So You’ve Seen Oppenheimer 

21 September 2023, 1319 EDT

Oppenheimer is the first blockbuster about nuclear weapons in a generation. Framing his film’s namesake with kinetic edits, fractured timelines, quantum imagery, and a pulsing score, director Christopher Nolan has crafted a stylistic triumph. But does Oppenheimer accurately depict its subject? And what is an “accurate” representation of the atomic bomb?

Reactions from specialists have filtered in over the month since its release, and they are cautiously positiveProminent nuclear researchers have praised Oppenheimer’s cinematic virtuosity and historical veracity. The film draws heavily from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography, American Prometheus. Despite altering many details, Nolan’s fidelity to the historical record is rare amidst Hollywood’s usual historical carelessness.

Spoilers Below

Perhaps because of its profile and realism, Oppenheimer has spurred a broader, critical discussion about the popular depiction of nuclear weapons. Does Oppenheimer warn of their dangers, or diminish them? Some critics argue Nolan’s virtually first-person portrayal of “Oppie” and slick production curiously sanitizes the film’s deadly subject matter. Joining media outlets such as JacobinSlate, and Vox, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has run a series of articles critical of both the man and the film. French nuclear experts Benoît Pelopidas and Sébastien Philippe argue Nolan reproduces Oppenheimer’s self-cultivated image of scientist-martyr, and its technically detailed, even beautiful production “minimizes the danger of nuclear weapons.” As they and others note, the film doesn’t directly depict nuclear violence, relying instead on Oppenheimer’s imaginations and reactions to suggest its horrors. On the Arms Control Wonk podcast, Kelsey Atherton summarizes: the film seems “more concerned about what happened to Oppenheimer’s [security] clearance and reputation” than “about what happens when an atom bomb falls on human beings.”

the Manhattan Project itself… connected to an international network of scientists, miners, traders, and spies.

These arguments point toward debates in the psychology of violence — whether showing or merely suggesting violence is more powerful, for example. Beyond film criticism, they also reflect a turn in nuclear research and advocacy away from “Great Man” histories toward peoples and places in the nuclear complex who are left out of its narrative — the atomic subaltern, if you will. As the founding American myth of the nuclear age, the Manhattan Project lies at the core of this turn. Hewing close to its source material, Oppenheimer mostly recapitulates the standard Manhattan story, disappointing those seeking a revisionist take. But the film’s usefulness may lie elsewhere. In powerfully interpreting J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story, Oppenheimer may renew interest and curiosity in nuclear politics — what’s both on screen and off — at a time when the world, entering a new and precarious atomic age, needs it most.

Recasting the Core

Even if you haven’t seen Oppenheimer, this story will ring familiar: Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer, and a coterie of European refugee scientists collaborate to beat Nazi Germany to the bomb. Germany surrenders, but the Pacific War still rages on, so the Los Alamos scientists forge ahead and test Trinity, the first atomic bomb, in the New Mexico desert. (Oppenheimer quotes the Bhagavad Gita: “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”) Truman orders two more atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders, ending World War 2 and sparing the United States, its allies, and the Japanese people a costly invasion of Japan’s home islands. 

Each element of this story is now qualified, questioned, or even rejected — from the Hindu quote (likely post-hoc) to Truman’s decision (there never was one) to Japan’s surrender (it’s debated). But the story’s biggest omission may be the global character of the Manhattan Project itself, which spanned hundreds of sites across the United States and Canada connected to an international network of scientists, miners, traders, and spies. It’s these sites and their landscapes that critical accounts increasingly emphasize, shifting our focus from the metropole’s lead players to its forgotten participants and peripheries — including its earliestAmerican victims

When existing stocks were not enough, US Army Engineers went to Congo and reopened the since-flooded mine

Los Alamos, “Project Y,” involved hundreds of scientists and reached a wartime population of almost 7,000. The Manhattan Engineering District (the project’s official name) had two other sites that dwarfed Los Alamos in scale. Oak Ridge, Tennessee (“Site X”) grew to a wartime population of more than 77,000 residents, and now houses a collection of scientific and military institutes left over from those efforts. Project workers on “Site W” in Hanford, Washington built the world’s first nuclear reactor and what was once its largest building. Reflecting America’s wartime industrial capacity, these sites made the Manhattan Project possible where the Third Reich’s lack of resources and coordination stymied its efforts. Since 2015, all three sites comprise the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Workers at these sites cut across American society. Los Alamos had hundreds of women scientists, and many more women — scientists, administrators, and support staff — at other sites in the project. (The current season of podcast The Lost Women of Science highlights their stories.) The “Calutron Girls” were tasked with separating uranium-235 (fissile) from the more common uranium-238 (fissionable but not fissile) at Oak Ridge’s immense Y-12 facilityAfrican Americans and Hispanics, including Hispanos, worked at all levels of the Manhattan Project, building and maintaining its sites but also engaging in the research and design that led to the bomb. Native Americans, often excluded from ancestral lands the Project’s sites took up, also participated.

To build the Project sites, Leslie Groves used eminent domain to buy out and remove existing residents. In Los Alamos’ case, these were two-dozen predominantly Hispano and Native American ranchers and homesteaders. Their evictions get only passing mention in Bird & Sherwin’s corpulent biography. Trinity further exposed some 13,000 New Mexico residents to radiation doses 10,000 times above allowed levels. (According to a new study, the Trinity test spread radiation across North America, far expanding its presumed radioactive reach.) The project’s leaders knew about Trinity’s radiation risk, but as recently declassified documents show, Groves and Oppenheimer underappreciated, misunderstood, and even downplayed its effects. Groves proceeded with the test without evacuating the area or warning its residents, citing secrecy concerns

Global Manhattan

To make an atomic bomb, you need more than scientists and eminent domain — you need uranium. Some of the Project’s uranium came from the Eldorado mine on the shores of Great Bear Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where miners included the indigenous Dene. Some of it came from the Colorado Plateau, where the Navajo Nation supplied many miners, and later suffered mass radiation poisoning in the postwar uranium boom. But most of the Project’s uranium came from a more distant source: the Shinkolobwe mine in the Katanga province of the Belgian Congo. (In the 1960s, Katanga declared independence from Belgium; UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld was flying to talks with the Katanga leadership when his plane crashed). 

The Shinkolobwe mine is perhaps the most forgotten part of the Manhattan story. A Belgian mining company, Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, established the mine in 1925 to extract its radium, a decay product of uranium and then in high demand. Shinkolobwe uranium ore remains the purest ever found, and became sought after in the race to build the bomb. Through a British stake in Union Minière, Groves made a deal with the Belgian government (then in exile) for all the Shinkolobwe uranium he could get. A thousand tons were already stored in a Staten Island vegetable oil plant — Union Minière director Edgar Sangiere shipped it there to prevent its possession by the Nazis. When existing stocks were not enough, US Army Engineers went to Congo and reopened the since-flooded mine. 

Owing to scant records, we do not know much about the presumably bad conditions at Shinkolobwe. But Congolese miners provided thousands of tonnes of uranium — about two-thirds of the total used in the Project. The operation to bring the ore back to the United States was arduous; some of the shipments were sunk by u-boats and the OSS sent spies to Congo to keep the uranium in Allied hands.

During the war, Groves proposed that the United States gain control of the world’s uranium reserves and exclude access to others. In the ensuing Cold War, the CIA covertly intervened in the Congo to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining access to its resources, including Shinkolobwe’s uranium. Now officially closed, the mine is still rich enough in minerals to attract thousands of black market miners. As the author of Uranium Tom Zoellner puts it, Shinkolobwe is “just as important a monument to the nuclear age as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” In a certain sense, the atomic age begins and continues with Congo’s uranium miners.

It Take an Empire

It is difficult to understand the moral economy of World War 2, which killed on average 27,000 people each day for six years. The scale of its destruction was and is unprecedented. This ferocity perhaps explains why Manhattan organizers did not bat an eye at eminent domain evictions, and brushed past possible radiation contamination, for a project that might shorten the ongoing destruction of millions of lives. And they were, after all, building a weapon of mass destruction.

The Manhattan Project’s atomic geographies laid a pattern soon repeated in peacetime, and across the world, however. As the great powers established nuclear weapons programs, they tested their new weapons well away from imperial metropoles, concealing their radiation effects on distant and often ignored locals. The United States’ postwar tests took place in two well-known places: the Nevada Test Site and the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands. (The former led to the “downwinders,” discussed below, while the latter led to the infamous Bikini Atoll incident.) U.S. allies also sought distant places for their tests: the United Kingdom in Nevada and several sites in Australia and the Pacific Ocean; France in Algeria and French Polynesia. These tests radiated areas and populations across locations.

The Soviet Union’s most famous test, the Tsar Bomba, took place in the Arctic Ocean’s Novaya Zemlyaarchipelago. But the Soviets conducted most of their tests near the northeast Kazakh town of Semipalatinsk in an area called “the Polygon.” (The documentaries Silent Bombs: All for the Motherland and The Polygon chronicle its destructive impact on locals. The Polygon is now sometimes open to visitors.) China’s test site is Lop Nur, in Xinjiang; it too has a murky history of  fallout contamination. India’s Pokhran testing site is in the Thar desert, and Pakistan’s lies in Balochistan province’s arid Ras Koh Hills, part of the Sulaiman mountains of the Hindu Kush. Both areas report radiation sickness among nearby populations. 

There’s a common theme here. When governments used hinterlands for nuclear tests, they underestimated the radiation effects, underprepared (or simply did not prepare) potentially affected populations, and shrouded the fallout, literal and otherwise, in secrecy — preventing the victims from seeking redress. Although a series of ban treaties and informal moratoria have halted atomic testing, the effects of their radiation linger for decades.

In international relations theory jargon, Oppenheimer is a “first image” account.

This is true today of even the very first (and Oppenheimer’s only) atomic explosion, the Trinity test. Those who suffered from radiation poisoning from Trinity and subsequent U.S. nuclear tests self-organized as “downwinders.” Long ignored by authorities, the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) awarded one-time compensation to New Mexico workers and residents exposed to radiation who qualified under its guidelines. By 2022 RECA had paid $2.5 billion to about 39,000 individuals. But Trinity’s downwinders didn’t qualify, even after the U.S. Congress expanded RECA’s coverage in 2000. The U.S. Senate amended RECA to include Trinity test downwinders only last month. The amendment must now pass the U.S. House of Representatives before heading to the White House. There are no living Trinity witnesses, but its downwinders live on, 80 years later.

Man, the State, and Nuclear War

All films about real events omit by design. As astrophysicist Robert J. Golston writesOppenheimer “is a biopic, not a broad perspective on the technical, strategic, and moral issues Oppenheimer and other scientists in the Manhattan Project confronted for the first time in human history.” The focus of the film is Oppenheimer’s security hearing; the film reflexively suggests it is a second hearing, this time public. Like Nolan’s previous war film, DunkirkOppenheimer tells its story almost exclusively through its protagonist’s immediate experience. (Nolan has defended this approach, including the absence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in interviews.)

To be sure, particular figures and images represent the more general: Isidor Rabi (played by David Krumholtz) stands in for the scientists who refused to participate in the Manhattan Project, such as Joseph RotblattLili Hornig (played by Olivia Thirlby) stands in for Floy-Agnes Lee and the other women scientists at Los Alamos. Two glass jars, slowly filled with marbles, represent the Hanford and Oak Ridge sites. But we do not see the Downwinders or Congolese Miners — nor the German atomic project or Pacific Theatre destruction — and neither did Oppenheimer. 

In international relations theory jargon, Oppenheimer is a “first image” account. It abstracts from broader structures to give a focused picture of an individual’s experience, in this instance an undeniably important individual. It does not give, by design, a complete picture. In doing so, it may give undue priority to the experience of an individual, or a particular interpretation of it. Much that Oppenheimer did experience at Los Alamos — the important British contribution, the Plutonium crisis, and other technical challenges — is mostly left out, for example. And as Justin Chang notes, Oppenheimer did see images of the destruction in Japan; Nolan chose to show us only his reaction. But focusing on structure, as social scientists are often inclined, can do the same in reverse, abstracting from individual agency, creativity, narrative, and moral choice. 

Given Nolan’s opportunity to depict the birth of nuclear weapons in fuller sweep, many are understandably disappointed by the squandered chance. A blockbuster biopic that warns about the dangers of nuclear war does not come along often, at least not with Oppenheimer’s timing. The nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals while the last major Russia-U.S. arms control treaty has fallen apart. Rising energy costs and decarbonization have put nuclear power — both fission and fusion — back on the menu, posing potential proliferation risks. Great power competition is back just as the world enters a new atomic age. 

Yet public concern about nuclear war, which must now compete with a herbarium of existential risks, seems to be at odds with this picture. (Nolan’s son reportedly told him that nuclear war is “just not something anybody worries about anymore.”) In these circumstances, a question to ask about Oppenheimer is not whether it is realistic, but whether it is useful, and what for. We await a truly comprehensive treatment of the global Manhattan Project, in print or on the screen, sensitive to both individuals’ stories and the institutions around them. But in the meantime, Oppenheimer’s usefulness may lie in renewing viewers’ interest in nuclear technology — and directing the curious toward the debates and resources that showcase what the motion picture leaves out.