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On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
The Jewishness of Oppenheimer
0:00 / 47:05
August 17, 2023

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


Mari Cohen: Welcome back to another episode of On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. My name is Mari Cohen, and I am Assistant Editor at Jewish Currents. The reason we’re here today is you might have heard about a movie called Oppenheimer, the Christopher Nolan biopic that goes deep on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist responsible for the creation of the atom bomb. It is a rare mass-market feature that takes a close look at the complex environment of the World War II-era American left, which gives us a lot of stuff in our wheelhouse to talk about, especially given that the question of how Oppenheimer’s Jewish identity positions him both in relation to Communism and Nazism is a current that runs through the film. An exciting thing today is that we’re going to do this in partnership with The Nation podcast, Times of Monsters. One of our guests today is Jeet Heer, who’s national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the host of that podcast. So, thanks for coming Jeet.

Jeet Heer: Oh, it’s just a thrill. This is the perfect movie to talk about with Jewish Currents.

MC: We also have Dave Klion, who is a Contributing Editor at Jewish Currents, and he wrote a great review of this movie for the New Republic that you should all check out.

David Klion: Great to be here.

MC: And we also have Raphael Magarik, who is a Contributing Writer at Jewish Currents.

Raphael Magarik: Pleasure to be here.

MC: Thanks, everybody. To get started, maybe we can just do some top line reactions to this film. Did it work for you? Do you like it? Did you find the material compelling?

DK: I liked the movie a lot, and I wrote a very positive review of it. I have since, in group chats with various smart and discerning friends (including one who’s my friend, the writer Kelsey Atherton, who’s very knowledgeable about New Mexico, where he lives, and the history of the Manhattan Project and nuclear technology generally), and have heard many criticisms of the movie, I think the cumulative effect of which has been to take my rating of it down slightly in my head—although I still think it’s a very, very good movie.

JH: Yeah, I just saw it earlier this week. It was at a movie theater in the north end of Toronto, just a little bit north of the city. Suburban area, 10am screening, and it was packed. And I think seeing it with an audience, seeing it on 70mm, it’s a very overpowering movie. Nolan is a sort of master filmmaker, and the stuff that he does with the editing and the sound is kind of incredible. As we’ll talk about, I have issues politically with the movie and narratively with the movie; there are significant omissions I think should be addressed. I’m not a fan of biopics generally, but this is a hugely important life story, one of the great lives of the 20th century, and is told in a very compelling manner that holds you for three hours.

RM: I also saw it in a full theater on 70mm. I felt returned to a movie-going experience I haven’t felt in some time. I thought it was very entertaining and kind of playful with what it does with the biopic, which is usually a pretty conservative and dull genre. I don’t know if I think the movie is satisfying beyond its entertainment value. I actually think there’s some considerable tension in it between its interest in telling an important political or historical story on the one hand and its interest in entertaining us on the other hand, but I think it certainly succeeds at the latter.

MC: Yeah, I personally do have a bit of a weakness for historical movies that involve just a bunch of men talking very passionately at each other in rooms. I don’t know what that says about me. It’s probably like an internalized issue. But I did definitely find myself enjoying Oppenheimer for that reason. And also, I was pretty interested to see the way that the American left and McCarthyism ended up being such a major part of this movie. I went into it pretty blind; I had very little knowledge of Oppenheimer himself as a figure, mostly just the broad strokes, and so I had no idea that he had those affiliations with people in the Communist Party, some of those sympathies. I really wasn’t aware, and so that ended up being a really interesting aspect of the film for me.

JH: In terms of the politics of the movie, there’s a couple of things to be said, one of which is that it’s about politics, but it’s not didactic. For me as a member of the audience, I didn’t come to any easy conclusions about Oppenheimer. You’re left with a gnawing set of problems rather than an easy answer.

DK: One thing I really appreciated about the movie but I think threw some people for a loop, is that this is, of course, the movie about the creation of the atom bomb and the moral implications of that and the effects of that. Everyone went into it knowing it would be about that, but the extent to which the movie is, as you said, about McCarthyism and the American left—and centrally about that—the last movie I can think of that was so centrally concerned with the American left was Reds by Warren Beatty, which takes place a few decades earlier and is about John Reed and the generation of American leftists that got caught up in the in the Bolshevik Revolution. But this is the only other major Hollywood epic I could think of that really shows how, in much in the first half of the 20th century, the left was—you know, it was a minority current and hated and distrusted and persecuted, but it was a real active part of American politics, especially on campuses. And the nuances of that—for instance, you could have a figure like Oppenheimer, who really was not a communist but had a communist brother, a communist (or ex-communist) wife, a communist lover, communist friends (including the wonderfully named Haakon Chevalier, who puts out a feeler as to whether he’s willing to give secrets to the Soviets). I say this in my review, but the experience of McCarthyism after the war basically erased how important the left was in a lot of people’s memory outside of intellectual and left-wing circles, and the extent to which the war and America (specifically America’s involvement in the war from ‘41 to ‘45) was this interregnum in a longer story of the left, where before the war, America is coming off the first Red Scare after World War I and there’s a ton of anti-communist sentiment, and the American right, in many cases, is mildly sympathetic to Hitler and certainly against entering the war. And then Pearl Harbor happens, and suddenly, America is allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the American left is in a popular front with FDR New Deal liberalism, and you’ve literally got guys with communist ties getting together in New Mexico to help build a weapon of mass destruction for the US government.

RM: I thought that actually was one of the most weirdly-optimistic moments in the movie, European emigres and Jews and communists, they’re all kind of getting together to do this thing together, almost in this strange little workers’ paradise or workers’ cooperative.

DK: Yeah, there’s something tragic and perverse about it, because it’s like, the US government actually pulls off a little well-funded scientific utopian commune full of lefty Jews, but its purpose is to kill hundreds of thousands of people. And as soon as it succeeds in that purpose, it’s like, “Alright, we can move on now, and if any of these people speak out about how they feel about what they’ve done, we can destroy them.”

JH: Well, there’s two things: One is the sort of internal contradictions of the New Deal, which to this day remains the high point of the American left. But the New Deal involved coalitions with all sorts of unsavory partners, like FDR was aligned with Southern Democrats who were upholders of Jim Crow, but also, FDR built the FBI, and it was used partially against fascists but also used to monitor communism. And so there’s a compromise with the national security state, which FDR also built up. I mean, the New Deal became the military-industrial complex, in some ways, and Oppenheimer is at the very heart of that contradiction. He is like a New Deal liberal who’s on the Popular Front, friendly with communists, but the New Deal project involves aligning himself with the military-industrial complex. And that institution, that force in American life is really the dominant force, and it will use him and then dispose of him afterwards. Although I want to underscore that it’s a process. It’s not like an immediate thing, like 1945 happens, the war ends, and these guys are thrown away. There’s a sort of interesting period immediately after the war, where Oppenheimer, most likely consumed by guilt, tries to recast himself as a public voice of conscience to rally the scientists to speak on behalf of international control of nuclear weapons. And then it’s a process whereby he’s destroyed, and he’s destroyed by someone who’s also within the heart of that alliance, which is Lewis Strauss. And that is also, just as the Popular Front’s story is a Jewish story, that’s also a Jewish story.

MC: Yeah, that’s something I found really interesting about the movie—and actually one of the big frustrations that I had, especially with the last third of it. Because I felt like the conflict became individualized into a face-off between Strauss and Oppenheimer. And in fact, it sort of becomes framed as a petty grudge that Strauss himself is holding against Oppenheimer that is the reason for his downfall. It’s a great cinematic moment, this sort of gotcha of, “Oh, actually, it was him who did it all along!” in the call back to the conversation with Einstein that we didn’t see the first time around, which ends up being the landing point of the movie (which is beautiful in its own way). But I think that I walked away feeling like that had really downgraded a lot of the political stakes, because instead, the message just becomes, “Oh, this one guy got upset about not having as much power himself,” rather than “These were some really clear ideological differences.”

JH: Yeah, I should mention that Christopher Nolan, in interviews, has cited the movie Amadeus as an inspiration. And in Amadeus, you have the rivalry between young Mozart, the genius, and the less-talented musician who undermines and tries to destroy the genius. And that is a very individualized story. It does a disservice to the actual politics in a way that I think the Popular Front stuff was well-served. The Popular Front stuff, I think you get a lot of nuance, whereas I think in the politics of the Jewish American right and why they turned against people like Oppenheimer, it becomes a caricature.

DK: Or if I may, the other thing this makes me think of is how Lin Manuel Miranda has the Hamilton/Burr rivalry recast entirely in terms of the personal character and clashing personal ambitions and values of the two men, which is not untrue, but also, there were real political things being argued about that he ultimately doesn’t want to take a very strong stand on. In all of these cases, I think that works well for the purpose of telling a story around an individual hero or villain, less well for understanding, for instance, that Strauss was part of the right-wing turn in American politics, generally, in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.

RM: I think this is a movie with a sense of like, almost a guilty conscience, about having to be a piece of Hollywood entertainment. There’s a moment after they built the bomb, and the bomb has been dropped, where there’s a big political rally, and Oppenheimer is speaking to them, and he kind of freaks out and imagines some of what’s happening at Hiroshima as if it were happening at this rally at Los Alamos. And I really thought of that moment—it’s Christopher Nolan thinking about himself, so to speak, accepting an Oscar for this movie. That is to say, the movie kind of knows that it is taking this story and cheapening it and making a kind of piece of entertainment out of it, and it has some anxiety about it, and that’s also why Strauss ends up becoming the villain.

JH: To that end, I think Nolan also identifies with Oppenheimer, in the sense that he did the Batman trilogy that became such a huge hit and revitalized the superhero genre and basically destroyed Hollywood and global culture for like, another decade. And you know, after creating the Batman trilogy, he could truly say, “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

RM: Yeah, I think another way of thinking about this is Oppenheimer is exactly a film director, not quite an artist or a scientist, he’s not quite on the management side, he’s somewhere in between. He gets to build this set from nowhere. There are these lovely scenes of them setting up Los Alamos, and his wife shows up and says, “It’d be perfect, where’s the saloon,” right, this is a Western set. And then they make the movie, and you make the movie, and then the studio guy comes (in this case, the studio guy, is from the American military) and says, “Alright, shut up. Now I get to do with it, what I want to do with it.” And so I think this movie is in some ways about exactly this kind of alienation, of making movies for the commercial cinema.

DK: Yeah, I almost hate how well what Rafi is saying works. It’s a brilliant point, and the reason I say I almost hate how well it works is because it can make you forget briefly that we are obviously talking about a bomb that destroyed whole cities and could destroy more cities. And the thing my friend Kelsey keeps pointing out (because he’s written all about this for a few places): There’s a story in New Mexico that’s kind of edited out of the movie too, both in terms of how they acquired this land—it wasn’t just the Oppenheimer family’s private ranch or whatever, there were all these actual working class, New Mexican ranchers whom the government basically eminent domained very quickly out of their land and had to move overnight. And then there were communities (not big communities, but they existed) downwind from the site, where everyone was getting cancer for decades after this, and the movie doesn’t even really allude to that. It does have Oppenheimer saying like, “We should return the land to the Native Americans” and the military being like, “Ha, ha, that’s obviously never going to happen,” which it didn’t. Los Alamos is a town of like, 12,000 people today, and it still is built around nuclear research. But basically, the fact that what they’re building is a killing machine is something that’s in the movie. And obviously, the guilty conscience and the scene that Rafi describes where he’s seeing these visions of people’s flesh tearing off is incredibly powerful, one of the best scenes in the movie. But there has been some controversy, I think, both around leaving out Trinity downwinders to the people who were moved from their land, and then also leaving out actual Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I mean, they’re discussed, but it’s taken entirely from the point of view of Americans for whom the horror is a little bit abstracted. And I think it’s fine for me to speak for Kelsey, that he thinks those should have been in the movie explicitly. I’m not totally sure I agree, but I’m curious what others think.

MC: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting question and something I’ve been torn about too. I’ve also seen the argument that Oppenheimer himself would have been kind of limited in this way and that he actually probably wasn’t thinking a lot at the time about Japanese people. I mean, obviously there are things he says later about having blood on his hands, but he was not super concerned about the effects of the radiation on his neighbors, including Indigenous communities in New Mexico. And so, if we’re looking at it from this point of view, or it’s his vision of seeing these horrible effects being superimposed on the people he does know (which are these mostly white people at the rally), then in some ways, the movie’s perspective is true to that. At the same time, yes, we can say that the structure of a biopic about someone like Oppenheimer is not the right structure in which to tell these other stories or other perspectives, But the truth is that these are usually the movies that we get, and then these are the perspectives that many of these major historical movies are written from. I’m not sure that we can just say, “It’s not the right movie for it.”

RM: Yeah, I do think there’s quite a lovely moment where they’re testing the bomb, and they all want to see the bomb go off, and they hand them, one-by-one, these square pieces of welder’s glass to look at the bomb through. And it’s this wonderful moment in which even the scientists who make the bomb can’t see it directly; they can only see it as if they were movie goers—in essence, watching through a medium. And so I think you’re completely right, that this is not supposed to be the world. This is the world as Oppenheimer can see it, you know? And there’s that amazing moment where they dropped the bomb, and he’s not even sure if they’ve dropped it or not—he has to hear it on the radio, like everyone else. I do think that’s totally compatible with saying, “Maybe this wasn’t the right movie to make,” and a movie about Hiroshima, or a movie about the horrible effects in New Mexico and beyond or any number of the horrible nuclear disasters that have happened in the United States. In 1949, a few years after the bomb was dropped, the United States government knowingly released radioactive isotopes into a river in Hanford in Washington to test the effects on the local population, which were exactly what you would expect: They all got thyroid cancer. There’s all this atrocious, horrible stuff that’s left out here. But I think you’re exactly right, that the movie is deliberately leaving it out, because it has a sense that the characters have this one particular slice of reality that is heavily mediated and heavily saturated. That’s what it’s interested in delivering.

JH: I agree with what people have said. I mean, I would not want this to be the only movie about the bomb that people see. There are these other very important stories, and I think especially the Downwind stuff, I thought should have been there. The Hiroshima stuff, I think was there, but it was there indirectly, in the sense of these visions that Oppenheimer has, but I think that that’s sufficient. Like, this is how he experienced his reality. He was not at Hiroshima, but certainly, he was haunted by it, and it doesn’t quite share his limitations. It shows his limitations—the fact that he could only think about or imagine these horrors by imagining them being inflicted on the people around him. I think that what the film actually does is show the limits of this scientific imagination, as theory becomes reality. I mean, the archetype of the movie is Frankenstein, right? He is Dr. Frankenstein, and he has unleashed a monster, and a movie that just focuses on Dr. Frankenstein and how he deals with his guilt. There’s some validity to doing it that way rather than showing everything the monster does.

DK: The original title of Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus, right? And the book is American Prometheus. And the movie starts with a quote about Prometheus, and all of those themes, I think, are very deliberate.

MC: The movie does have, in general, a lot of disdain for the politicians that are then tasked with using this technology. I mean, at least in this scene, for example, when Oppenheimer goes to meet Truman, and he’s kind of teary and says, “I think I have blood on my hands.” And then Truman is really fed up with this and kind of says, “Get this crybaby out of here.” And he’s also like, “People don’t care about you, I’m the one who did it.” I think it’s a really interesting scene, because on the one hand, Oppenheimer comes off as much more morally troubled and, in some ways, more of the conscience of the film. On the other hand, it’s also an example of his naivete, right? Like, he doesn’t totally want to own it, like you did make the bomb, and now he’s gonna cry about it, and the way that the movie brushes that away is powerful. Also, there’s the other scene where they’re meeting with Stimson, and he’s trying to talk about where they’re gonna potentially drop the bomb, where he crosses Kyoto off the list because he honeymooned there. And I think it’s a, like, insane example of this sort of arbitrary way how they’re choosing a city to bomb into oblivion. I think that that part did land well,

DK: The honeymoon line, which the audience I was with laughed nervously at (and apparently that’s been a very common reaction at many screenings). The honeymoon line, I was almost disappointed to learn that’s not really true. It was almost an ad lib based on a myth. It is true that they took Kyoto off because it was considered culturally significant and it was a beautiful part of human heritage, but the actual idea that Stimson honeymooned there is basically made up and, I think, will now be part of everyone’s understanding of history already, for better or worse.

But the Truman scene (which is basically, I think, what happened) was fascinating to me because you’re right, it speaks to his naivete. It also speaks to his intellectual elite arrogance in a way, because a (not very subtle) theme of that scene is Truman is just this bumpkin hat salesman with a very simplistic morality from Kansas City, unlike Oppenheimer and all his friends at various elite campuses, who are brilliant, and erudite, and read the Bhagavad Gita and Marx, and so on, and have witty banter. Like, I don’t know that that’s actually Nolan’s personal judgment, but the way I read the scene is that Oppenheimer thinks that he’s a sophisticated, deep thinker, and he’s capable of grappling with the moral implications of what he’s done. Whereas Truman is just this kind of philistine who’s like, “Of course it was the right thing to do.” And of course, Truman is speaking for the large majority of the American public in that regard, too. But I don’t think the movie necessarily sides with that view. I think that there’s a nice ambiguity about that, that maybe it’s ridiculous of intellectual elites like Oppenheimer to think that they would have any control over what actually happens with their creations.

RM: The other thing that strikes me about the scene with Truman (as the scene with Matt Damon’s character, the general is sort of overseeing them) is it’s also, in a weird way, a story about the relationship between labor and capital, and a kind of story about the alienation of labor. You make all these wonderful things, and then, surprise, surprise, you stand outcast amidst the wonders you have made, and you have no ability to shape what is done with them, you don’t control them in any way. There’s a whole plot that I’m absolutely fascinated by in the first half of the movie surrounding the attempt to form an academic union at Berkeley. I’m not sure if the movie knows this or not: Of course, the union is the answer to the problem that all of these scientists are confronting, that they make these powerful tools and then have no say in how they are used. A union or some sense of class consciousness and class struggle would be the way that one would actually get a voice in the using of atomic energy—apart from the one that the security state is prepared to give you. And so, in some ways, the tragedy of that union going nowhere and ending up being jettisoned in favor of the atomic bomb is its own sort of story about a left or workers’ horizon being suppressed or foreclosed.

JH: But there was a kind of union; not a labor union, but a kind of intellectual union after the war. I think it was inspired by his Danish friend, Niels Bohr, where Oppenheimer tries to organize the scientists. They were going to be the voice, and they were going to say, like, “We’re the people who made these weapons, and we can tell you that an arms race is going to be a disaster for humanity.” And the problem is that sort of union—a purely intellectual union—couldn’t work because the final boss is still capital, it’s still the military industrial complex, and they will do what they can to destroy you if you become that voice that speaks out. So I think that is the central plot of the movie in some ways. That labor union effort early on becomes sublimated after the war into a kind of intellectual union.

I want to revisit the McCarthyism stuff as well, though, because I think that gets into a lot of things in the movie, which, particularly, we should talk about on this podcast: the Jewish element of it. Oppenheimer and Strauss, they’re particular types of Jews, right? They’re coming from this German Jewish background, and that’s distinct from the kind of dominant mode of Jewish American history that I think most people are familiar with, which is the East European immigration.

DK: One thing that I’ve noticed some people bandying about on Twitter is, you know, Cillian Murphy: Great in this movie, but once again, a non-Jewish actor playing a Jew, and ditto Robert Downey Jr. playing Strauss. What’s the deal with that? There are, off the top of my head, two Jews playing Jews in the movie. One is David Krumholtz playing Isidor Isaac Rabi, and that’s the one I really want to talk about. There’s also Benny Safdie playing Edward Teller, but Krumholtz is the one that interests me because it speaks to this (under-discussed, these days) divide among Ashkenazi Jews in America in the first half of the 20th century. German Jews (that is, Jews from the German-speaking part of Europe, who spoke German as their first language) were a wave of immigration to the US in the 19th century, and they weren’t that large but there were a number of them, and some of them did quite well. Some of them got very rich, and they generally kept their heads down, and they were a whole force in late 19th, early 20th century American Jewish history. Then, in the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, there’s a much, much, much larger wave of Jews that are much more familiar in the American cultural consciousness and that all of my ancestors come from, which are Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, who arrive and, on average, are more working class—more likely to be working in the textile factory than owning it. Their main language is Yiddish, not German, and in the post-World War II period, it’s this latter group of Jews (the Eastern Jews) who really become a major dominant force across a wide swath of American culture. When people think of stereotypically Jewish things in their head, they’re usually thinking of something out of this culture—the culture of Woody Allen and Philip Roth and so on.

This is all by way of saying Oppenheimer and Strauss are both absolutely representative figures of the first—that is, German—group of Jews. Their families have been there longer. The movie doesn’t emphasize just how rich Oppenheimer was, but he was very, very rich. I mean, the fact that it’s the 1930s and his family has a ranch out in New Mexico is not representative of the typical Ashkenazi Jew at this time. And he’s very transatlantic. He has friends across Europe. He speaks German, he speaks a bunch of languages, but as the Krumholtz character points out, he doesn’t speak Yiddish. Now, Krumholtz is a Jewish actor, and I think would read to anyone who thinks about such things as Jewish on screen. And he plays this guy, Rabi, who was from a Polish Jewish Orthodox family in Galicia, and his family spoke Yiddish. His family emigrated to the Lower East Side, then they moved to Brownsville and out of Brooklyn, they ran a grocery store. So this is a completely different social, cultural, and economic background than Oppenheimer. Now, none of that is discussed directly in the movie, but in the scene where they’re on this train in Europe discussing just how antisemitic Europe is (and this is something Rabi reads as much more central than Oppenheimer does at this time). they talk about, “Oh, you know all these languages, but you don’t know Yiddish.” Like of course, Oppenheimer doesn’t know Yiddish. I think in the movie, it’s sort of read as, “Oh, you’re out of touch with your Jewish roots.” No, he’s in touch with his German Jewish roots, which are just a completely different thing, and the Rabi character is the voice of the much larger, Eastern European diaspora that’s coming in.

JH: Yeah, I didn’t know the film actually has a bit of dialogue, which a lot of people have commented on Twitter and elsewhere, which reads a bit odd, where Oppenheimer is asked about his knowledge of Yiddishm and he says, like, “I’m from the other side of the park.” That doesn’t seem like an idiomatic expression.

MC: It’s definitely not a thing. I feel like it doesn’t really make sense if you think about it.

DK: I mean, probably, if you didn’t know anything about these guys but you know a little bit about Manhattan, it sounds like Oppenheimer’s from the more affluent and waspy Upper East Side, and Rabi is from the more Jewish Upper West Side. In fact, Oppenheimer’s from the Upper West Side, Rabi is from the Lower East Side, and Nolan is confused, much as he’s confused when he takes a line of Proudhon and says that it’s Marx, in the voice of Florence Pugh.

RM: Yeah, I do think one thing that was very striking to me in that early scene on the train is that Rabi says something like, “Do you ever get the feeling that our kind is not welcome here?” And Oppenheimer says, “What do you mean, physicists?” And on the one hand, it’s kind of like them playing around with, “Am I gonna say the word Jew or not.” But there also is this pervasive sense in this movie that physicists are Jews, you know? That the Nazi atomic bomb program isn’t going to work because of Hitler’s disdain for what he thinks of as Jewish science, quantum mechanics; that all of the physicists are either explicitly Jewish, or are European emigres and speak with funny accents, or have affiliations with the Communist Party, which is itself kind of coded as Jewishness. And I even think there’s a way in which Oppenheimer’s peregrinations and travel through Europe and his visions of the universe make him a kind of Wandering Jew figure, right? Physics becomes this cosmopolitan language that unites people across different places and times. It even seems to rip you out of the place that you’re from. And there’s almost a way it’s like, the cosmos is the ultimate cosmopolitan place. And so, for me, this is a very deeply Jewish movie.

JH: Yeah, I will add that I think that the McCarthyism was not unrelated to antisemitism. Like obviously, in the 1930s before the war, the political right that was anticommunist was very openly also antisemitic and using Jews and communists synonymously. After the war, because of Hitler and the growing awareness of what had happened, you couldn’t do that. And so the political right had to hide its antisemitism, and you see that in the fact that Joseph McCarthy—even though he had defended members of the SS after the war—when he went on his anticommunist crusade, he felt compelled to have Roy Cohn as an assistant, because you have to show, “We’re anticommunist, but we’re not anti-Jewish.” And within the Jewish right, the Cold War was an opportunity, because there’s a way that they could become legitimized as the Official Jewish Voice in America. And one sees this in the American Jewish Committee (which Strauss had been very powerful in), their memos from that, involving their magazine commentary in the early ‘50s, where they say, “It’s very important for us to make the public understand that Jews are not all communists, and that we have to take a clear anticommunist position so that the public can see that we’re the good Jews, and they’re the bad Jews.” And I think if we want to understand Lewis Strauss and his combat with Oppenheimer, it is not that personal rivalry of “I’m not as great physicist as he is, I resent his friendship with Einstein.” It’s that like, “I want to be the official establishment Jew, the Jew who’s in the court of Eisenhower,” and part of doing that is you want to disavow the bad Jews, the radical Jews, the East European Jews. And what Lewis Strauss did was, even though Oppenheimer was a German Jew like himself, he tried to associate Oppenheimer with the East European Jews by playing up all the communist stuff.

DK: And of course, the line of when we first meet Strauss, where Oppenheimer calls him Strauss, and he corrects him and says Strauss, and Oppenheimer, quips, “Whatever, everyone knows we’re Jewish.” Which of course, it’s like, there’s degrees here: Rabi represents the completely self-conscious Eastern Jew who’s openly Jewish, basically; Strauss, the ultimate assimilated German—yeah, Jewish but not too Jewish; and Oppenheimer is somewhere between them.

MC: It is kind of interesting to think of Oppenheimer being more distanced earlier in his life and not really having the sense of consciousness as a Jew who would be targeted in Europe. And then later on, after the war, after the bomb, everything, he’s meeting Strauss, and he’s much more open about it, “Oh, you know, no matter how you pronounce it, everyone knows I’m Jewish, whatever.” And it does seem like: Is this an evolution in consciousness that’s brought on by Nazism? In some ways, it is interesting, because it’s like German Jews who had been the most assimilated Jews in America then become representatives of the Jews who were persecuted by Nazism.

DK: Yeah, I mean, Oppenheimer, he’s certainly not religious, and he’s certainly not someone who wants to constantly wear his Jewishness on his sleeve. But he is powerfully antifascist, anti-Nazi, motivated to get the Jews out of Germany and thereabouts. And, you know, the main moral justification for why all these guys are working on the Manhattan Project in the first place is because the Nazis absolutely cannot get the bomb. I mean, there’s an incredible line when he’s giving his speech (we’ve talked about it a few times), where he says he only wishes they’d gotten it done in time to use it on Germany, and I think the prevailing assumption there (and maybe even contemporary left-wing circles), is I don’t think we would be morally agonizing in quite the same way had the atom bomb been used on Nazi Germany and killed just as many civilians. I feel like that would actually be less of a profound moral question to a lot of people even today because antifascist sentiment runs so strong on the left, whereas the fact that it ended up being used on Japan, I think, reads very differently today.

MC: Yeah, I had a similar thought. It’s related to the Popular Front idea, but the way that the movie shows how Nazism as an enemy provides a sort of moral clarity, right? Like both on the American left but also for the American public in general, it just offers this sense of moral clarity in warfare that pretty quickly dissipates after that enemy has gone. And I’ve always felt like you can see that in how American memory culture has progressed around the Holocaust, and that Americans are very into memorializing the Holocaust in a way that can seem kind of strange for a country where the Holocaust didn’t take place. But there is a way in which the United States is allowed to play this sort of morally good, white-knight type of role vis-a-vis the Holocaust.

RM: And I will say in Lewis Strauss’s defense, he actually was quite active, personally, in trying to get Roosevelt to accept Jewish refugees, which Roosevelt was completely disinterested in doing, essentially. I do think that part of the bait and switch by which Nazism becomes the moral justification for the Pax Americana is really overlooking the extent to which the United States was extremely slow to enter the war—after being attacked at Pearl Harbor—and did comparatively little to end or avert the Holocaust.

DK: One way the movie does get at that a little is with Oppenheimer funneling, in the ‘30s, funds to the Spanish Republicans, and via the Communist Party of the US, which is—I was actually reminded of Casablanca, which is fictional but which was created during the war, and has Rick—he’s a cynic in the movie, but we know he, deep down, is an antifascist romantic idealist because he fought in the Spanish Civil War, which is this coded way of saying, “If you were American in the ‘30s, and you did care about beating the Nazis when most people didn’t and when the government didn’t, that was the sort of test of that.” I actually really appreciated that, reminding a mainstream American audience that there was a moment when being opposed to Nazism in Europe was actually kind of an edgy position before it wasn’t.

JH: Yeah. And the movie itself, in general, is not triumphalist. This is not a Steven Spielberg Greatest Generation narrative. I think it’s pretty upfront about everything that’s problematic about the American military industrial complex, and the way it uses people, and its unwillingness to listen to people who are advising it on other alternative courses of action. I think that’s actually one of the strengths of the movie, that you’re left with a very troubling thing. Like you understand the moral imperative that led Oppenheimer and others to make the bomb, but it becomes a tragic story, not a triumphalist one.

I just want to say one final thing about the Jewish American theme, which is the specific physical location of Princeton and the Institute of Advanced Studies, because that’s where Oppenheimer and Strauss and Einstein were all at. That institute was actually created because Princeton did not want Jews. You know, “Einstein, that sounds kind of funny to us!” And so it was a Jewish philanthropist who set up the institute. And it actually still has a sketchy, informal relationship with Princeton, so I think it’s interesting that that place, adjacent to Princeton but not quite a Princeton, is such an important space in the movie,

RM: One thing I want to pick up on: I 100% agree with you that the movie is quite good about the moral ambiguity and the difficult choices surrounding science and so on and so forth. One ethical thing that bothers me about the movie that I just feel like I want to say is: I feel the whole movie is told through these inquisitorial hearings, first of Oppenheimer and then of Strauss. I feel like there’s a tremendous ethical problem with moving easily and smoothly between these state trials that are, in fact, like inquisitions and, I think, have this very antisemitic dimension to them in which they are kind of ferreting out these deviants (who are Jewish, or may or may not have various communist affiliations), and then moving between that and the imaginative reconstruction of what actually happened. That’s something that’s actually kind of fraught with danger and that the movie doesn’t do as good a job addressing, which is: We don’t really know what these scenes in the 1930s actually look like. We don’t really know what Chevalier did or didn’t say to Oppenheimer. A great deal of how the movie gets to thinking that we do is really just taking these hearing transcripts as if they were reliable reports about the world. That gives me the creepy crawlies. Ss someone who spends a lot of time with Renaissance history, you can’t jump from Inquisition records to whether the person being interviewed really was a Jew or the converse. And similarly, it makes me very nervous that the movie sometimes seems to conflate the McCarthyist trials and interrogations with the actuality of what happened.

MC: Yeah, and I do think the end of the movie ends up revolving around Oppenheimer standing up to these sort of false McCarthyist accusations but not about the question of whether he should have been able to do that political work, and he should have been able to actually join the Communist Party if he’d wanted to. And you know, that that’s not necessarily a cause for dismissal in itself.

DK: I gotta say that, for whatever flaws we’ve identified—and the one Rafi just pointed out is actually the first I’ve really thought about that—you’re right about how this information was sourced and how reliable it is. I will say (in a kind of corny way): It’s incredible to me how big this movie is, how many normies are seeing it, and how all of these topics are being opened up for popular discussion. And I think misunderstandings and confusion is inevitable and nothing is perfect, but I’m overall delighted that the biggest conversation the public is having about the atom bomb in years is basically about how it’s terrible and immoral. It’s a big leap from in the 90s when there were debates over whether you could even say that it was tragic that the Enola Gay killed all these people. And then even beyond that, that the public is basically being reintroduced to this era of all stripes of leftism—from campus labor activism, to card-carrying Communists (who, in some cases, literally are spying for Stalin), to fellow travelers like Oppenheimer and New Deal Democrats, and just this whole milieu that I think has been erased from the popular collective memory—I think it’s really wonderful, and that the movie is pretty non-judgmental about how it presents all of that. I mean, you can kind of wrestle with each of those positions and what the appropriate thing to do—I don’t think it’s a leftist movie, but I also don’t think it’s a left-punching movie, and that’s really remarkable.

JH: Yeah, I mean, this movie has made like half a billion dollars. And as I said, I saw it weeks after it opened, and it was packed. It’s actually remarkable that the two biggest movies—and I’ll just have a very brief spiel on this—are both about Jewish-American assimilation. Because that’s actually also the story of Barbie, which was created by Ruth Handler, a woman of Jewish Polish descent and that is also this kind of traveling creation. And so we have the movie about the bomb and the movie about the bombshell.

DK: And of course, she’s played by unmistakably Jewish Rhea Perlman, and Greta Gerwig is not Jewish, but her partner who cowrote the script (Noah Baumbach) is, and I definitely—we don’t have time to get into Barbie, but I did like it a lot. I did think seeing it as partly a movie about themes of Jewish assimilation is not wrong.

MC: That brings up the question of how the themes of gender play out in Oppenheimer. It’s interesting that there’s this relationship between the structure of Oppenheimer’s affiliation with these women and his affiliation with communism and leftist politics. His relationship to communism becomes symbolized, quite literally, by his relationship with this woman, Jean Tatlock, who’s played by Florence Pugh. I do think that comes to a scene that’s been pretty controversial, which is the scene where he’s being interrogated in the inquisition room, they’re asking him about his relationship with Jean Tatlock, and then there’s the superimposed image of him having sex with her, like that just gets ported into the interrogation room. I don’t really know if I have a complaint about the scene on misogynistic grounds, I think it’s more that it just felt quite out of place, or it doesn’t feel like any kind of emotional work has been done to make that scene feel especially interesting or exciting to the viewer. And also, again, that this political question of how he’s being targeted for his affiliations becomes transplanted as a personal question about this sexual affair that he was having, and that’s the texture that fills the scene.

DK: I mean, I read that particular scene, mostly, as showing how much of McCarthyism was about humiliating and destroying people, because we’re seeing that through the eyes of Emily Blunt, who knew there was something going on between them but is sort of forced to vision this. I think the point there is that they have an excuse to do that to his marriage and to put them through that pain.

RM: But the movie is, I think, very deeply committed to Jean Tatlock being central. I think probably one of the worst scenes in the movie (though also the funniest) is early in the movie—they’re having sex, and Jean Tatlock takes off the book and has Oppenheimer read from it, and it’s the line, “I am become Death, Destroyer of Men.” And it’s really, I think, supposed to braid together his sexual guilt at what he did to (or what he failed to do for) Jean Tatlock with his guilt over the atomic bomb and supposed to tie those two together. And that goes on throughout the movie, also; like there’s that thing that he names the test the Trinity test after this John Donne poem, “Batter my heart, three person’d God”, which is a poem all about Donne asking God, essentially, to rape him. And that’s sort of this whole thing about sex and the atomic bomb being woven together. But I think one sort of take-home for me is that women are somewhat peripheral to this movie; gender and sexuality are quite central and quite deeply woven into it, it’s just a very screwed up male take on gender and sexuality.

DK: I also, on this subject, want to say about the Emily Blunt character, about Kitty: I haven’t actually seen much discussion of this, but the movie is, in a number of scenes, calling attention, essentially, to how she is a brilliant woman herself but relegated to the traditional child-rearing role of the time, and also an alcoholic and a kind of adventurous, reckless person who has no legitimate outlet, basically. I mean, Oppenheimer is allowed to not really raise his kids and be a Great Man and do the things he really wants to do, and she’s not. Which is not a particularly original point about gender at this point, but I did think the movie doesn’t ignore that fact, doesn’t ignore, essentially, that neither of these people wants to be doing the labor of child rearing, but one of them has to, even though it’s destroying her, and one of them can basically slough it off on her so he can build the atom bomb.

MC: I did think that was interesting. And that kind of gets to some of the challenges of this sort of collage format, or this way in which we are treated to these small snippets of scenes and then quickly spun off somewhere else. I don’t know, I found it a little bit challenging in this regard because I was pretty interested in this view of Kitty and her entrapment into domesticity, but the movie kind of forgets about it in a way, or the thread just does not really get carried through. Especially to the extent that by the end, she does get cast in this supportive wife role, who is the one who actually steps up and stands up for him. And the fact that in the beginning of the movie, there is this fraughtness in their marriage, and also that she has this discomfort with this role she’s had to take—it just doesn’t really get carried through, which makes sense given the amount of scope that the movie is taking on. But I think, in a way, it can be frustrating in the sense of trying to skim over the surface of everything and then not having time.

JH: I think that is the general thing of the movie: It skids over a lot of things. It ultimately does have that central theme that David and Rafi have kind of outlined: The story of a Jewish Popular Front relationship with a national security state. And that, at the end, really comes together in a powerful way. But yeah, there’s so many other things that the movie could have touched on,and only touches on in a very glancing way. That can be very frustrating, especially since Kitty and Jean are fascinating characters in their own right.

DK: Yeah, a friend described it as a five-hour movie that’s been pared down to three hours by editors, and I think there’s something to that. I mean, I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it does just open so many fascinating Pandora’s boxes.

MC: Honestly, I could have watched another hour, but I don’t think that is necessarily a popular opinion. So maybe it’s for the best. Well, thank you guys all so much for being here. This was great. If you liked this podcast, don’t forget to subscribe to On the Nose wherever you get your podcasts, as well as to Times of Monsters, and subscribe to Jewish Currents, and subscribe to The Nation, and all of those things. And thank you to our producer, Jesse Brenneman.

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