I have been to the movies. I haven’t done that since before the COVID shutdown.
I went to see two huge movies that have each grossed $1 billion, and I enjoyed them enormously. They are, of course, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”
I went to see “Barbie” because I thought I should know what people were discussing. I went to see “Oppenheimer” because, in a sense, I have skin in that game. I knew a few people who worked on the Manhattan Project, and two of them were characterized in the movie: Hans Bethe and Edward Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb.
About “Barbie”: It is a fantasy romp filled with popular, real-life messages. I had to see how director Greta Gerwig would make an adult movie about a doll, albeit a storied one — with brilliant imagination is how.
“Oppenheimer,” by contrast, is a major cinematic work, a remarkable recapturing of history and character development on the screen. Christopher Nolan is a director at the top of his game. He deserves a comparison with Orson Welles and David Lean.
Across the board, it is a triumph, compelling and true to the facts and the personalities. The evocative recreation of Los Alamos as it must have been, of the tower from which the first nuclear device was detonated, rings true. I have crawled all over the nuclear test site and spent many hours at Los Alamos, where I used to give an annual lecture on energy or the relationship of humans to science.
In November 1975, Bethe and another veteran of the Manhattan Project, Ralph Lapp, and I put together a panel of 24 Nobel laureates (including Bethe) to defend civilian nuclear power. We got them all together on a stage at the National Press Club in Washington. I had hoped it would be a seminal event, ending some of the nonsense being spread about nuclear radiation.
Ralph Nader took up arms against us and assembled 36 Nobel laureates who were cool to nuclear. Ours were physicists, engineers and mathematicians who had a vast understanding of nuclear and endorsed it enthusiastically.
We didn’t win. Bethe, as I recall, was philosophical about being trounced.
I first met Teller in Geneva. I was to introduce him at a conference, and we had breakfast together. He seemed distracted and confused. But he was in top form when he spoke.
Later, I got to know him better. He gave a series of speeches for conferences I had organized on the Strategic Defense Initiative — colloquially known as Star Wars. He often sat slumped in his chair, clutching his enormous walking stick. But he stood erect on the podium, arguing vigorously the case for Ronald Reagan’s program.
The Oppenheimer movie reminded me of two institutions I covered intensely as a reporter: the Atomic Energy Commission and its congressional overseer, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
The committee was supposed to check the AEC. The AEC was a tool of the powerful and wildly pro-nuclear committee — the only joint committee empowered to introduce legislation in both houses of Congress. The reality of that partnership was that the committee proposed and the AEC disposed.
The movie is extraordinary in capturing the workings of Congress and how a nod or a smile can put great events in motion.
This understanding of the nuances and mores of Washington, and particularly the arcane theatricality of the congressional hearings, is accurate in ways seldom captured on film. This is more surprising given that the director is an Englishman who lives a very private life in Los Angeles.
I leave it to sociologists to ponder how two movies as different as “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” could open simultaneously, becoming huge hits. If you see these movies, especially “Oppenheimer,” see them in the theater, they deserve that big-screen and wraparound-sound environment.