The praise of the new film “Oppenheimer” leaves me ambivalent. It’s a good story, well-acted. The narrative line, however, is chopped up between earlier and later, with one thread in color and the other in black and white. There are reasons for that, but mixing a story about a man with a story about a bomb and a story about Communism and loyalty sometimes makes it hard to follow.
Several famous people — Gen. Leslie Groves, Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, Werner Heisenberg — are important characters, and other famous people — Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Klaus Fuchs — are shown briefly. I looked around the theater: Did the audience know who all these people were? The script (and maybe some subtitles) could have helped a lot more. The picture introduces Groves (played by Matt Damon) well, but that’s not true for most of them.
The movie had a lot about Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his sex life. You expect that from Hollywood. But it has only a little about the technical problems in inventing the bomb, and how Oppenheimer’s team solved them. Hollywood doesn’t think viewers care about the technical parts.
Then the Communist issue. Much of the film is about how in the mid-1950s, Oppenheimer was accused of having been a Communist and was stripped of his security clearance. The film does show that in the late 1930s, when you could be a Communist and a New Dealer at the same time, and American Communists were loud opponents of fascism, Oppenheimer had, in fact, been a Communist sympathizer. It showed that his first wife was a party member who tried, and failed, to get him to join.
It shows Oppenheimer resisting Gen. Groves’ security measures — because Groves is trying to corral scientists, and they resent military interference in their work. In all this, the film does mention that Oppenheimer’s colleague Klaus Fuchs (who was not an American) was, in fact, a Soviet spy. It shows Oppenheimer being asked by an American colleague to slip information to the Soviets, and declining — but not reporting the incident to Gen. Groves.
The film defends Oppenheimer as a loyal American who was hounded out of a position of respect and trust. That’s accurate. The Red Scare was a shameful episode in American history because it was overdone. The shame part is a lesson that Hollywood and academia especially like to tell — because they were targets of red hunters, and their politics have long leaned to the left. What we don’t get out of Hollywood are the stories in which the “scare” was justified: the big Communist spy cases of the 1940s and early 1950s, especially the cases against Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Those stories have a different lesson — that some American Communists were, in fact, spies for Stalin; that when they were publicly accused, many liberals and progressives of the day defended them. And on that point the liberals and progressives were wrong.
If you doubt that, read the books that have been written about all these cases, such as Beverly Gage’s G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, published last year. In the Hiss case, for example, Gage writes, “Everyone took the side that best fit their own assumptions” — the liberals saying Hiss was innocent and the conservatives saying he was guilty. And about Hiss, the preponderance of the evidence is that the conservatives were right. But about Oppenheimer, they were not.
The Hiss case, in particular, would make a fabulous three-hour movie of the same rank as “Oppenheimer.” Better than “Oppenheimer,” I think. The only attempt to tell that story that that I know of was the four-part, 3-hour, 39-minute TV miniseries called Concealed Enemies. It was produced in 1984 by American Playhouse and shown on PBS. It has Peter Riegert as a worried and calculating Richard Nixon, Edward Hermann as an self-assured and outraged Alger Hiss and John Harkins as Hiss’s long-suffering and deeply troubled accuser, Whittaker Chambers.
Concealed Enemies was produced before anyone had support from FBI and Soviet archives that Hiss was in fact a Soviet agent, which is now conceded by most historians. Concealed Enemies tries to play the story right down the middle. In hindsight, it was too credulous regarding Hiss, but it is still a gripping account — dark and foreboding, loaded with personality and drama.
Concealed Enemies won an Emmy award. On the Internet Movie Database it is rated 8.3 out of 10 — but by only 49 people, because it never came out on VHS or DVD. In 2003, a user wrote on its IMDb page, “Years ago this excellent and riveting mini-series was shown on late night Australian TV for the first and last time. Why is it never shown anymore and why isn’t it available on video? If an Emmy award doesn’t justify showing something of this quality more than once what does?” Twenty years later, it’s still a good question.
Regarding the “Red scare” period, Hollywood gives us Trumbo (2015, IMDb 7.4, rated by 83,000 people), in which Brian Cranston plays a famous screenwriter who was blacklisted for being a Communist. Trumbo was a master of his craft; he later was the principal screenwriter for Spartacus (1960). When Hollywood makes a movie about the anti-Communist period it most often concerns people who were falsely accused (like Oppenheimer) or who were accurately accused but were no threat to national security (like Trumbo). To Hollywood, the “Red Scare” was a witch hunt — a term that implies that it was the pursuit of an imaginary danger.
But in some big, important cases, it was not imaginary at all: the cases of Hiss, Coplon, and Rosenberg especially, but also Elizabeth Bentley, Julian Wadleigh, Harry Dexter White and others. In Concealed Enemies, Wadleigh (played by Frank Maraden) nervously admits to passing State Department documents to the Soviets in the late 1930s. But the Communists were fighting fascism then, he says in a tormented voice, in the civil war in Spain — and nobody else was. And in World War II, the Soviets were our allies.
My memory of the Wadleigh character in Concealed Enemies is that he sounded not too different from Oppenheimer, except that Oppenheimer was innocent and Wadleigh was not. Each story is true. Hollywood tells us one and not the other.