‘Oppenheimer’ Is Not A Win For Conservatives


Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” swept The Oscars on Sunday night with a total of seven awards, including Best Picture. It’s tempting to count this as a victory for conservatives in the culture war — that the Academy, responding to viewer pressure, recognized a film on American achievement over its own racialist and feminist sensibilities reflected in films like “Barbie” or “Killers of the Flower Moon.” However, to do so reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the film. The best Nolan can muster is a deep ambivalence toward America’s role in the world, resulting in a more insidious anti-Americanism than Hollywood’s usual ham-handed propaganda — but one that is in complete lockstep with the progressive worldview.

The win was expectedly unexpected. When it was first released, leftist critics whined about the film’s “lack of representation.” Centered on the history of the Manhattan Project, complaints over the film’s lack of diversity are as shallow as they are absurd. But in a time when activist tantrums have secured diverse casting everywhere from the Ancient Greeks to European nobility, this is more than enough to get an eight-figure project derailed. Given the Oscars’ overt racial quotas, “Oppenheimer” had to rely on Universal’s behind-the-scenes diversity push to even be nominated at all. Yet of the ten best picture nominees, the film was one of the only ones to stand out as traditional Oscar bait: a sweeping epic built on the great man theory of history, masterfully crafted by a veteran director with stellar performances and an almost $1 billion box office haul. In a world free from identity politics, Oppenheimer was the only real choice.

However, if the leftist activists could look past their myopic virtue signaling, they would see the film conforms much closer to their views of science, history, and even America itself than it does the worldview of its conservative defenders. “Oppenheimer” is not a celebration of American might, victory, ingenuity, or exceptionalism, but views all of these claims through a highly critical lens. It is less focused on how we built the bomb than the moral question of should we have?

Oppenheimer is portrayed as a complex figure, one who straddled the line between what’s morally right and his commitment to his country. There’s nothing wrong with this framing per se, except that “what’s right” is conveyed as an imagined communist-humanist sensibility — in short, communist propaganda. Oppenheimer wasn’t a communist, Nolan assures us; also, it’s good that he was.

We first meet Oppy as an idealistic young physicist teaching at Berkeley, a man of science for its own sake. A theoretician, his dreams of splitting the atom stem from the spirit of discovery and progress toward human flourishing, not solidifying American military dominance. His first emotion is fear when news breaks of the bomb’s potential. This, Nolan, would have us believe is the communist sensibility. While not himself a party member, everyone around him— his brother, lovers, students and subordinates — all appear to be, and Oppy himself is sympathetic to them. He is well-versed in communist literature and brings his ideology into the classroom, supports his students as they attempt to unionize, and even covers for Soviet spies. They’re artists, intellectuals, free-spirits; those in the government or academia who resist are rigid and conformist, either obtuse or cruel. Oppenheimer only suppresses his sympathies knowing that he won’t be allowed to lead the project if his radicalism continues; he decides to cosplay patriotism to further his own professional self-interest and hubris.

Yet Nolan would have us believe that this is in fact true patriotism — not concern for the American interest, but a higher, humanistic concern for world peace and personal flourishing (which for non-Marxists goes well past the point of naivete). The Soviets apparently understood this type of patriotism. As the war winds down, Nolan portrays the Soviets as the reactionary party. They, like Oppy himself, viewed science as a noble pursuit, and their push toward the arms race was only out of fear of American aggression; left alone, they would presumably use nuclear fission for good— i.e. human progress. Meanwhile, the American government, embodied by Oppenheimer’s bureaucratic antagonist Lewis Strauss, was portrayed as power-hungry opportunists. Nolan hints that the U.S. bombed Japan unnecessarily, knowing the war was already won. In another scene, Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein wax poetic over whether it would have been any worse for the world if Nazi Germany had developed the bomb first; they’re not so sure.

Once in charge, Oppenheimer sees it as his duty to check these impulses in accordance with his own noble aims; the communists are the most patriotic Americans around. After the war, he leverages his fame as a national hero to advocate against nuclear proliferation, again being portrayed atop the moral high ground. For this, he finds himself back in the crosshairs of a vengeful U.S. government. The nuclear debate is framed definitively as a matter of hindsight. Nuclear weapons are bad; the world would be a better place without them. Liberal political scientists have spent decades expounding this narrative, but it remains just that. In all likelihood, without nuclear deterrence, the Cold War would have turned hot. Only naive Marxists could believe the Soviets had no interest in domination.

After vicious Senate hearings meant to smear him, the film ends decisively, placing Oppenheimer in a sympathetic light: he was not a communist and was unjustly persecuted by petty and vindictive government figures. But at the same time, it’s really his communist sensibilities that made him sympathetic at all.  Throughout we remain trapped in a progressive worldview, where the ark of history swings toward human flourishing, peace and technological progress — the “right side of history” against which only traditional Americanism stands athwart.

Obviously, such moral complexity is verboten for a left that refuses to equivocate on the evils of U.S. imperialism. Nolan, however, is far friendlier to this view than he is to a conservative vision of Oppenheimer as a national hero. In effect, Nolan tries to split the baby: in the traditional sense, Oppy’s a patriot because he delivered a U.S. victory, but he’s also patriotic in the radical sense because he knew it was wrong all along. He’s portrayed as a great man, but only because he knows he’s not a great man. There’s something for both right and left to find in the film.

However, even on his own terms, Nolan shows that Oppenheimer’s “complexity” is not all that complex. He gives up his youthful radicalism the moment he’s faced with real consequences. His department head at Berkeley tells him to cut the nonsense, or he won’t be selected to lead the Manhattan Project with all the clout, status, and historical significance that entails. Like a college radical paying taxes for the first time, he quickly gives up his foolish “principles” and decides to play the game. Now, one could say his complexity stems from multiple motivations; he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself — the scientific process, the future of the country — a complementary mix of self-interest and selfless enlightenment.

But to be a true radical means an uncompromising rigidity. You can’t be an enlightened humanist and viciously self-interested — even if the latter is only part of your motivations — when you believe the former conflicts irreconcilably with your specific interest in the latter. He aided American imperialism; on his own terms, that’s all that really matters.

So Nolan, in his naive praise, inadvertently reveals the true nature of the communist sensibility. In the world of Marxist theory and activism, you rarely see the uncompromising man of principle, the man who will destroy himself entirely in the service of an ideal. Him you can almost respect. It’s the Oppenheimers of the world who are far more common, the true communists — the radical opportunist, the romantic revolutionary, the categorically weak man willing to entertain wild notions of truth and justice until it affects him personally. He not only betrays everything you believe in — he betrays everything he believes in as well.