Every once in a while, there’s a big-budget movie worth seeing in a theater.
Although the new “Oppenheimer” biopic has a liberal slant, it eschews petty, simplistic narratives aimed at deconstructing our past in favor of creating a fascinating character study of a flawed but incredibly important scientist who led the United States into the atomic age.
“Oppenheimer” is liberal, but it isn’t woke. That’s an important distinction in the case of art and a rarity in modern Hollywood. It means that the online Left is more than a bit outraged by the movie. More on that later.
Christopher Nolan’s three-hour historical drama is based on the life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” It notably uses no computer-generated imagery. Yet the movie is visually spectacular.
Nolan sometimes gets obsessed with his visual effects and innovative camera techniques to the point of absurdity. But not this time.
The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that with a bad script even a good director can’t make a good movie. “For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this,” he said.
“Oppenheimer” is more than just a visual feast. It’s an engaging historical thriller that takes audiences into the mind and world of an at-times uncertain man thrust into the tides of history.
Oppenheimer is a staunch liberal, but ultimately rejects communist dogmas. His relationship with women is full of romance, but he never fully commits and remains a serial philanderer. He fears what an atomic bomb would unleash, but agrees to head the Manhattan Project when he thinks Nazi Germany might get ahold of the weapon first.
In the end, Oppenheimer can’t quite solve his internal dilemma about whether his creation of the atomic bomb is a great achievement, or whether he’s brought about a chain reaction that will lead to the end of the world.
Questions about his connections to the Communist Party dogged his career.
Oppenheimer likely remained a loyal American despite his ideology, though there are still legitimate questions about whether he had been a Soviet spy. There’s less mystery about some of his acquaintances and connections.
The Los Alamos lab, where much of Oppenheimer’s research for the Manhattan Project took place, was infested with Soviet spies who aided the USSR in getting the bomb many years before it would have otherwise.
That Oppenheimer saw Nazi Germany as a great evil, but wanted full cooperation with the Soviet Union was likely more than just a byproduct of the temporary alliance of convenience in World War II. Many on the Left in those days saw the Soviet Union as a grand experiment where their ideas might bear fruit.
Soviet infiltration into American society and government ran deep. The Left has never fully come to terms with this, so they take up the useful narrative of McCarthyite persecution.
As much as I believe the record deserves to be corrected in a larger sense, I don’t think the liberal bias is fatal to the larger message of the film.
Oppenheimer, the man, was a liberal, and this movie is largely sympathetic. And that’s OK in this circumstance. He was, like many liberals of his era, a man with strong convictions who was naïve about the nature of the far Left.
What the Oppenheimer movie avoids is the tedious and stilted woke ethos that now infests the minds of our cultural elite. Angry, woke critics online complain that the movie didn’t have enough female representation, that it lionized a white man, that it didn’t portray any Japanese people or get their perspective about the use of atomic weapons.
Some have used critiques of the movie to question whether the United States was the “good guy” in World War II.
I wrote quite a bit about that last part in my book “The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past.” Let me summarize by saying that while all war is terrible, and that America—like all countries—has done terrible things in war, we were most certainly the “good guys” in that conflict.
We should all be thankful that Imperial Japan didn’t come to dominate the Pacific, that Nazi Germany never became the preeminent global power, and that the Soviet Union wasn’t alone in standing above the rubble at the war’s end.
When the war concluded, the U.S. rebuilt and eventually became allies with the defeated. By contrast, the Soviet Union plundered and enslaved those it came to “liberate.” It seems more than a few of Oppenheimer’s friends and relations got that wildly wrong. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were traitors, however. Most were merely fools and pawns in Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s great game.
That all being said, there’s no denying Oppenheimer’s role in bringing the Manhattan Project to a successful conclusion. It took a monumental effort of scientific knowledge, industrial might, and logistical brilliance. Even more, this wasn’t just the achievement of one man; it was the triumph of millions.
In a sense, the Manhattan Project and the first detonation of an atomic bomb is symbolic of the United States in World War II.
The splitting of the atom released almost limitless energy to create a weapon of immense power. At the same time, an incredible amount of American economic and industrial potential was unleashed by the war. That allowed this country to produce near miraculous feats of production and scientific advancement. Our country, and the world, would never be the same.
There’s a notable moment after the first test of Oppenheimer’s atomic weapon in which he waves to a crowd of Americans gathered to celebrate the achievement. In the scene, we see men and women, GIs and civilians. Behind Oppenheimer flies an American flag raised on high as he raises his hat and smiles.
The flag was historically inaccurate—it’s a 50-star flag, instead of a 48-star flag (pre-Hawaii and Alaska) that would have been the banner at the time—but the moment was appropriate and stirring, nonetheless.
Whatever can be said of Oppenheimer the man, the Manhattan Project remains an immense accomplishment at a time in which our world was so deeply threatened with being plunged into a dark age.
This success would set the stage for many fantastical American achievements over the following 75 years. For a moment at least, our dark age didn’t come.
These triumphs overshadow the chirps of the bitter, small-minded critics who today wish to see the past torn down for their own narcissistic gratification.
Nolan’s movie bucks that trend, and even within the confines of a more nuanced character study, it captures some of the greatness that Americans still long for.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal