The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Film Review:

Jul 23, 2023

The war in Ukraine has brought back threats of nuclear war between NATO and Russia. The film Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, opened this week, telling the story of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. program in World War II to develop the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who led that program.

Nolan runs through Oppenheimer’s life, moving back and forth between his student days, his work as a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the Manhattan project itself, and the McCarthy era of the ‘50s. The social movements of the ‘30s were a big part of campus life—many of Oppenheimer’s close friends, including his brother and later his wife, were active with the Communist Party.

Oppenheimer studied quantum mechanics in Europe as that new type of physics was just taking off. In that work, he got to know many famous physicists. During the ‘30s, with World War II starting, German physicists revealed that it is possible to split the atom to release energy. Many physicists immediately understood the potential to develop powerful new weapons: atomic bombs.

Leslie Groves, a general with the U.S. Army, recruited Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project. Groves, played by Matt Damon, understood that Oppenheimer wanted the prestige, and that he would be able to corral other physicists into the program. Oppenheimer recruited his brother Frank, who was surprised, because he was a Communist Party member. Oppenheimer replied, it shows how much they need him. Frank replied to him, “They need you, until they don’t.”

We are told that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in order to end the war more quickly, and “save lives of American soldiers.” It is soon revealed that the true purpose was to demonstrate the power of the new weapons to Russia. Oppenheimer understood that the weapons would be used against civilians, but that did not stop him.

After the war, coming to terms with the power of the weapons he helped create, Oppenheimer made a turn and opposed development of the even more powerful thermonuclear bomb (also known as the hydrogen bomb). But this was the Cold War—the U.S. military wanted those weapons.

Opponents within the government engineered a hearing on Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, tried to get him to stand up for himself during the hearing—she did so herself, answering a prosecutor’s questions with the contempt they deserve. Oppenheimer refused to follow suit—he clung to the illusion that if he kept his head down, he would be allowed to hold onto his position in the government.

In spite of all of his “services rendered” in developing the bomb, the hearing board revoked his clearance, using his past associations with the Communist Party as a pretext. Oppenheimer was effectively removed from his position of influence.

The film shows the excitement of cutting-edge science. America’s imperialist government gathered together many of the greatest minds of the day and gave them immense resources to work with. Of course, this feat of science and engineering was put in service of killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese, as a means to intimidate the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War. And with the murderous work done, that state had no problem at all with disgracing the scientist who organized the project. The weapons they created are still in the hands of this government—they still threaten all of humanity with destruction.