Leading up to the release of Oppenheimer, two criticisms dominated the discourse online. Some detractors pre-emptively accused Christopher Nolan of glorifying the U.S. military-industrial complex, while others questioned the choice to focus on Oppenheimer in the first place.
In a story about the development of the atomic bomb, was Nolan committing an act of historical erasure by failing to include Japanese characters?
This critique was already contentious before anyone saw the film. Now Oppenheimer is actually out, it’s only become more divisive. Interestingly, the resulting conversation suggests that film buffs are embracing a more nuanced attitude to representation politics.
The past few years have seen a lot of debate over diversity in Hollywood casting—both in terms of blockbusters like The Little Mermaid and the MCU, and regarding the political impact of historical dramas as a white-dominated genre.
Creatively and ethically, cinema would benefit from a wider acceptance of raceblind casting. There’s also a lot of public support for telling the stories of previously underrepresented demographics. However, there’s vigorous pushback against the idea that these arguments are relevant to Oppenheimer.
First off, Japanese filmmakers have already spent decades exploring Japanese reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is only an “underrepresented” topic if you restrict yourself to Hollywood movies.
Secondly, Oppenheimer isn’t meant to be a wide-ranging story WWII in general. It follows a purposefully narrow perspective: Oppenheimer’s. And its casting choices—a laundry list of white men—hold a different meaning from the cast list of a Marvel movie.
Why Oppenheimer doesn’t include Japanese characters
The lack of Japanese characters in Oppenheimer is an intentional choice. And that choice is explicitly political, emphasizing the American characters’ distance from the horrors they wrought in Japan.
In one scene, a group of American leaders debate where to drop the bomb. Dismissing the idea of a military target because none in Japan are “big enough,” they make a list of cities. The Secretary of State eliminates Kyoto due to its beauty and cultural significance, quipping that he and his wife honeymooned there.
Someone suggests warning civilians in advance to reduce casualties, but the committee decides this would be a bad idea. Why? Because if they announce the bombing and it doesn’t work, it would be a strategically embarrassing failure.
Surrounded by this disturbingly callous discussion, Oppenheimer fails to offer any meaningful resistance.
In fact, Oppenheimer’s lack of moral backbone is a recurring theme. Despite persistent doubts about the impact of his invention, he never commits to any distinct moral or political stance. Other American characters are even less troubled by their role in dropping the bomb, with President Truman mocking Oppenheimer as a “crybaby.”
It likely would have felt exploitative to intersperse this story with scenes in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And to be honest, Christopher Nolan would be a poor choice to explore Japanese perspectives. He’s a white British/American director who specializes in stories about white British and American men. And when he leaves that wheelhouse, things don’t go well.
With Oppenheimer, Nolan utilized these blindspots in a constructive way. Instead of hinging the film’s moral message on images of Japanese suffering, he highlights the chilling response of Oppenheimer’s contemporaries. Crowds of scientists applaud their achievements, and politicians scheme to build an even bigger bomb. Compared to the long history of blockbusters with a purely heroic perspective on America’s role in WWII, it’s an extraordinarily damning view.