murphy’s face, in which one can see Oppenheimer’s often conflicting emotions.

But, as well as this, Nolan has devised another technique for exploring Oppenheimer’s mind, or at least for flagging the parts of the movie that are attempting to do that. In his own words, “I knew that I had two timelines that we were running in the film. One is in colour, and that’s Oppenheimer’s subjective experience. That’s the bulk of the film. Then the other is a black and white timeline. It’s a more objective view.” I am not convinced that this quite works. After all, most of what happens in colour did actually happen in real life. And, in any case, if Nolan and Murphy between them can show us the complexities of Oppenheimer’s emotional life (which they can), then this separation is unnecessary.

Lacking the visual advantages of film-makers, biographers typically employ a different technique for getting inside the minds of their subjects, and that is through describing and analysing their backgrounds. I became extremely interested in Oppenheimer’s roots in the German Jewish community of New York, his relationship with which, many of his friends believed, was the key to understanding him. As the name suggests, the Oppenheimers came from Oppenheim, a small town in the Hesse area of Germany, not far from Frankfurt. That is where Oppenheimer’s father, Julius, was born and raised, and from where in 1888 he set off for New York, where he joined the tailoring company founded by his uncles. The company did well and, by the time, Oppenheimer was born, the family was wealthy enough to acquire a large apartment in Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – on the walls of which were hung pictures by Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso.

There, Oppenheimer led a decorous life of exquisite taste in art and literature and fastidious standards of politeness. It was also a somewhat lonely life. He had few friends and found it hard at school to make new ones. Part of the problem was his intellectual precocity. “Ask me a question in Latin and I will reply in Greek,” he would say to his schoolmates. Impressive, no doubt, but not the best way to make friends with ten-year-olds.

Nolan skips over all this as he does Oppenheimer’s time at Harvard, which happened to coincide with the period when Harvard was at its most virulently anti-Semitic. Oppenheimer seemed scarcely to notice, spending most of his time in the library where he devoured works, not only of physics and chemistry but also of literature and history. He left Harvard with an astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge.

In theoretical physics he was way beyond the limits of undergraduate courses and had been allowed to take graduate classes. In experimental physics, however, he was more or less hopeless. He failed to master the required techniques and was a notorious disaster in the laboratory. This was deeply unfortunate because, after Harvard, Oppenheimer wanted to study at the University of Cambridge under Ernest Rutherford, then the world’s most famous living scientist. Rutherford, as the director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, was to his very fingertips an experimental physicist, and if Oppenheimer was to work under his supervision he would be spending almost all of his time in the laboratory. Oppenheimer’s reference from Harvard, however, felt obliged to point out that: “His type of mind is analytical, rather than physical, and he is not at home in the manipulation of the laboratory.”

As a result, he was rejected by Rutherford, his first taste of academic failure. Curiously, however, his application to Christ’s College, Cambridge was successful. He accepted Christ’s offer and thus arrived in Cambridge, not as a research student, but, officially at least, as an undergraduate. It was for him deeply humiliating. To make matters worse, he had not escaped experimental physics. Instead, he was assigned to work under the great experimentalist Patrick Blackett to acquire the basic laboratory skills required to work at the Cavendish.

This is the point at which Nolan’s movie enters Oppenheimer’s life. We see him humiliated by Blackett, which rouses in him a murderous fury. As a result, he leaves on Blackett’s desk a poisoned apple, intended to kill him. When, in a panic of second thoughts, he dashes back to Blackett’s study to remove the apple only to find that it is just about to be eaten by none other than the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who would become the man above all others that Oppenheimer admired. Quickly, Oppenheimer snatches the apple out of Bohr’s hand and throws it in the bin.

Is the story of the apple true? Well, it is a story that Oppenheimer told his friends and that something happened at this time as evidence of Oppenheimer’s mental instability is attested by the fact that the University of Cambridge let him stay only on condition that he agreed to undergo treatment by a psychiatrist. The bit about Niels Bohr, however, is certainly false. He was not in Cambridge at the time of the incident. It is a small departure from the truth and, to my mind, an entirely justified one. Less justifiable departures will be discussed later.

Oppenheimer did receive psychiatric treatment, but what saved his mental health was his release from both Cambridge and experimental physics. At the end of his first year at Cambridge he transferred to Göttingen to work under the great theorist Max Born. There he thrived to a most remarkable extent. Within a few years, Oppenheimer became a much sought-after scientist, receiving offers from several American universities to bring to their institutions the cutting-edge understanding of the new science of quantum mechanics that he had acquired in Germany. He was thus able to choose an unusual arrangement whereby he spent half the year at the California Institute of Technology, where there was an established department of physics, and the other half at UC Berkeley, where he could build up a department made in his own image.

Naturally, Nolan concentrates on Berkeley, where he shows Oppenheimer developing his school of physics, starting with just one, rather hesitant student and ending with a flourishing department, staffed by Oppenheimer acolytes who were devoted to him just as he was devoted to them. We are now in the mid-Thirties, the time of fascism in Spain, Nazism in Germany and the growth of trade unionism and the Communist Party in the US. Nolan is much more at home with this than he is with Oppenheimer’s scientific work, and he depicts well how Oppenheimer, led by his students, became involved in left-wing politics. Less successful, however, is his attempt to portray the love affair this led Oppenheimer into with the Communist Party member Jean Tatlock. Florence Pugh does her best with what she is given, but the part of Tatlock is woefully underwritten and she remains, not so much an enigma, but a curiously empty vessel throughout. We are offered no insight into why she says what she says or does what she does.

Nolan does little better with the second great love of Oppenheimer’s life, Katherine Puening (is it, in general, a weakness of Nolan’s that he cannot write convincing female characters?). “Kitty”, as she was known to everyone, was from a German aristocratic family and when Oppenheimer met her, she was married to her third husband. Her second husband, Joe Dallet, was a Communist Party activist who died in Spain fighting the fascists. In the summer of 1940, she and Oppenheimer fell in love and she became pregnant with his child. On 1 November Oppenheimer became her fourth husband. Nolan presents her as a loyal wife who provided Oppenheimer with strength when he needed it most, but she is remembered by most who knew her as an alcoholic who picked arguments with all around her, including her husband.

[See also: Christopher Nolan: the last Tory]

Nuclear fission was discovered in the new year of 1939 and Oppenheimer was one of the first to recognise its applicability for making bombs of unprecedented power. And yet, in ways that do not come out very clearly in Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer was an extremely unlikely choice as the director of the laboratory assigned the task of designing and building the world’s first atomic bomb. For one thing, as we have seen, he was emphatically not a laboratory scientist. Neither was he the foremost nuclear theorist in the US, a title that belonged to Hans Bethe. Oppenheimer’s main field of expertise (never mentioned in the movie) was particle physics, in which his career was mainly a series of near misses. By common consent among physicists, Oppenheimer’s most important work was in astrophysics, in which he and his collaborators were the first to provide a detailed explanation of “gravitational collapse”, the process that creates black holes. If he had lived just a bit longer, he would quite possibly have won the Nobel Prize for this work after the empirical support for it was found.

Nolan makes much of Oppenheimer’s work on gravitational collapse, but he cannot draw out its relevance to the bomb, since it has none. There is another reason why Oppenheimer should not have made the short list for the directorship of the secret bomb laboratory: he was held under deep suspicion by the long-time director of the FBI J Edgar Hoover, who put him under more or less constant surveillance.

The building of Los Alamos and the frenetic work of the scientists there, leading to the testing of the bomb at the Trinity site in southern New Mexico provides the highlight of the movie. The tension is riveting, especially the moments just before the bomb explodes. We see the mushroom cloud first and then we see (and feel) the effects of the secondary wave. I have seen the movie three times and the force of that secondary wave has hit me every time.

After the war Oppenheimer replaced Einstein as the most famous, most recognisable scientist in the US, and he was determined to use his reputation in the pursuit of peace rather than that of American military superiority. This put him at odds with the entire military and political establishment of America. It is in the telling of this struggle that Nolan’s movie goes seriously awry, for he is determined to tell it as a personal battle between two people: Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss.

Strauss was a member of the US Atomic Energy Commission, which was advised by the General Advisory Committee, chaired by Oppenheimer. He was also a trustee of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and in that capacity offered Oppenheimer the prestigious job of being its director. In a moment that we see over and over again in Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer, while visiting Princeton to discuss the job offer with Strauss, goes outside to chat with the institute’s most celebrated member, Einstein. When Strauss goes to join them, Einstein brushes past him without acknowledgement. This scene, which in reality never happened, is used in the movie as the explanation for Strauss’s abiding resentment against Oppenheimer, a resentment that led to Oppenheimer’s security hearing in 1954 in which he was publicly humiliated and his security clearance stripped from him.

Nolan makes far too much of this. Among the enemies Oppenheimer made in Washington, Strauss was one of the fiercest to be sure, but, as is important to understand, he was not the only one. In concentrating on their relationship, Nolan misses the bigger picture. In trying to push through a programme of international cooperation rather than of American military superiority, Oppenheimer was pitting himself against the president, the cabinet, the heads of the armed forces, the security services and the waves of anti-communist hysteria that were then gripping America. It was a fight he stood no chance at all of winning, Strauss or no Strauss.

Nolan speeds through Oppenheimer’s last few years and his rehabilitation with both the US establishment and the general public. It’s as if he thinks that after Strauss everything else is just footnotes. In fact, Oppenheimer enjoyed mass popularity during his final years, when he would give speeches attended by thousands. Among his peers, his receipt of the Fermi Award at the end of 1963 for “his contributions to theoretical physics and the advancement of science in the United States of America” was especially important. He was presented with the award by President Lyndon Johnson, to whom he said, “I think it just possible, Mr President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem to be a good augury for all our futures.”

Does Nolan’s film “capture” Oppenheimer in all his complexity? No, but it does enough to show why that is such a challenging task and why Oppenheimer, if not the most important, was one of the most interesting people who ever lived.

This is an edited version of an essay that will appear in the June edition of “Raritan Quarterly”.

[See also: “Oppenheimer”’s tormented soul]

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