Movie review: Oppenheimer

posted: October 18, 2023

tl;dr: Being a war hero is a fleeting honor...

I only saw half of this summer’s “Barbenheimer” movie spectacular, as I skipped the Barbie movie and just went to Oppenheimer. The two movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other, other than being Hollywood blockbusters released at the same time. The fact that they were paired together and hyped into the public consciousness demonstrates the power of the marketing profession to influence behavior.

I was already familiar with the story of the first atomic bombs, but I did learn some things from Oppenheimer. Aside from some of the basics, the movie doesn’t explore the depths of the physics behind the bombs, or the multi-site coordination of the Manhattan project. Rather, as the title would suggest, the movie focuses on Oppenheimer himself, the politics of the project and its aftermath, and the impacts of those politics on Oppenheimer and the people close to him.

I do believe, as is presented in the movie, that the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan hastened the end of World War II at a lower overall cost of human lives than an invasion would have incurred. The movie does discuss why there needed to be two bombs: a single bomb might be shrugged off by the Japanese emperor, who might bet that the feat couldn’t be repeated. I use this argument in my The next pandemic post: there will be another lab-leak pandemic, because we are not taking sufficient action after the first one. The movie also discusses why the bombs needed to be dropped on cities: a powerful bomb exploding on a remote mountain top would demonstrate the capabilities of the bomb in a physical sense, but wouldn’t have the same impact as killing large numbers of people, alas. The movie also presents Oppenheimer’s arguments against the even more powerful hydrogen bomb, which have merit. War is an ugly business.

A movie poster containing the title and the stars’ and director’s names, with a monochrome black-and-orange picture of a man in a suit jacket, tie, and hat, shot from the waist up, standing in front of a large metallic, curved container with wires on the exterior, with bits of debris floating in the foreground

But the main focus of Oppenheimer is on the political environment around Oppenheimer and how he is impacted by the politics. Like today, there was a communist element within academia that Oppenheimer interacted with, although he was clearly not committed to the cause. After the war, as the communists gained ground internationally, the politics around Oppenheimer changed, and the hero who hastened the end of the war fell from grace not because of anything significant he did.

I can’t help drawing parallels between Oppenheimer and Dr. Anthony Fauci, and speculating how Fauci is ultimately going to be viewed by history. Oppenheimer led the project that created the most powerful weapon known to man, and hastened the end of a war. Fauci was in a similar role to Oppenheimer as head of the United States’ biodefense programs, and advocated for gain-of-function virus research that had the potential of creating a deadly bioweapon. Then, before such a weapon could be perfected, there was an accident at a Fauci-funded lab in China that also received U.S. technology and training. Far more people are now dead from a pandemic than died in the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The world now may be heading into a world war, caused in part by the hardships of the pandemic, with active conflicts today in both Europe and the Middle East.

Fauci may ultimately be viewed by history as the anti-Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer led a team which successfully developed a weapon of mass destruction that ended a world war. Fauci led a team which had a failure, while developing a weapon of mass destruction, that may end up causing a world war.