12.10.2023 Author: Henry Kamens

What does the Movie “Oppenheimer” have to do with Ukraine and the North Pole?

What does the Movie “Oppenheimer” have to do with Ukraine and the North Pole?

One of the interesting twists of history is what Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria, Head of the NKVD (later renamed the KGB) of the USSR, knew about the making of the American atomic bomb, and when?

Why is it worth-remembering that initially Stalin and others in the NKVD, the former Soviet intelligence service, had dismissed the intelligence reports of some American secret weapon, an atomic bomb, as being intentional disinformation and not a priority?

The incident underscores the importance of robust intelligence analysis and the need for leaders to trust and act upon credible intelligence information. It is a cautionary tale about the potential ramifications of ignoring or misinterpreting vital intelligence data.

As one film critic wrote, “The tragedy of “Oppenheimer” is not one man’s story, but the inability to bring these destructive planet-changing processes into a human frame of reference – a scale at which we can make deliberate and intentional decisions together toward a common good.”

Even the movie itself, is more than a historic drama, with its planting of less than obvious messages, as in how the terms Soviet and Russians are used as to  convey some message of current events, rather than historic, something that goes pass most casual observers.

In retrospect, The Soviet Union’s failure to quickly recognize the development of the atomic bomb by the United States left them vulnerable to a new level of military power that could have had devastating consequences had it been deployed against them.

Hence, the recent release of the movie “Oppenheimer” is timely, not only from the need to revisit historic even but to learn from them. It is also necessary to consider events in Ukraine and how that grinding war could easily lead to a nuclear exchange if matters get out of hand—and if NATO does something out of “stupidity or  desperation”.


The development of the atomic bomb has changed our reality, and even to this day, the cloud of its creation – as best described by the NYTs, and “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s staggering film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” condenses a titanic shift in consciousness into three haunted hours. |

During the war, German physicists who had been taken prisoner (POWs) were settled in Sukhumi, a region of the Georgian SSR at the time, where they built the same creative environment as was set up for the Manhattan Project.  The Soviets even built the same kind of houses as they had in Germany to better accommodate them.  In comparison to the population of the USSR, they lived in great luxury, and this is one part of the overall contribution to the first nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union.

Their worked was fast tracked as the Soviets had stolen from the Americans most of their nuclear secrets, and were working on their own version. Therefore, the arms race was on, marking the start of the Cold War.  As the Washington Post reported:

A week after American scientists exploded the world’s first atom bomb in the desert of New Mexico, President Harry S. Truman had a meeting in the German town of Potsdam with Joseph Stalin. Attempting to strike as casual a note as possible, he told the Soviet leader that the United States had discovered a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.”

Truman was amazed that Stalin showed no particular interest in his revelation. It now turns out that there was a very good explanation for the Soviet dictator’s cool response: Stalin could well have been better informed about the making of the U.S. atom bomb than Truman himself.

Scary New World, NOT BRAVE!

There are lessons to be learned from history, and hopefully not the hard way. The overarching motif of Oppenheimer is a warning against the precarious reality that Ukrainians live in now. As one great scientist notes to Oppenheimer, “we are now entering a new world”.

This warning shapes the symphonic structure of the film, which is, perhaps, the most mature of Nolan’s works. Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist, and director of the US clandestine weapons laboratory, Los Alamos, who helped research and develop the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II — cataclysms that helped usher in our human-dominated age. It is a film about where we were, where we are, and where we are heading.

This topic is nothing new to me, as many students of history have come across indications that the alternative motivation for dropping atomic bombs was to keep the USSR from sharing in the victory over Japan as an equal partner. It was also intended to demonstrate what power America had, and was willing to use, in asserting its authority during the Cold War. As a result, the bomb was really the start of the Cold War, from a practical perspective.

I was not very familiar with J. Robert Oppenheimer before. After two viewings there is a lot of the story I did not catch at first glimpse, as it is very involved. I still don’t know who all the characters are. There are many, and each is a story to itself, and worth a movie documentary, or book.

I grew up hearing from my father that the bomb kept him from being sent to Japan, after having been wounded in Germany in 1945. He was happy with Truman’s decision at the time.

However, during my university years, I learned that the bomb was used to keep the US and its allies from sharing the spoils of victory over Japan with the USSR, and that was the main motivation for dropping the bomb, not to shorten the war for the Americans.

 It was claimed that the Japs would fight to the death, as school children are taught in the West—and that was true at various times during the Pacific Theater War. But it was abundantly clear that Japan that was already defeated from a military perspective, its navy, its air force and supporting logistic supply lines were in total disarray.

My uncle was also involved in the project – and later worked in a top position in the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Oppenheimer’s mother and my grandmother were both from Baltimore, likely knew each other, as immigrant Jews.

It is also worth noting NATO expansion, as in the case of Finland and Sweden, not so much in light of Ukraine, but rather the melting of ice at the North Pole and how these countries are both members of the Artic Council.  Global warming creates greater international security fears, and impacts strategic policy for Russia, rather than just environmental impacts alone.

It is a MAD World

ʺDeterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear . . . of attack.ʺ 

There are a number of countries that have claims, according to John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago, in describing “Ukraine’s Tragic Fate and his Unheeded Prophecies” as to the consequences of NATO expansion to Russia’s borders and its potential impacts, noting how Russia is up against 7 other countries in the Artic, and how this drives Russia closer to the Chinese and reinforces it’s need for nuclear deterrent—in light of how its conventional forces are pinned down in Ukraine.

Few people are talking about this, as if it is a forbidden topic, especially the vast majority of members of the Council, concentrating instead on environmental concerns—and keep in mind that no country can actually lay claim, or ownership to the Arctic, and how there are competing claims to various bits of the Arctic shelf.

Good grief, this Telegraph article is a bad joke….

However, some Russian policymakers are using the topic as part of the hype of worse case scenarios, should the West continue to ramp up the conflict in Ukraine for its own short term political interests. Take, for example, a recent article in the UK media, which comes close to saber-rattling. It blows out of portion the claims of one Russian MP who suggested the Use of nuclear strike to stop Ukraine’s counter-offensive, says former Russian general

Together with the proxy war in Ukraine, the US and its NATO allies are taking a bad situation and making it worse.  This helps to explain how there are competing interests, and why Sweden and Finland are no longer neutral. Their membership in NATO had nothing to do with blowback over Ukraine, but instead everything to do with their own Artic aspirations as members of a purported security alliance, NATO – which has more to do with economic interests and has little to do with assured mutual security in recent years.

It is more in line with MAD as in Dr. Strangelove, Mutually Assured Destruction, and how to plant the fear of attacking in the minds of the enemy.  “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” parodies the madness of the Cold War nuclear standoff. At the core of this 1964 film comedy by Stanley Kubrick is the grim strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Matters are made worse by various US National Security Staff, such as Jake Sullivan, who explains what if would happens if the Russians use nuclear weapons as part of the American political rhetoric to make his boss look tough. Another demagogue, General David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA, spurs the same rhetoric.

It is worth remembering that The Arctic Council should, at least in theory, “provide the forum for members to showcase and work together on common values to protect, build and not destroy”, but its members are not interested in such goals, especially countries like Norway, and it sees it as an instrument reflecting current political realities.”

Before your eyes

On a lighter side, and technical too, as a friend shared with me, “I went to one of the 30 theaters (cinemas) in the world showing Oppenheimer in the true IMAX film format – at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. It is interesting to note that discussing this film is to discuss Director Christopher Nolan’s craft of filmmaking in particular.

Oppenheimer is distorted with clipping when the loud, booming bass kicked in. The back row is best at either theater – it still looks like you’re inches from a gigantic screen. Nolan filmed with all formats in mind, so the film as a whole doesn’t really take full advantage of IMAX….

What I noticed was that extreme wide shots, looking out on the Los Alamos desert, would actually look great on Imax, with pure sharp detail, but these were very short, lasting only a second here, a second there. If we had very long lingering shots like that, it would be amazing to see in IMAX. There are cutaway flashback scenes throughout the film of nuclear explosions, and a few lingering ones. It is these shots that look great in the true Imax format.

For the full IMAX experience, it would have been a treat for the film story to pause for a few minutes and just linger on the landscapes of Los Alamos. Imax looks best for cinematic shots of nature, so the shorter Imax films are great attractions. Most of the shots in the Oppenheimer film are of extreme close-ups of the actors.

By filming in the largest format, this enables his film to be projected onto the largest IMAX screens 9 stories tall using extremely huge projectors. At the Imax Theater, the viewing means huge gigantic heads that can be reflected on buildings 9 stories tall.

But he also filmed with smaller formats in mind, so it would still look good on smaller screens, starting with regular-sized film screens, regular-sized digital cinema screens, and then on to home theaters, home TVs, and further reduced down to iPods, smartphone screens, and tiny cell phone screens.

The story itself gets through, no matter what device it is played on.  It is unnecessary to see extreme close-ups of people in extremely high definition. There’s no need to see every detail of the hairs of Einstein’s (or the actor’s) mustache while he talked, or every pore and flaw in people’s faces. The sound at the true Imax was amazing – crystal clear, very high dynamic range with absolutely no distortion, ever.

Since there are strikes in Hollywood that shut down all film production, there have only been two new blockbuster films in theaters this summer: Barbie and Oppenheimer—both are worth the time to see.

However, I would recommend watching Barbie for most members of NATO—as they need to get in touch with the “real world” from their own narrow standpoint dependences, as we are all
still living in Oppenheimer’s shadow.

Oppenheimer is a complicated film, too complicated for them, and made all the more complicated by the thorny-and-inconvenient history it tries to represent from the past, and how the nuclear hazard applies to the current reality.


Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.  

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