Oppenheimer, a film one must see and learn
Abracadabra By K. B. Ganapathy, Columns, Top Stories

Oppenheimer, a film one must see and learn

July 25, 2023

Last evening in the confines of a theatre in DRC Cinemas, I spent three hours watching the much-talked about English movie Oppenheimer. I had heard of the world’s first atomic bomb man J. Robert Oppenheimer while reading history of World War II in the College. I remember Prof. G.T. Narayana Rao (GTN), a Mathematician and a lover of Science of Physics and Astronomy mentioning about Albert Einstein, the great Scientist who gave us the  ‘Theory of Relativity’ and about Oppenheimer whenever he discussed these subjects.

Prof. GTN shared with me an anecdote about Oppenheimer, the bomb man. He was known as a Communist sympathiser and an atheist, whereas his friend Albert Einstein was an agnostic. Oppenheimer had invited Einstein for a luncheon meeting in his house. As Einstein was entering the house of Oppenheimer, he found an iron horseshoe being fixed on the top of the door. Einstein was surprised because having horseshoe at the front door was considered by the atheists as sheer superstition. Einstein asks Oppenheimer that he being a non-believer how could he have that horseshoe, a known symbol of superstition. Oppenheimer gave an instant reply saying that he indeed did not believe the favourable efficacy of the horseshoe. However, if it could do no harm and indeed blessed him with grace, what was wrong?

Be that as it may, the film is a biographical drama which delves deep into his life as an immigrant Physicist like Albert Einstein and who came to be known as ‘The Father of Atomic Bomb.’ The film chronicles the events that led to the production of the ultimate weapon of war, the atomic bomb, that would end the World War II. The film delineates his personal life with women and his life as a Physicist determined to achieve what he was expected to accomplish — to provide American armoury the ultimate weapon to decimate the enemy and bring World War II to an end.

The film is based on Pulitzer prize-winning biography, titled ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.’ That Oppenheimer was a celebrated and controversial Physicist, there is no doubt. The film shows the labour of Oppenheimer and his team of scientists and workers at Los Alamos in New Mexico, working passionately to test the first atomic bomb known as ‘Trinity Test Shot.’ As I was watching the film and heard the word ‘Trinity,’ I could not help remembering the word being used in religion. Christians use the word ‘Trinity’ to mean Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, while Hindus use it to mean the Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara — Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. Apparently, Oppenheimer was the creator, the US Government was the preserver and also the destroyer. Yes, it was the US Government that ultimately dropped the bomb to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki of Japan, bringing to an end the World War II which Japanese were pursuing successfully in South-East Asia, marching towards India, even after Germany had surrendered.

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It is said that after the first atomic bomb was exploded successfully, General Thomas Farrell, the Army’s Chief of Operations at Los Alamos, said, “The war is over.” It is also recorded that Oppenheimer himself recalled the moment in these words: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita… ‘Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds’.”

Interestingly, in the first half of the film, there was a scene where Oppenheimer was making love with a woman where he mentions about the blinding brilliance of the cataclysmic destruction mentioned in the Bhagvad Gita which led to controversy on social media here in India.

After the acquisition of this infernal weapon of weapons by America, it was decided to warn Japan that the US would use their new weapons if they refuse to surrender. Of course, the rest in history. In 2018, I  had an opportunity to go to Japan with my Rotary friends, visit Hiroshima and see the remnants and vestiges of what remained after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

There was an interesting episode in the film where President Harry S. Truman invites Oppenheimer to congratulate him on his accomplishment. Oppenheimer says with a sense of guilt, ‘I have blood on my hands.’ The President with a smirk flicks the handkerchief from his breast pocket proffering it to the Physicist. Well, apparently to symbolically wipe off the imaginary blood on his hands. As I watched this scene, I remembered an episode in the Old Testament, where the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, after ordering crucifixion of Jesus Christ, much against his will, symbolically washes his hands with water saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

As I stood in Hiroshima looking at the devastation caused by the American atom bomb, I was wondering if Americans owed an apology to Japanese people for using that extreme weapon of war, no matter America had many reasons to fight the Japanese like the bombing of Pearl Harbor for example. I also wondered whatever happened to these fighter pilots who dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to a report, one of the Airmen, who took part in the dropping of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1944, Robert Shumard said, ‘I am a fatalist — if it had to be done again, I would do it again.’ Shumard, who became  a plumbing fixtures salesman, died on Monday, April 24, 1967, at the age of 46.

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The saddest and most poignant part of the film for me was when he (Oppenheimer) was accused as a Russian Spy, a traitor, who passed on the secrets of manufacturing the atomic bomb to Russia because of his past left leaning political activism. He was subjected to prosecution, apparently, instigated and abetted by his rivals among scientists. Fortunately, he was exonerated of the charges, but denied of the security clearance after this most unfair Government hearing.

This reminded me of a similar unfair accusation, arrest and trial of our own ISRO Scientist Nambi Narayanan, who had undergone torture and held for nearly four years after he was arrested by the Kerala Police sometime in 1994. Fortunately for Nambi Narayanan and for our country, the Supreme Court came to his rescue and cleared him of the stigma of a traitor stuck on him by the Kerala            Police. The well-known journalist and author TJS George, in his column Point of View, had written about this case under the title “Why ISRO ‘Spy case’ is important.”

George writes, “In 1994 when ISRO was close to mastering cryogenic technology on its own after being obstructed by the US, Nambi Narayanan and his colleague Sasikumar were arrested, tortured and virtually destroyed by Kerala Police in the notorious ISRO spy case.” As I mentioned earlier, after four long years in hell, the Supreme Court declared him and others as innocent.

However, it is unfortunate for our country that as a result of the arrest of Nambi Narayanan, the cryogenic-engine development was put on hold for more than 19 years. Now, compare this situation with America’s atomic bomb project. Though Oppenheimer was suspected of Russian links, yet because of his brilliance as a Scientist and Physicist, they first allowed him to accomplish the mission and then went after him and put him on trial which ended as mentioned above in his favour. Likewise our Government too must have first allowed Nambi Narayanan to accomplish the mission and then put him on trial. This is the difference between the American political leadership and the Indian leadership.

And finally, Oppenheimer is a film which has many lessons for our politicians, intellectuals and patriots.

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