Field of Science

PBS film on Oppenheimer

I accidentally came to know about this film about Oppenheimer on American Experience on PBS yesterday. It was a 2 hour piece, a docu-drama, with David Strathairn playing Oppenheimer during his infamous trial. The trial was an opportunity for Oppenheimer to recapitulate his life, and this is what the docu-drama does. It would undoubtedly be repeated and I would strongly encourage those unfamiliar with the man and the period in this country's history to watch it. It shows the rise of a truly brilliant and iconic character, followed by his fall that was orchestrated by a vindictive and self-serving government.

Given my long interest in Oppenheimer, there wasn't much in the film that was new for me. It was highly informative, poignant and fortunately well-grounded in facts and consensus. Interviewed among others were historians Richard Rhodes, Martin Sherwin, Priscilla McMillan and veteran scientists Harold Agnew, Herbert York, Nobel Laureate Roy Glauber and Marvin Goldberger. Prudently, the film does not speculate on Gregg Herken's belief that Oppenheimer was a member of the communist party; to my knowledge only Herken holds this opinion, and to be honest it does not even matter. But as the record shows, 30 years of constant investigation by the FBI turned up nothing that indicated party membership, and that says a lot.

The disturbing thing about the trial of course is that it is a poster boy case for how disagreement and dissent are equated with disloyalty by the government, a tale for our times even as its essential unlawful scare tactics have been repeated in numerous administrations, and most recently in the Bush administration when opposition to the Iraq war was often deemed "unpatriotic". The Oppenheimer story, one of the most shameful episodes in this country's history in my opinion, is a cautionary tale that should always be remembered as an example of how we need to be constantly alert and aware in a democracy and watch out for abuse of power by the government. The film does a good job of demonstrating this.

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