Oppenheimer Reel vs Real – Here’s What Christopher Nolan Gets Right and Wrong about History

How accurate is the movie?

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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ is his take on the life of the physicist, Robert J. Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan is well known for the amount of research he puts into the subject of his movies. The movie is based on the book ‘American Prometheus’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

The movie covers his life from his days as a student at the University of Göttingen in the late 1920s to the events of his security clearance being revoked in 1954. The three-hour movie roughly covers the events that happened in 3 decades with the main emphasis on 1942-1945. (The Manhattan Project)

The movie’s narrative is primarily based on three main storylines that play a major impact on Oppenheimer’s life. 

  1. Oppenheimer’s Trail
  2. The Manhattan Project
  3. Admiral Lewis Strauss’ hearing

Here’s a look at each event and how accurately Christopher Nolan enacts it in his movie.

Cillian Murphy At Los Alamos

*Spoilers Ahead for Oppenheimer*

Note – On December 16, 2022, The United States Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm nullified the 1954 decision, saying it had been the result of a ‘flawed process’ and affirmed Oppenheimer’s loyalty. 

1. Oppenheimer’s Trial (1954)

Also known as the ‘Oppenheimer Security Hearing’ was a proceeding in 1954 by the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The agenda of the hearing was about Oppenheimer’s security clearance renewal. The commission panel voted 2-1 and his clearance was revoked. Nolan’s movie accurately detailed the events which led to the security clearance being revoked, the key events being-

  • Chevalier Incident
    Oppenheimer’s friend Haakon Chevalier told him that if he could provide any information that would be useful to the USSR. Haakon was a member of the Communist Party USA. The reason this incident played a key part in the hearing was his failure to report the incident until a few months later.
  • William Liscum Borden’s Letter
    Borden had written a letter to J. Edgar Hoover accusing Oppenheimer of being an Agent of the Soviet Union. The letter came at the hands of Admiral Strauss who had a personal vendetta with Oppenheimer over the clash of their opinions on the H-Bomb and Atomic Weapons. 

Other key points such as his wife, Kitty Oppenheimer’s involvement with the Communist Groups, Oppenheimer’s relationship with Jean Tatlock, and the testimonials of other people that were close to Oppenheimer and a part of the Manhattan Project have all been included in the film. 

The Oppenheimer Hearing

2. Manhattan Project (Christopher Nolan’s Vision)

The majority of the film covers the events that took place in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Christopher Nolan and his Production team even built their version of the Los Alamos in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, which is on the same mountain range as Los Alamos. 

From the recruiting of the scientists, up to the Trinity Test, all events have been depicted accurately. The film does not include any visuals of the bombings which took place in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, instead, Nolan adds this to the movie from his perspective. 

Post the bombings, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is addressing everyone at Los Alamos. In the scene, it is shown that Oppenheimer is not able to see the cheering crowd, instead, he gets glimpses of the victims. Their screams are louder than the claps and cheers, as Oppenheimer comes to the shocking reality of what has happened, and guilt slowly starts consuming him.

The Trinity Test

3. Strauss vs The U.S Senate (1954)

The latter part of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer covers the incidents which led to Lewis Strauss not becoming the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. He was the former chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

The main reason for his being not appointed as the Secretary of Commerce was his influence in the Oppenheimer Hearing. Strauss was offended when Oppenheimer mocked him in a public hearing. The two had conflicting opinions on the development of future atomic weapons and the H-Bomb, with Oppenheimer being against it. 

Apart from these, the movie also included smaller details. From Kenneth Nichols, the General Manager of AEC handing over the security files to Borden, The Szilard petition, and Klaus Fuchs being a spy for the Russians, many events are historically accurate in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

Lewis Strauss Vs Us.gov.

We encourage our readers to read ‘American Prometheus’ which inspired Christopher Nolan, and thus, Oppenheimer. 

Source – Britannica

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Levin Plassery
Levin Plassery
Hello, My name's Levin, out here navigating through typos and writer's block, one word at a time. Ps, the glass in the picture is not a sign of my crippling alcoholism which has resorted me to writing, am only 21.

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