The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Essays

The Man Who Was Not There

What Einstein Is Really Doing in “Oppenheimer”

Ohad Reiss-Sorokin

Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer in Princeton in 1950; public domain, US Government Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Not long into Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-garlanded Oppenheimer, we recognize a familiar face—or, more accurately, a familiar mane. The year is 1947, and through the picture window of the director’s office at the Institute for Advanced Studies, in Princeton, Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) spot the unmistakable figure of Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) standing beside a pond. Strauss proposes to introduce Einstein to Oppenheimer.

“No need,” replies the physicist, “I’ve known him for years.”

The two men nevertheless set off in the direction of Einstein, who then happens to be chasing his wind-tossed hat across the lawn. Retrieving the hat and returning it to its owner, Oppenheimer proceeds to confer privately with Einstein, conspicuously beyond the earshot of Strauss—indeed, beyond our own.

Einstein appears two other times in the film. The first is during World War II, when Oppenheimer, as head of the Manhattan Project, comes to Princeton to ask him about theoretical physicist Edward Teller’s calculations suggesting that a nuclear chain reaction, once initiated, might not stop until it consumed the earth’s atmosphere. Sarcastically observing, “Here we are, lost in your quantum world of probabilities and needing certainty,” Einstein hands Teller’s scribbled sheets back to Oppenheimer and suggests that he consult Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), head of the Manhattan Project’s theoretical division. Seemingly gratuitous, Einstein’s remark is, in fact, crucial to both his role in Oppenheimer and the film’s larger intent.

Einstein’s next appearance comes in 1954, after Oppenheimer has returned to the Institute (of which he is now the director) after a grueling session before a committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was then weighing whether to withdraw his security clearance. Waiting for him near the director’s residence, Einstein, the eternal dissident, urges Oppenheimer to “turn [his] back” on the ungrateful country that “he served so well.” “I love this country,” Oppenheimer parries. To which Einstein responds, “Then tell her to go to hell.”

The actual exchange between Oppenheimer and Einstein was, as it happened, far less cordial than the film’s version. It ended with an exasperated Einstein telling his assistant, “There goes a Narr [fool],” nodding toward the Institute director.

More significantly, Einstein’s appearance in that scene is the only one that corresponds with historical reality. In fact, Einstein had only limited dealings with Oppenheimer, who, for one, never would have consulted with his elder about matters such as Teller’s calculations because he knew Einstein had never even asked for a security clearance. That was also the reason Einstein was never invited to participate in the Manhattan Project, not because of his “obsoleteness,” as the film has Oppenheimer say to Strauss (although, after meeting Einstein for the first time, in 1935, Oppenheimer did write to his brother to say that he found Einstein “completely cuckoo”).

Most significantly, the scene on the Institute lawn, which we see at three different critical points in the film, is itself a complete fabrication.

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