The Surprisingly Strong Depiction of Marriage in ‘Oppenheimer’
Editor's note: This review contains spoilers.
Hollywood isn’t known as a breeding ground for healthy marriages, so it comes as a surprise when Hollywood films have anything good to say about marriage, especially as sexual degeneracy in films keeps increasing exponentially and marriage and monogamy become more and more marginalized. This is why it may come as a shock to filmgoers to see the blockbuster “Oppenheimer” portraying and lauding the strengths of marriage, as well as warning against the threats to it, though in unnecessarily graphic detail.
A brief caveat spectator: “Oppenheimer” contains three R-rated sex scenes, which mar the otherwise masterful film. The graphic nature of these scenes is wholly unnecessary and even uncharacteristic of writer-director Christopher Nolan, who has famously not featured sex in any of his prior films. The film would be a magnum opus were it not for the inclusion of these scenes.
As many know or may guess from the title, “Oppenheimer” tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, which netted the creation of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer and his wife were real figures and both deeply flawed, and the film depicts those flaws — namely, Oppenheimer’s infidelity and Kitty’s crippling alcoholism — but also depicts the strength and determination the two embody to overcome those flaws and forgive each other.
Before marrying Kitty, Oppenheimer carries on an affair with a student and avowed communist named Jean Tatlock. He later visits her once more while married and, after sleeping with her, ends their relationship. But that relationship comes back to haunt him doubly. His intimacy with a known communist affects his eligibility for a security clearance and threatens his legacy as an American genius by calling into question his loyalty to America at the outset of the Cold War.
But more importantly, his relationship with Tatlock serves as a wound in his wife’s heart. During a security clearance hearing, Oppenheimer is forced to recount aspects of his relationship with Tatlock. Kitty (portrayed superbly by Emily Blunt) sits behind her husband and, as he talks, is tormented by a vision of Tatlock straddling her husband and locking eyes with her. Kitty’s face is twisted into a mess of pain, fear, and rage.
But Kitty forgives her husband for his infidelity. When Oppenheimer learns of Tatlock’s death — said to be suicide but implied to perhaps be assassination — he disappears and is discovered by Kitty crying in the woods. He tells her what he did and about Tatlock’s death; Kitty voices a chief theme of the film, telling her husband that he doesn’t get to do something awful and then expect to be pitied for it. He takes her message to heart and learns to take responsibility for his actions, including the creation of the horrific atomic bomb.
Kitty has her own flaws, too. Drinking is perhaps chief among them. Kitty and Oppenheimer meet at a cocktail party, where the scientist helps the then-28-year-old to his secret stash of liquor. After their marriage, Oppenheimer realizes just how severe his wife’s alcohol issues are: he comes home one night to find her drunk at the kitchen table, sitting in the dark, while their newborn baby boy cries. He takes care of his son first, asking his friend Haakon Chevalier and his wife to take care of the boy until Kitty can curb her drinking. Historically, Kitty never quite kicked the alcohol habit, though the film indicates she managed, with her husband’s support, to keep it under control.
Oppenheimer also isn’t Kitty’s first husband but her fourth, and she leaves husband Richard Harrison to marry Oppenheimer. Despite her host of broken marriages, Kitty remains faithful to Oppenheimer and the two are married for nearly 30 years, until Oppenheimer’s death in 1967. Kitty died five years later. Despite their flaws and even the wounds they deal to each other, the film portrays a degree of intimacy between Oppenheimer and his wife which is rarely seen in Hollywood productions. When the Trinity bomb test goes well, the first thing Oppenheimer does is send a message to Kitty, who has been waiting fearfully for news of her husband’s success. Later on, Kitty berates Oppenheimer for shaking a scientist’s hand who testifies against the father of the nuclear bomb during a crucial security clearance hearing. Decades later, the same scientist approaches Oppenheimer at a White House awards ceremony; Kitty refuses to shake his hand.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film comes when Oppenheimer tells his lawyer Kitty will testify on his behalf during the security clearance hearing. When his lawyer asks if that’s really a good idea, Oppenheimer assures him it is, explaining, “Kitty and I have walked through fire together.” The following is one of the most enjoyable moments in the film’s three-hour runtime. Kitty sits down across from the security clearance board’s bulldog of a lawyer and calmly, coolly, and even wittily baffles him.
“Oppenheimer” tells a story of deeply-flawed human beings, so flawed that the protagonist invents one of the most catastrophically horrific weapons any man has used against another. The film does not depict a perfect, healthy, happy marriage — to do so would be to lie about an historical truth. Instead, “Oppenheimer” shows us a husband and wife who love each other enough to forgive one another’s flaws and strive to do better, a husband and wife who love each other enough to fight against even the U.S. government for the sake of each other, a husband and wife who learn to look forward together, instead of dwelling on their broken pasts, a husband and wife who “walked through fire together.”
“Oppenheimer” offers us a vision not of joy and marital bliss but of strength in the face of terrible adversity.
S.A. McCarthy serves as a news writer at The Washington Stand.