Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed new biopic about the physicist who oversaw the invention of the atomic bomb, is the rare mass-market feature film that depicts the complexities of the US left during and after World War II. As the movie shows, J. Robert Oppenheimer was closely affiliated with Communists in his early life; his forays into left-wing politics included sending funds to the Spanish Republicans through the Communist Party. These relationships and activities eventually led to Oppenheimer losing his security clearance during the second Red Scare, and the hearing where this occurs is central to the film. Throughout the narrative, Oppenheimer explores its subject’s Jewishness, which shapes his position in relation to both Communism and Nazism. Nolan also exhibits the Jewishness of Oppenheimer’s political and intellectual milieu—which includes Lewis Strauss, the conservative Jewish politician who foments the physicist’s downfall.
On this week’s episode of On the Nose, presented in partnership with The Nation’s podcast The Time of Monsters, Jewish Currents associate editor Mari Cohen speaks with contributing editor David Klion, contributing writer Raphael Magarik, and The Nation national affairs correspondent Jeet Heer about the ways Oppenheimer illuminates and obfuscates the history it examines.
Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”
Texts and Films Mentioned:
“Oppenheimer Is an Uncomfortably Timely Tale of Destruction,” David Klion, The New Republic
Reds, directed by Warren Beaty
Amadeus, directed by Miloš Forman
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
“Nolan’s Oppenheimer treats New Mexico as a blank canvas,” Kelsey D. Atherton, Source NM
American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig
“Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne