[Marxism] J. Robert Oppenheimer documentary to air on PBS tonight

Louis Proyect 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.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

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 
(prosecutor).




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