At the theater where I saw Oppenheimer on opening night, there was a handmade photo booth featuring a pink backdrop, “Barbenheimer” in black letters, and a “bomb” made of an exercise ball wrapped in hoses. I want to tell you that I flinched, but I laughed and snapped a photo. It took a beat before I became horrified—by myself and the prop. Today is the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, which killed up to 70,000 people and came only three days after the bombing of Hiroshima that killed as many as 140,000 people. Yet still we make jokes of these weapons of genocide.
Oppenheimer does not make a joke of nuclear weapons, but by erasing the specific victims of the bombings, it repeats a sanitized treatment of the bomb that enables a lighthearted attitude and limits the power of the film’s message. I know this sanitized version intimately, because my grandfather spent his career building nuclear weapons in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the site of uranium enrichment for the Hiroshima bomb. My grandfather died before I was born, and though there were photographs of mushroom clouds from nuclear tests hanging on my grandmother’s walls, we never discussed Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or the fact that Oak Ridge, still an active nuclear weapons production site, is also a 35,000-acre Superfund site. At the Catholic church in town, a pious Mary stands atop an orb bearing the overlapping ovals symbolizing the atom, and until it closed a few years ago, a local restaurant displayed a sign with a mushroom cloud bursting out of a mug of beer.
Oppenheimer does not show a single image of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Instead, it recreates the horror through Oppenheimer’s imagination, when, during a congratulatory speech to the scientists of Los Alamos after the bombing of Hiroshima, the sound of the hysterically cheering crowd goes silent, the room flashes bright, and tatters of skin peel from the face of a white woman in the audience. The scene is powerful and unsettling, and, arguably, avoids sensationalizing the atrocity by not depicting the victims outright. But it also plays into a problematic pattern of whitewashing both the history and threat of nuclear war by appropriating the trauma of the Japanese victims to incite fear about possible future violence upon white bodies. An example of this pattern is a 1948 cover of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which featured a white couple fleeing a city beneath a glowing orange sky, even though the book itself brought the visceral human suffering to American readers through the eyes of six actual survivors of the bombing.
The Oppenheimer film also neglects the impacts of fallout from nuclear testing, including from the Trinity test depicted in the film; the harm to the health of blue-collar production workers exposed to toxic and radiological materials; and the contamination of Oak Ridge and other production sites. Instead, the impressive pyrotechnics of the Trinity test, images of missile trails descending through clouds toward a doomed planet, and Earth-consuming fireballs interspersed with digital renderings of a quantum universe of swirling stars and atoms, elevate the bomb to the realm of the sublime—terrible, yes, but also awesome.
A compartmentalized project. The origins of this treatment can be traced to the Manhattan Project, when scientists called the bomb by the euphemistic code word “gadget” and the security policy known as compartmentalization limited workers’ knowledge of the project to the minimum necessary to complete their tasks. This policy helped to dilute responsibility and quash moral debates and dissent. Throughout the film, we see Oppenheimer move from resisting compartmentalization to accepting it. When asked by another scientist about his stance on a petition against dropping the bomb on Japan, he responds that the builders of the bomb do not have “any more right or responsibility” than anyone else to determine how it will be used, despite the fact that the scientists were among the few who even knew of its existence.
Due to compartmentalization, the vast majority of the approximately half-million Manhattan Project workers, like my grandfather, could not have signed the petition because they did not know what they were building until Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima. Afterward, press restrictions limited coverage of the humanitarian impacts, giving the false impression that the bombings had targeted major military and industrial sites—and eliding the vast civilian toll and the novel horrors of radiation. Photographs and films of the aftermath, shot by Japanese journalists and American military, were classified and suppressed in the United States and occupied Japan.
The limit of theory. Not only is it dishonest and harmful to erase the suffering of the real victims of the bomb, but doing so moves the bomb into the realm of the theoretical and abstract. One recurring theme of the film is the limit of theory. Oppenheimer was a brilliant theorist but a haphazard experimentalist. A close friend and fellow scientist questions whether he’ll be able to pull off this massive, high-stakes project of applied theory. Just before the detonation of the Trinity test bomb, General Leslie Groves, the military head of the project, asks Oppenheimer about a joking bet overheard among the scientists regarding the possibility that the explosion would ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world. Oppenheimer assures Groves that they have done the math and the possibility is “near zero.” “Near zero?” Groves asks, alarmed. “What do you want from theory alone?” responds Oppenheimer.
Can the theoretical motivate humanity to action?
One telling scene shows Oppenheimer at a lecture on the impacts of the bomb. We hear the speaker describe how dark stripes on victims’ clothing were burned onto their skin, but the camera remains on Oppenheimer’s face. He looks at the screen, gaunt and glassy-eyed, for a few moments, before turning away. Americans are still looking away. As a country, we’ve succumbed to “psychic numbing,” as Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell call it in their book Hiroshima in America, which leads to general apathy about nuclear weapons—and pink mushroom clouds and bomb props for selfies.
On this anniversary of Nagasaki, the world stands on a precipice, closer than ever to nuclear midnight. The nine nuclear-armed states collectively possess more than 12,500 warheads; the more than 9,500 nuclear weapons available for use in military stockpiles have the combined power of more than 135,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
If Oppenheimer motivates conversation, activism, and policy shifts in support of nuclear abolition, that’s a good thing. But by relegating the bomb to abstracted images removed from actual humanitarian consequences, the film leaves the weapon in the realm of the theoretical. And as Oppenheimer says in the film, “theory will only take you so far.” Today, it’s vital that we understand the devastating impacts that nuclear weapons have had and continue to have on real victims of their production, testing, and wartime use. Our survival may depend on it.
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