American Experience: Season 21, Episode 1

The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer (26 Jan. 2009)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
Your rating:
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 -/10 X  
Ratings: 8.2/10 from 62 users  
Reviews: 2 user | 2 critic

This biography presents a complex and revealing portrait of one of America's most influential scientists.



0Check in

Watch Now

From $1.99 on Amazon Video

« Previous Episode | 250 of 320 Episodes | Next Episode »


1 video »


Episode credited cast:
Harold Agnew ...
Jeremy Bernstein ...
Robert Christy ...
Michael Cumpsty ...
Freeman Dyson ...
The Voice of Chairman Gray
Roy J. Glauber ...
David Goldberger ...
Ellen Katz ...
The Stenographer
Priscilla McMillan ...
Richard Rhodes ...
Himself - Narrator
Martin J. Sherwin ...


This biography presents a complex and revealing portrait of one of America's most influential scientists.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis



Release Date:

26 January 2009 (USA)  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


See  »

Did You Know?


This is David Strathairn's second portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer; the first was in the 1989 telefilm Day One (1989). See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

This FAQ is empty. Add the first question.

User Reviews

Not Smart Enough.
20 June 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born to a German Jewish immigrant and a delicate lady from Baltimore in 1904. His father gave him a present of a mineral collection. "Oppy" became fascinated and wrote the New York Mineralogical Society and they, thinking he was an adult, invited him to give a presentation. He had to stand tall to see over the lectern because he was only eleven years old. He was pretty smart.

In his maturity, in 1954, he was interrogated by a committee investigating the possibility of his having communist leanings. David Strathairn -- groomed like Oppy -- renders his statements at the trial, directly taken from transcripts. He does a good job. He even LOOKS a bit like Oppy, although actually nobody really looked much like Oppy, who looked as if, had you shaken his family tree, an alien might fall out. No one had more piercing eyes, slitted and set wide apart, in a head adorned with pointed ears.

He conquered Harvard in three years and went on to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge for advanced study. He chagrined to find that he was too clumsy working with his hands in a laboratory. The child prodigy had encountered his limits, so he moved to Germany and studied theoretical physics, which at the time was all about subatomic particles.

Back in the USA he taught at Berkeley and wasn't considered a very good teacher. His course content was itself extremely challenging and Oppy spoke too quickly, getting far ahead of the students. It became routine to take his course twice. Eventually he grew more comfortable and became a dazzling and charismatic lecturer. However, no one really came to know him personally because he was arrogant and always on stage. When you talked with him, you spoke to Professor Oppenheimer. "Immensely cruel", on of the expert talking heads says.

But his past associations were grounds for suspicion. He was appointed scientific director of the project that built the first atomic bombs, and he was trailed day and night, his phone bugged, his every utterance balanced by security. Actually, he wasn't nearly paranoid enough or sophisticated in a political sense. He wanted the bomb to be used against Japan in hopes that it would be so terrible that it would bring an end to war, the same mistake made by the inventors of dynamite and the machine gun.

Personally, in the 1930s he had a stormy relationship with a young woman who was a member of the Communist Party. Communism wasn't anathema yet and Oppy was sympathetic to their views on unemployment, the Spanish Civil War, and the Okies. The FBI spent thirty years trying to prove that he himself had been a member of the party and they failed. Still, his past associations were to haunt him. As scientific director of the program to develop the first atom bomb, he was followed day and night by the FBI and other security forces. His phone was bugged. Every offhand remark was gone over with a magnifying glass in a hunt for a hint of communist leanings.

In the post-war years he was indifferent to the development of the super-powerful hydrogen bomb, which he considered not a weapon of war but a weapon of terror. One bomb would take out the greater New York metropolitan area and radioactive fallout would take out much of the remainder of the east coast. His apathy was interpreted as opposition. His statement that the hydrogen bomb was a "dreadful weapon" was evidence of his communist leanings.

The USSR of course developed its own atomic bomb, with help from a Los Alamos spy, Claus Fuchs, and later its own hydrogen bomb. The country became hysterical, gripped by a fear that America would collapse because there were communists walking the streets posing as normal citizens. Someone had to hang. A special investigation of Oppy was launched. The evidence amassed against him included his liaison with a woman who was a member of the communist party in the 1930s. It concluded that "more probably than not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent for the Soviet Union." Oppy demanded a hearing to save his dignity but it turned into a kangaroo court with the FBI bugging Oppy's lawyers and passing on the defense strategy to the prosecution. A skilled prosecutor broke him down, confused him, led him to contradict himself, and made him look like a lying fool. He was never even accused of betraying a government secret, let alone convicted of doing it. Oppy lost his security clearance which put an end to his public career and exiled him to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, which, if you ask me, is not a bad place to be exiled to in a nation that has gone half nuts.

Oppy felt that nuclear weapons were necessary to defense but that they needn't be bigger than their targets, and that they shouldn't form of the basis around which our national security was based. The humiliation and disgrace suffered by Oppenheimer effectively removed the last voice of nuclear moderation from public discourse. The way was now open to bigger and better bombs, as many as possible. In the year of the hearings, 1954, the United States had about 300 nuclear weapons. By the end of the 20th century, it had more than 70,000.

It's a first-rate episode in an exceptional series.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

Message Boards

Recent Posts
This years intro... ag-wktn
When will we see a film about that remarkable hero, Ida B Wells? Swing-lo
When are they going to make a movie on this? bette1981
What happened to the 'The?' trescia-1
The Satellite Sky craviola880
JFK powersroc

Contribute to This Page

Create a character page for: