The new blockbuster “Oppenheimer” is epic and majestic and aesthetically brilliant and has a who’s-who cast of actors who took any part they could to be part of its legacy. It tells the story of the life of brilliant scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Los Alamos, New Mexico-based Manhattan Project, which led to the building of the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and ended World War II.
This film’s historical context is a moment from which humanity will never return, perhaps the most momentous moment it will ever experience, which showed us what the end of the world and human existence as a whole might look like. However, director Chris Nolan purposely shows it from a myopic perspective, namely that of the protagonist, Oppenheimer. While the focus is principally on Oppenheimer, the internal, psychological, and moral struggle of the team of physicists who created the bomb, knowing what it could and would be used for is the undercurrent of the film, which stays with the viewer until the end, all culminating in the detached and almost anticlimactic denouement, when Oppenheimer finds out while listening to the radio that Hiroshima had been bombed, but there is nothing showing the moment itself or its aftermath and seventy thousand people being instantaneously annihilated.
First, Oppenheimer is a hero, and then he is quickly vilified, and eventually has his security clearance, and hence his ability to advance his research, stripped away during the Second Red Scare. Jewish and the son of immigrants, there are several references to his faith and that of his fellow Jewish scientists, including the man who preceded him and has a powerful symbolic role in the film, Albert Einstein, but the essential role of immigrants is underplayed, and this is how US films usually depict immigrants, even those who change the world, like the foreign scientists who launched the US to the global forefront of technology: It nullifies their immigrant origins, it white-washes their immigrant work ethic and their foreign education and turns them into a disposable cog in the machine. In this case, the brains which propelled the Manhattan Project were made up, in large part, of foreign-born scientists, including refugees, from many different countries. Of the 17 Nobel laureates that worked on the project, more than half were foreign-born.
The film, directed by a highly revered American white director, seems to depict the group as almost homogeneous, under-emphasizing its diversity in order to focus on the hero/anti-hero Oppenheimer. Since I watch films from an immigrant’s perspective, I cannot help but be proud of all the “unsung heroes”, i.e. the foreign nationals, who gave up their lives for a greater scientific purpose. In today’s 2023 version of the U.S., more than half of the biggest and best U.S. companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Perhaps the most ubiquitous and impactful of all the big company founders is Elon Musk, who is from…South Africa. As “Oppenheimer” shows, without intending to, the U.S. government has always been OK with opening its doors to outsiders, as long as they add value, but is happy to spit them back out or limit their ability to contribute (see my article on eliminating the H-1B visa cap), while glorifying those who are on the “inside” like the protagonist of the film. In this way, art does mirror reality in so much as it tends to minimize the immigrant’s importance in making this country what it is and acknowledging how crucial immigrants have been and continue to be America’s greatest asset.