[Marxism] J. Robert Oppenheimer documentary to air on PBS tonight
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 26 09:59:13 MST 2009
NY Times, January 26, 2009
Television Review | 'The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer'
Father of the Bomb as an Enemy to Himself
By MIKE HALE
A cigarette flames into life, illuminating the angular features of David
Strathairn as he plays a culture hero of 1940s and ’50s America. You
can’t help thinking of Mr. Strathairn’s portrayal of Edward R. Murrow in
“Good Night, and Good Luck” as you watch Monday night’s season premiere
of “American Experience” on PBS, a documentary titled “The Trials of J.
Robert Oppenheimer.” This time, however, the cold war tale that’s being
retold isn’t a stirring morality play, but a tragedy with elements of farce.
David Grubin, one of public television’s foremost purveyors of
historical biography (“RFK,” “Young Dr. Freud,” “Napoleon”), has
produced an engaging two-hour account of Oppenheimer’s life that only
skims its most famous portion, his leadership of the Manhattan Project
and the race to build the first atomic bomb. Mr. Grubin focuses instead
on something other documentarians have treated as a postscript:
Oppenheimer’s public shaming during the cold war witch hunts.
Mr. Strathairn appears in re-creations of the 1954 hearing that resulted
in the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, reciting dialogue
taken directly from transcripts. (His prosecutor is played by another
fine actor, Michael Cumpsty.) These scenes are diverting but a bit
bloodless; the bulk of the film is the standard archival footage and
talking heads, and here’s where the story really comes to life. A
succession of physicists who knew Oppenheimer, along with historians and
biographers, flesh out the picture of an arrogant, nasty, naïve genius
who was his own worst enemy on the witness stand.
While the documentary never draws the parallels, it seems likely that
we’re meant to see connections between Oppenheimer’s story and our own
recent past. The hysteria that follows the Soviet Union’s explosion of a
hydrogen bomb in 1953 looks an awful lot like the panic after the Sept.
11 attacks. And the more extreme features of the Patriot Act may come to
mind when witnessing some of the tactics used in the campaign to smear
Oppenheimer and remove him — and his qualms about the H-bomb — from an
active role in decisions about atomic strategy.
The most modern thing about this sad tale, however, may have less to do
with politics than it does with the nature of celebrity. Oppenheimer,
known to have Communist contacts from the early 1930s, was able to
maintain his public status for years because of his fame as the father
of the atomic bomb. But he found that even the loftiest reputations can
have an expiration date.
The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer
On most PBS stations on Monday night (check local listings).
Produced for “American Experience” by David Grubin Production Inc. in
association with the BBC. Written, directed and produced by Mr. Grubin;
edited by Deborah Peretz and Kate Taverna; James Callanan,
cinematographer; Campbell Scott, narrator; Nick Fraser, executive
producer for the BBC. “American Experience” is a production of WGBH,
Boston. Sharon Grimberg, senior producer; Mark Samels, executive producer.
WITH: David Strathairn (J. Robert Oppenheimer), Michael Cumpsty
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