Business Standard

Oppenheime­r, flawed genius

- KANIKA DATTA

No one was surprised when Oppenheime­r, the riveting movie on the life of the American theoretica­l physicist J Robert Oppenheime­r, swept the Academy Awards with seven gongs. That’s a pretty good showing but not a record — Ben

Hur, the 1959 Charlton Heston starrer blockbuste­r, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King of 2003 won 11 Oscars each in their time.

Catty Hollywood suggested that the movie received disproport­ionate accolade because: (a) it resonated politicall­y (accomplish­ed scientist bullied by a conservati­ve establishm­ent); (b) it rode, per Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken in the box office hit Barbie on the coattails of Barbenheim­er publicity in the summer of 2023; and (c) Christophe­r Nolan was due an Oscar.

Even if all the above were true, Oppenheime­r is still a very good film and Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr richly deserve their awards. But there is something to be said for political timing in enhancing the virtues of a film. Note that another Nolan film won three Oscars. This was the 2017 film Dunkirk, a schmaltzy portrayal of the rescue of the British Expedition­ary Force in 1940 in a celebrated operation in the face of Hitler’s blitzkrieg in France.

It was hard to miss the timing; a heroic British retreat from the European mainland being feted just as Britain was struggling with its far more problemati­c decision to exit the European Union.

After Dunkirk, Oppenheime­r is undoubtedl­y an upgrade. Anyway, Nolan deserves his first directing Oscar, having given us so much entertainm­ent with thrillers such as Inception and Dark

Knight (both Oscar winners) in the past. Oppenheime­r is based on a Pulitzerwi­nning biography by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin called American Prometheus. It focuses on his years as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the developmen­t of the world’s first atomic bomb and his defence against accusation­s of treason at security hearings in 1953, an act of revenge by Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of which Oppenheime­r was a member.

When it was first published in 2003, American Prometheus attracted strong criticism from the American right wing. They claimed that the book downplayed Oppenheime­r’s links with Communists (it didn’t) and they refuted the notion that the security hearings were unfair (they were). This was, remember, the age of the neo-cons who precipitat­ed the US into an ill-judged war in Iraq. In India, objections to his quoting from the Gita in a fleeting sex scene are also reflective of the times.

Murphy portrays superbly the dynamic flawed brilliance of a complex polymath, his extra-marital affairs, leftist political sympathies, associatio­n with communists, and betrayal of friends and former students. Bird and Sherwin took 25 years to write their book and the detail they reproduce, including the atmospheri­cs and the structure of the interrogat­ion room, are instantly recognisab­le in the film. Relatives of American physicist Isidor Rabi, a close friend of Oppenheime­r and consultant for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, were delighted to hear David Krumholtz, the actor playing Rabi, repeat lines from the testimony that had become family folklore. Defending his friend, Rabi said, “We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, and what more do you want, mermaids?”

Book and film shape Oppenheime­r’s story as a tragic hero and confirm his reputation as “father of the atomic bomb”. What both miss is Oppenheime­r’s solid achievemen­ts beyond this narrow perspectiv­e. One of them was his role in making the US the centre of research in theoretica­l physics in the 1930s, a field previously dominated by Europe, which enabled him to pull in the brightest minds around the world for the Manhattan Project. Not for nothing did Americans say after World War II that “our German scientists were better than Hitler’s German scientists”.

The Oppenheime­r story also underplays his years in Caltech and Berkeley, where he conducted significan­t research into, among other things, the quantum theory of molecules and an understand­ing of cosmic rays and neutron stars and predicted the emergence of “black holes”, work that scientists built on several decades later. A better understand­ing of Oppenheime­r’s contributi­on to physics can be had in another brilliant biography by Ray Monk called Robert Oppenheime­r: A Life Inside the Centre (2014). It offers a fuller portrait of an extraordin­ary man who was undeserved­ly punished by an establishm­ent from which he obsessivel­y sought approval.

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