The Legacy of Oppenheimer You Won’t See in Theaters July 21, 2023
Warning: This post contains light spoilers for the film Oppenheimer.
On Friday, July 21st, Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster about the dawn of the nuclear age, finally hit theaters in the U.S. The film is based on American Prometheus, the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer who is considered the “father of the atomic bomb.” While the audience will bear witness to the moral dilemmas Oppenheimer battled in relation to the novel technology that he helped build and how it could be used to carry out mass genocide across the world — what they won’t see are the countless communities that have been harmed by the legacy of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.
There was frivolous mention of the Indigenous tribes whose land was colonized by the U.S. government and then turned into the Los Alamos National Laboratory where Oppenheimer led the development of the world’s first atomic bombs. However, there was no inclusion of the Navajo miners mining uranium in New Mexico without proper protective gear or the knowledge of what they were mining and the dangers of being exposed to so much radiation.
The only nuclear explosion featured in the film is that of the Trinity Test, the first ever nuclear detonation. In the film, Oppenheimer notes that the Alamogordo site was chosen for the test due to its alleged “remote” location. But we know that almost 500,000 people lived within 150 miles of the test site, that the fallout from the test spread as far as Indiana, and that hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of unwitting Americans were exposed to significant amounts of radiation as a result. The government knew this at the time. They knew about the health concerns of radiation exposure, and yet did not evacuate nearby communities in New Mexico or warn them of the tests, nor did they bother to monitor people’s health in the aftermath.
Perhaps the most egregious omission from the film was that of the Japanese killed and harmed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also a prominent aspect of the film. We see clips of workers at Los Alamos realizing what exactly it was they were working on when President Truman went on radio to announce the U.S. had dropped a new, immensely destructive bomb over Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. We see Oppenheimer being celebrated by his colleagues for his leadership on the project that allowed the U.S. to enact such violence. We see the beginning of Oppenheimer’s moral dilemmas as he hallucinates his colleagues experiencing radiation sickness and other gruesome health effects that the Japanese actually endured as the real victims of the only atomic bombs used in war. But no inclusion of the actual suffering the Japanese were subjected to in the seconds, hours, days and weeks after the bombings.
Including facets of these stories into the film would have strengthened Nolan’s telling of Oppenheimer’s moral dilemmas. As a man who cared deeply about social causes but could not deal with the consequences of his own actions, juxtaposing Oppenheimer with the victims of the project he led and the weapon he built could create a stronger emotional impact for viewers who aren’t normally educated about the countless communities being harmed by the mere existence of nuclear weapons, let alone their production and testing.
An extremely important takeaway from the film is how Oppenheimer was persecuted, publicly humiliated, and discarded by the U.S. government. If the “father of the atomic bomb,” someone who was so instrumental in helping the U.S. to become a global superpower at the end of World War II, could be treated in such an awful manner, it begs the question: what is the U.S. government willing to do to us regular citizens? That can be answered by the thousands of “Downwinders” — people potentially exposed to radiation as a result of nuclear testing in the U.S. — or the Navajo Nation, or the Marshallese, or workers at the Hanford site, or citizens of St. Louis, or victims of secret human plutonium-injection experiments that were authorized by Oppenheimer himself, and many more communities that have been exposed to radiation as a result of government abuse, neglect, and poor safety practices. What “security” are these weapons providing us if our own government is killing us in order to obtain and maintain them? What else will our government do for the sake of “full spectrum dominance” if we don’t rise up and force them to prioritize our safety over profit and power?
Nolan’s intentions with Oppenheimer include the need to “reiterate the unique and extraordinary danger of nuclear weapons. That’s something we should all be thinking about all the time and care about very, very deeply.” If you plan to watch the film, PSR staff recommend spending as much time researching the victims of nuclear weapons as you spend in the theater. It is our duty to educate ourselves of the horrors of these weapons, how their destruction does not discriminate, how these weapons continue to perpetuate lasting harm — and then take action to help us build a safer, more equitable and sustainable world for us — free of nuclear weapons.
Help spread the word about Oppenheimer’s legacy and the dangers of nuclear weapons using our Oppenheimer social media toolkit.
Right now, Downwinders, uranium workers, atomic veterans, and others are fighting for justice through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) Amendments. RECA currently provides a small amount of compensation to some Downwinders and uranium miners. This program is vital to assisting impacted communities, but it has major flaws. Many highly exposed communities do not have access to this program, nor does RECA provide medical benefits or adequate compensation to cover medical care. RECA is set to expire in June 2024 — we can’t let that happen. Contact your members of Congress today and demand that they cosponsor H.R. 4426 or S. 1751, which would extend and expand RECA to provide better compensation and allow more communities highly exposed to radiation to access said benefits.
While you’re at it, urge your Members of Congress to cosponsor H.Res.77, a bill that calls on the U.S. government to take common sense steps toward total worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons, including all five of the policy recommendations advocated by the Back from the Brink coalition (PSR is a Coalition Partner). Oppenheimer struggled with the mass destruction and death of the weapons built in 1945, but there are nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal that are 80 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. We must get rid of these weapons before it’s too late.
If you want to learn more about the ways that nuclear weapons continue to cause lasting damage around the world, register for PSR’s upcoming webinar “Invisible Devastation: The Global Legacy of Uranium on Marginalized Communities” on Wednesday, August 23rd 1-2:30 PM ET / 10-11:30 AM PT. We will have experts and impacted individuals discuss neocolonialism, narrative setting, and racial inequity in the nuclear enterprise.
PSR members in these chapters have found ways to get PSR’s nuclear weapons abolition message to theatre-goers: Washington state, Greater Boston, Kansas City, Maine, Chesapeake, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay and Arizona. Whether or not you see Oppenheimer, take a moment to spread the word about the dangers of nuclear weapons and urge your Members of Congress to take action to protect us all from further harm. If there is one takeaway from this film, from this moment, it’s that it’s going to take all of us to achieve total elimination of nuclear weapons.