“Barbenheimer”: a global movement

There is perhaps no more contention over the morality of a single man than over J. Robert Oppenheimer. As such, it comes as no surprise that the Oppenheimer film, directed by Christopher Nolan, alongside the Barbie film, became one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. Humorously dubbed “Barbenheimer”, the global sensationalization of both films led to global discussion over the ethical implications of them. Both films tackle rather existential themes, albeit in contrasting ways. Whether making an attempt to dismantle the patriarchy or taking a deep dive into the birth of nuclear warfare, it is apparent that the way these films depict such issues has a tangible impact on the future of youth movements. The concern is what, exactly, this impact will be.

The Nuclear Debate through the lens of universal human rights

Jobs, racial inequality, climate change, class, gender and nuclear weapons were all connected and part of the same fight: universal human rights.”, Vincent Intondi, historian and author.

Given the importance of Oppenheimer’s subject, one would assume it has been handled with more delicacy than other dramatised biopics. It would be naive to consider Robert Oppenheimer himself as being the only crucial subject to consider in the film. The centrepiece of the film; the first atomic bomb test, also holds a bomb of intersecting inequalities. Herein lies the problem with the presentation of nuclear weapons in the media: the subject is interwoven with a variety of other human rights issues. Each that cannot ethically be discussed without the other. Oppenheimer leaves out such intersectionality in its storyline. 

There are arguments in defence of both nuclear weapons development and the way it is depicted in Oppenheimer. For instance, that nuclear weapons can actually protect populations’ rights to personal security and life. Such arguments are prevalent, and therefore important to consider. It is discussed briefly in Oppenheimer that America had no choice but to develop the atomic bomb, in the interest of national security and the protection of democracy and local freedoms. However, such protective and utilitarian arguments are not objectively proven measures and are also unequally enacted, so are rather questionable. Those with the power to ensure the security of their civilians through nuclear weapons are usually countries with the most colonially gained power. The argument loses its validity when one considers that arguing for nuclear weapons as protection to others’ rights will always also conversely violate other civilians’ rights. It would be wrong to put one fundamental right over another.

In the film, the main focus is on the effects of The Manhattan Project on Robert Oppenheimer; his ingenuity, his morally grey characteristics and his ensuing guilt over his own creation. The nuclear arms debate is of course far more intricate and layered than that. The fact that Oppenheimer sets its focus on only one man and his project, in itself, sets a dangerous precedent. It gives the audience only one aspect of history, which allows us to view one man as the sole protagonist, and whether he deserves it or not, we are led to sympathise with his struggles the most. This is because we see only his side of the story, so the perspective ultimately becomes biassed in his favour.

What is, instead, most fundamental in the nuclear arms debate is the somewhat surprising intersection it has with most oppressive systems. James Baldwin, a notable writer on racial injustices, stresses the fundamental relationship between human rights and the struggle for world peace. The nuclear issue is also directly connected to colonialism. Indeed, as stated, those countries who hold the most nuclear weapons are also often those who colonised the non-white world. Therefore, this subject cannot be discussed purely as a “white” issue, it should include diverse voices, as those most oppressed suffer the most negative consequences. 

This is not to say that Oppenheimer is a complete write-off. Indeed, films are a crucial driver of social perspectives and subsequently, social movements. For instance, The Day After, a movie made in the 1980s, was one of the most successful anti-nuclear strategies of its time. We must replicate these sorts of actions and not celebrate or leave any room for a “romanticisation” of the history of nuclear warfare, as Oppenheimer risks doing. The way we depict human rights issues in the media matters; it affects the social mobilisation of both historical and present human rights perspectives. Films like Oppenheimer set an important precedent and impression on social movements and real-world change in the human rights sector. It would be dangerous to skirt around such issues in the media. 

Horrors left in the shadows

Although films are important social mobilisers, many communities’ stories are an afterthought in mainstream media. After all, it does not paint America in a favoured light to detail the violations they enacted, especially on the big screen. However, this is not to say that it should not be done. There is a massive responsibility that comes with social privileges. It should be those with the most powerful voices who should unearth the oppressive systems they benefit from. 

Although Oppenheimer does well in bringing to the forefront that the father of the atom bomb was a flawed man, it also crucially leaves out the abuses of the rights of American civilians, local populations and the full scope of the atrocities committed when the atomic bombs were detonated on Japanese civilians. A more comprehensive depiction of the human rights violations would perhaps allow the audience a less profitable, yet objective, portrayal of both the American government and Robert Oppenheimer himself.

Oppenheimer only once directly depicts the victims of the atomic bomb detonations, in a brief hallucination Robert Oppenheimer has of a woman with her skin peeling off. Thus, the death and suffering of Japanese civilians are shown once, only in relation to his guilt. The lives of Japanese civilians are used as a tool to highlight Oppenheimer’s remorse, rather than as horrors in their own right, inflicted by his own creation.

This is not the only missing piece of history Oppenheimer chooses to omit. It also fails to explore the cost of testing the bomb at Los Alamos on local Hispanic populations. When conducting the Trinity test, the New Mexican inhabitants, who had been living there for generations, were not warned or evacuated. Irradiated ash contaminated the area, causing generations of cancers in New Mexican populations. The stories of those negatively impacted by the bomb are omitted, just as a new generation is learning about this part of history. It is a one-sided narrative, on a theme where nuance is key. The film, as journalist Tina Cordova so eloquently puts it, “declines to bear witness” to the truth of many lives and their rights.

It all comes back to colonialism

“One can enjoy a movie and still agree that it shouldn’t have been made, or at least made in the way that it was.”, Sonika Jaigenesh, Student and Poet

I am aware that many will watch Oppenheimer for entertainment value alone. The film is, in Nolan’s fashion, flawless in its cinematography and visual elements. We take it for granted how many of us are educated in the forgotten parts of history, in the lives and stories of the most vulnerable and oppressed. But where are their biopics, or more importantly, their retribution? The legacy of Robert Oppenheimer and his government is entirely different from the one portrayed in the film. I, for one, believe that this legacy should be brought out of the shadows.

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