DiscoverLaw on FilmOppenheimer (Guest: Audra Wolfe) (episode 20)
Oppenheimer (Guest: Audra Wolfe) (episode 20)

Oppenheimer (Guest: Audra Wolfe) (episode 20)

Update: 2024-02-21


Oppenheimer (2023) stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his role as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II . The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the book, American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. The film traces Oppenheimer’s early life, his rise to world prominence through the Manhattan Project, and his subsequent downfall after being stripped of his security clearance in 1954 due to his alleged past communist sympathies and outspoken criticism of the nuclear arms race. The cast includes Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife “Kitty”; Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project's director; Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and rival of Oppenheimer; and Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s lover and former Communist party member, Jean Tatlock. The film provides a window not only into one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures, but also into the political and social forces that surrounded the birth of the Atomic Age and America’s transition from World War II to the Red Scare and Cold War.  My guest is Audra Wolfe, a writer and historian who focuses on the role of science during the Cold War.


0:00          Introduction
4:01          Reinvigorating debates about the bomb
7:48          Oppenheimer’s views in context
14:46       The factors driving the decision to drop the bomb
17:32       Was secrecy really required?
19:49       Science in Germany vs. the Soviet Union
24:14       FBI surveillance of Oppenheimer and other scientists
28:46       Revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance
37:37       Oppenheimer’s complicated legacy
41:09       Castle Bravo and nuclear testing: another seminar Cold War moment
45:01       Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer, and scientists with leftist affiliations
51:20       Vannevar Bush and other early Cold War science figures
53:45        Congress’s hearing on Lewis Strauss’ cabinet nomination
1:00:17   The film’s broader messages and lessons for today
1:04:37    Making nuclear weapons front and center
1:08:26    “Barbenheimer”

Further reading:

Bernstein, Barton, “The Oppenheimer Loyalty-Security Case Reconsidered”, 42 Stan. L. Rev. 1383 (1990)

Bird, Kai & Sherwin, Martin J., American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005)

Curtis, Charles, The Oppenheimer Case: The Trial of a Security System (1955)

Sims, David, “‘Oppenheimer’ Is More Than a Creation Myth About the Atomic Bomb,” The Atlantic (July 19, 2023)

Wellerstein, Alex, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States (2021)

Wolfe, Audra J., Freedom's Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (2020)



Law on Film is created and produced by Jonathan Hafetz. Jonathan is a professor at Seton Hall Law School. He has written many books and articles about the law. He has litigated important cases to protect civil liberties and human rights while working at the ACLU and other organizations. Jonathan is a huge film buff and has been watching, studying, and talking about movies for as long as he can remember.
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Oppenheimer (Guest: Audra Wolfe) (episode 20)

Oppenheimer (Guest: Audra Wolfe) (episode 20)

Jonathan Hafetz