From a distance, the film has all the makings of a Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age form that depicts the transition from callous youth to maturity. But in Oppenheimer’s case, age came long before wisdom. An article by Murray Kempton in the December 1983 issue of Esquire describes how the real Oppenheimer was, as a precocious young man, so happily sheltered from the demands of real life – “protected from the troubles, discontents and routine worries which instruct him even when they are rotten ordinary people” – that he has been “transported to his glittering summit, innocent of all the trappings to which every other businessman has become accustomed long before the age 42.” It is only when Oppenheimer is already middle-aged, a man whose confidence has always been only in his own intelligence, that he is confronted for the first time with reality, at the hands of a bureaucrat former government worshiper named Lewis Strauss. It’s an experience that any identifying girl will recognize: a profound betrayal from a friend turned enemy.
Here, the childhood parallels move beyond facetiousness to take on a darker quality, as shame begins to erode Oppenheimer’s self-esteem. As he is accused of being a communist sympathizer and publicly ridiculed in a kangaroo trial, the once-revered scientist finds his every belief crumbling. The great Oppenheimer realizes that no personal genius can counteract the strength of the state. He finally realizes that he devoted his intellect to a system that was rigged against him, that took advantage of his genius and then punished him for it. The same man who once fervently considered himself a prophet is now paralyzed by his inability to hold or act on the basis of firm conviction; the veneer of his certainty in his own power has been removed. Toward the end of the film, Oppenheimer silently conjures up visions of what his genius has wrought: unimaginable suffering and fire as the invention he spawned wipes out civilization itself. Even on my fourth viewing, the sight of Murphy’s icy blue gaze sparked a deep familiarity in me, reminding me of a line from Annie Ernaux’s “A Girl’s Story”: “Having been given the key to understanding shame does not give no power to erase. he.”
In theory, I have little in common with this man. But shame – living with it, drowning in its memories, never freeing itself from its own inadequacies and failures – is a great equalizer. Being plagued by wasting your abilities, condemned to a life of uncertainty, always wondering where you went wrong or if you had made a mistake. always set up to go wrong. This is the prerequisite of childhood that “Barbie” tried to depict: the double shock and dissonance of navigating a world that seems to vilify your existence, imbuing it with persistent, haunting shame while also demanding that you put on a show for the hecklers. But it was watching Oppenheimer helplessly, stunned at being forced to participate in his own public degradation by the U.S. government, that I looked away in fear and gratitude.
For a great man like him, it took the double shame of the bomb’s destruction and public shame to have this fundamental and shattering realization of his own powerlessness. But this feeling of betrayal by the same system that once idolized you is not just the prerogative of men who reach a certain age and realize uncomfortably that after a life spent revolving around them, the world is changing. now, indifferent or even hostile to their existence. This is a rule and a warning that life has imposed on girls from the age of 13, or even earlier. The same powers that have exposed you like a trophy will not hesitate to spit you out as soon as you cease to be useful.
Oppie needed greatness to understand that.
But the girls?
We always knew it.
Iva Dixit is the magazine’s editor-in-chief. She last wrote a profile of Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul.