After the reconstruction of a specific episode of the Second World War, the hasty retreat of British troops from the French coast in 1940, in Dunkirkhis 2017 war blockbuster, Christopher Nolan has returned to confront the history of the twentieth century in its new film: Oppenheimerportrait of the scientist in charge of the Manhattan Project, based on the biography American Prometheus, written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, and starring Irish actor Cillian Murphy in the title role. The narration, in this case, extends to a much wider span of time, which from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s academic training in Cambridge in the 1920s reaches Dwight Eisenhower’s America, with a ‘coda’ in 1963, in occasion of the awarding of the Enrico Fermi prize to Oppenheimer for his contribution to the development of nuclear energy.
But the heart of the story, of course, lies in the period between 1942, the start date of Manhattan Project in the laboratories of Los Alamos, in a desert area of New Mexico, and July 1945, when the Trinity test was carried out, i.e. the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. If the atomic explosion forms the emotional climax of Oppenheimer, as well as a fateful “point of no return” for the story itself, during the three hours of duration of the film ample space is also dedicated to the investigation to which the scientist was subjected in 1954 regarding his positions on the hydrogen bomb and its alleged links with communism. The dramaturgical mechanism of Christopher Nolan’s work hinges on these hearings, recreated starting from the minutes of the authentic interrogations, in which the alternation between past and present helps to innervate the film with an incessant sense of tension.
The narrative complexity and the density of references are therefore distinctive features of Oppenheimer, much more than Dunkirk; therefore, the most suitable condition for fully appreciating Nolan’s film is to have previous knowledge of the key elements of this era and of certain political dynamics, linked in particular to the rise of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Below, we will therefore illustrate some aspects of the historical context of Oppenheimerrelated to a fundamental chapter of the “short century”, to its obsessions and to the ghosts that, since then, have never completely abandoned us…
Rossi in America: Communism in the USA
In 1919, the split of the Socialist Party of America leads to the birth of the CPUSA, or Communist Party of the United States of America. In the wake of the enthusiasm and expectations arising from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, where Vladimir Lenin was applying a new political and economic model, the American Communist Party manages to gather growing acclaim during the 1920s, while acting almost exclusively in clandestinity. In particular, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Communist Party stood out for its campaigns in support of the most disadvantaged sections of the population, the working classes and ethnic minorities.
The ideals of equality and social justice promoted by communism also attract considerable interest in academic circles, and the film in fact shows the proliferation of political activism in university communities: this is the case, for example, of the character of Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh , who will have a romantic relationship with Oppenheimer. On socialism in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century, as well as on the impact of the Russian Revolution on American politics, we refer to another, extraordinary biographical work: Reds, created by Warren Beatty in 1981 and centered on the life of journalist John Reed, among the bearers of communism in the USA.
Oppenheimer, the review: Christopher Nolan and the sumptuous portrait of the father of the atomic bomb
Democracy versus dictatorship: the Spanish Civil War
In Oppenheimer, the characters find themselves talking about the Spanish Civil War: for example Katherine Vissering Puening, who plays Emily Blunt in the film, declares to her future husband Robert that her partner, Joseph Dallet, was killed in Spain while fighting in defense of the Republic. The Spanish Civil War, in fact, is a conflict whose relevance would have gone beyond the borders of the Iberian peninsula; indeed, in some ways it constitutes a sort of miniature prelude to the Second World War. The war began, in July 1936, with the attempted coup d’état carried out by the Nationalist Bando against the leftist government of the Popular Front, which five months earlier had won the elections.
Supporting the nationalists, led by some army leaders including General Francisco Franco, are three European dictatorial regimes: Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Italy and António Salazar’s Portugal. Democratic states, on the other hand, refuse to give military support to the Republic of Spain, which in return will receive the support of the Soviet Union. Soon, the conflict becomes emblematic of the tug of war between democracy and dictatorship: which is why thousands of volunteers from various corners of the world will travel to Spain to enlist in the international brigades, hoping to stem Francisco Franco’s Falange. Hope that would be shattered in March 1939, when the republican forces were finally routed: thus began the Nuevo Estado, i.e. the thirty-six years of Franco’s regime.
The Cold War and the arms race
While the Manhattan Project is moving towards its expected goal, there is talk of the fact that in Potsdam, the site of a conference between Allied leaders, the American President Harry Truman limited himself to informing Joseph Stalin of the existence of a new weapon available of the United States, without providing further details: proof of the fact that the alliance between the two countries is beginning to creak, while on the horizon the emergence of the Cold War. Ascended to the presidency in April 1945 following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and re-elected for a second term in 1948, Harry Truman allegedly made the tragic decision to drop the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan into a quick surrender ; shortly thereafter, US scientific investments will converge on the development of an even more powerful device, the H bomb.
The negative opinions of J. Robert Oppenheimer regarding the hydrogen bomb they assume a fundamental importance in the film: in fact the protagonist, celebrated as a genius for the creation of the atomic bomb, falls into disgrace with the government entourage, who will end up considering him an opponent to be overthrown. In fact, a large part of the film takes place in the first decade of the Cold War, that is to say in the midst of the arms race by the two super-powers, united by the ambition to establish supremacy also with regard to military technology. Hence the policy of the so-called “balance of terror”, linked to the specter of a nuclear war capable of devastating the planet as never before in the history of human civilization.
McCarthyism and the Hollywood Black Book: A Story of a Witch Hunt
The “witch hunt” in McCarthy America
And the sad chapter of the McCarthyism in the United States: the climate of anti-communist paranoia that would reach its peak in the first half of the 1950s, through the investigations carried out by the investigative committee chaired by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades, riding the rhetoric of red scare (the “fear of the reds”) and the clamor aroused by the trial against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (sentenced to death for spying for the USSR), lead to the drafting of real black lists, which will mark professional ruin – and not alone – of thousands of people accused of sympathizing with the ideals of socialism and communism.
It is in this “witch hunt” atmosphere that in 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer was put under pressure by the Atomic Energy Commission, after a defamatory letter sent a few months earlier to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, by the scientist William Borden. Oppenheimer, who had antagonized Senator Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr), is therefore accused of having taken part, about twenty years earlier, in activities and meetings of the Communist Party, thus transforming the man’s past into an instrument to question his loyalty to his own country.