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American Experience: The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer

(PBS; US DVD: 24 Mar 2009)

Note to readers: American Experience: The Trials of Robert Oppenheimer can be purchased from the PBS Shop


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At the dawn of the atomic age, nuclear physicists were among the highest echelon of American celebrities. These were the men who had corralled the atom, who had helped America win the most terrible war in human memory by bending the most elemental forces of nature to their will. And among these celebrity scientists, none strode higher than the director of the Manhattan Project and father of the atomic bomb, Robert J. Oppenheimer.


The Trials of Robert Oppenheimer, part of PBS’ American Experience series, blends interviews with Oppenheimer’s contemporaries with discussions by researchers, footage from old newsreels and papers and a powerful performance by David Strathairn to paint a thorough and thought provoking portrait of Oppenheimer as an unlikely celebrity, a reluctant war hero, and ultimately, a Cassandra for the nuclear age, whose warnings were ignored at a cost that, in spite of the terror thus far unleashed, humanity still has yet to fully pay.


Oppenheimer wore his notability poorly. From the very beginning, The Trials of Robert Oppenheimerbrings to life a brilliant but socially awkward boy. During his childhood, Oppenheimer felt kinship with his teachers and other adults, and had difficulty relating to his peers. The matter was exacerbated by his cloistered upbringing, of which he once said “My childhood did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things. It gave me no normal, healthy way to be a bastard.”


Shy and aloof, arrogant and cerebral, Oppenheimer held his fellow human beings in contempt to a large extent. His colleagues and coworkers found him difficult to get along with. Oppenheimer was a sober, morose figure who didn’t much care for people, found them difficult to get along with, and spoke condescendingly to some of the greatest minds of his generation—hardly the sort of socialist firebrand his enemies in government would later paint him as in their efforts to oust him. It’s a great success of this film that it subtly drives home the ways in which Oppenheimer’s inability to influence people or win the trust of those around him would come to haunt him, and ultimately play a significant role not only in destroying his career, but in shaping the nuclear policy of the world in ways that still reverberate through today’s headlines.


When he was tapped to become the scientific advisor at Los Alamos, The Trials of Robert Oppenheimer reminds us, Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist with a history of stormy personal relationships who had never managed so much as an ant farm.  As work at Los Alamos progressed, Oppenheimer’s personal life spiraled out of control – every setback at the laboratory required his oversight, and the sacrifices that the work demanded were his family and health. Both suffered dearly as a result of his consuming work on the project. When the atomic bomb was finally tested, Oppenheimer was a wreck. He had wasted away to a mere 115 pounds and not slept properly in months. But he had transformed the landscape of the planet forever.


The Trials of Robert Oppenheimer handles Oppenheimer’s attitude towards the military application of nuclear fission with refreshing forthrightness. Oppenheimer was a genius, and certainly not a naïf in regard to the work he was doing for the military. He understood keenly the enormity of the project he and the other members of the Manhattan Project were at work on, saying in a later interview about the first successful test “…we knew the world would not be the same.”


But even after the Germans had surrendered, Oppenheimer was incapable of turning around, of even trying to return the genie to it’s bottle. The project was too far along to be stopped, and Oppenheimer’s attitude toward the project was that of a detached scientist— “When you see something that is this technically sweet, you do it.” But if no one felt more ambitious about changing the world than Oppenheimer, neither did anyone experience the terrible burden of that change more acutely than him.


It was this burden that compelled Oppenheimer to work with the United Nations Atomic Energy Committee (AEC) in drafting a new nuclear plan of action for the world. Rather than live in fear of nuclear weapons, the AEC proposed a world in which nuclear material was tightly regulated and nuclear technology shared internationally for energy production. His calls for moderate, level-headed response to the new nature of warfare and politics, argues The Trials of Robert Oppenheimer, could have represented a host of new ambitions towards saving the world he had helped to transform. Instead, they brought about his fall from grace.


A peaceful nuclear program, especially one that shared America’s hard won nuclear secrets with potential enemies, was not a US government wading into a decades long Cold War had in mind. Oppenheimer was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his tenuous ties to the Communist Party, mostly through former lovers and long by-gone associates, damned him in the eyes of the prosecution. This documentary shines in its recreation of the time and place, skillfully blending expert testimony and footage from the trials and startling reenactments.  The reenactments are brought to exquisite life by Strathairn, whose sunken eyes, furrowed brow and masterful array of facial tics channel a once great man watching his career crumble before his eyes and capture the drama inherent in watching an American hero being stripped of his dignity on the basis of his calls for peace.


For Oppenheimer, whose career was his life, the trial which revoked his security clearance left him largely a dead man walking. After 1950, he never published another scientific paper and whatever plaudits he earned were largely symbolic. The Trials of Robert Oppenheimer, by it’s end, makes this it’s saddest and most succinct point in the fashion of most successful documentaries—by stating a few simple facts. These facts leave viewers to wonder what could have been, and to ponder what the United States and the world lost when Oppenheimer took his early leave from research and the public sphere, and what sort of world we might live in had cooler, more level heads like his prevailed.

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J. Robert Oppenheimer
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