Online critics have claimed that the film is too white
It is an ironclad rule of the social network formerly known as Twitter that all things must generate discourse. It matters little how far-fetched it is, or how wrong-headed: Elon Musk’s Community Notes might work for containment but not for deterrence, and will only take you so far. Occasionally something comes along, a once-in-a-generation event, that fuses together a number of these “discourses” in just the right proportions. Tweets go viral, threads ensue, takes burn so hot that they erupt in a pillar of fire.
We were graced with such an event last Friday, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Its concomitant discourse has everything you could ever ask for: World War Two, “are Jews white?”, the “tortured genius”, the omission of various ethnic-minority “voices”. And that’s before we even arrive at the greatest discourse of all, now quite retro: “the Bomb”.
Some of the reaction has been harmlessly silly, such as Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, complaining that the film failed to “inspire a generation of kids to be physicists”. But some of it is more troubling, throwing into the air certain ideas which ought to be roundly rebuked.
Chief among them is the increasingly widespread insistence on viewing the Second World War through the lens of contemporary American race politics. It is, for example, more than just an “artefact” of the American anti-Japanese racism of that era — of which, to be sure, there was a great deal — that one might “insist that the Japanese were all mindless automaton samurai who would’ve fought to the last baby holding a sharpened stick if invaded”. The experience of Okinawa in 1945 made clear that many Japanese soldiers and civilians would have fought, or would have been forced to fight, to the bitter end. Many chose suicide over surrender.
Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth remembering, some army diehards attempted a coup d’état to keep on fighting, committing ritual suicide when they failed. Whether all this could have justified President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop Little Boy and Fat Man is a separate question, but one which can only seriously be considered on accepting the (in fact anti-racist) premise that not all cultures, throughout history, are identical.
It is similarly disquieting to see complaints about Oppenheimer being “yet another movie about tortured white male genius”. Oppenheimer’s “whiteness” did little to save his people in Europe from destruction. Nolan handles this deftly in the film, exploring how the physicist’s Jewishness weighed on his mind throughout his life. Indeed, one of the moral lessons of the film, and of the Manhattan Project as a whole, is the folly of antisemitism. The Nazis self-sabotaged by causing an exodus of talented Jewish scientists, and were mercifully reluctant to see the devastating potential of what they condemned as “Jüdische Physik”.
In a culture in which race is central, people feel a natural discomfort to cast a war between “whites” and “non-whites”, between America and Japan, as being simultaneously a war between good and evil. This is related to a widely-held cynicism about moral language in general. The Second World War remains the ultimate moral struggle; in our secular age Hitler, as Tom Holland observes, has “killed the Devil”. Some get a thrill out of subversion of any sort: of course they wish to topple this most sacred of cows.
One of the contributors to the Oppenheimer discourse, Dr Nozomi Saito, is in a sense right to say that the Second World War “figure[s] in the US imaginary” as a “reductive narrative of good vs evil”, though not in the way she intends. The Second World War was a conflict between good and evil and, as living testimonies to the evils of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gradually fade away, we should never cease to be thankful that the good side won.