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This Two-Second Moment in Oppenheimer Is a Nod to a Dark Conspiracy Theory

Oppenheimer was an enormous success at the box office last summer and has been nominated for 13 Oscars at the Academy Awards this Sunday, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. But now that you’ve had plenty of time to see the movie, it’s time to talk about a scene that many people missed. In fact, it’s just two seconds of the film and it might change how you see some of these historical characters.

The Oppenheimer film is based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s race to beat the Nazis at building a nuclear bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer succeeds, of course, but there are spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film or haven’t read the book and care about that kind of thing.

Audiences watch Oppenheimer’s work as it runs in tandem with his personal struggles. There’s the teacher he almost kills with a poisoned apple, the tumultuous relationship with Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, and his ongoing affair with Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh. It’s the depiction of Tatlock’s death where Nolan gives audiences a reason to believe she didn’t actually kill herself.

Tatlock met Oppenheimer in 1936 when she was a graduate student in psychiatry at Stanford and he was a professor at Berkeley. The two started a romantic relationship before Oppenheimer met his eventual wife, but secretly continued the relationship after his marriage.

Crucially, Tatlock was a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, at a time when many progressives in the U.S. were interested in the idea. And even people who are vehemently anti-Communist today can perhaps understand the appeal when you take in the historical context. The stock market crash of 1929 had devastated the economy and the Great Depression sent the unemployment rate soaring to 25%. There were bread lines, large camps of homeless people, and kids going hungry in the streets.

By pretty much any objective measure, unfettered capitalism was failing Americans, and people were looking for alternatives, including Hollywood celebrities sympathetic to the workers’ plight in the 1930s. They would later get caught up in the anti-Communist political hearings of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Some of the political witch hunts of the postwar era targeted people who never actually became Communists, but others were definitely card-carrying believers. People like Oppenheimer and Tatlock were interested in economic systems outside of capitalism, though there’s no evidence Oppenheimer actually joined the Communist Party.

All of that context brings us to the way Tatlock’s troubles are depicted in the movie. As a known Communist, Tatlock was already being surveilled by the FBI, but she became an even more enticing target for federal authorities because of her association with Oppenheimer. The physicist continued to visit Tatlock in San Francisco even when he was supposed to be largely sequestered at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb.

In the film, audiences learn about Tatlock’s death through a scene where Oppenheimer is sitting in the desert after getting a call from San Francisco. His wife Kitty finds him, and he explains how Tatlock died by drowning herself in a bathtub. But if audiences look closely, we get a glimpse of another explanation.

I made the GIF below to highlight the two-second sequence where things aren’t quite what they seem.

Did you catch that? It’s hard to see, given the desaturated color grading of the film. It appeared to me as a flash of “what just happened?” when I saw it in the theater and it was only after it was released on VOD that I was able to revisit it with a closer eye. If you look closely, you won’t just see a woman’s hand in the bathtub water. You’ll see two black-gloved hands holding Tatlock’s head and body down as she struggles.

It feels almost sacrilegious to mess with the cinematography in Oppenheimer in any way—cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is nominated for his work in the film, of course. But in the interest of giving you a clearer idea of what’s happening, here’s what you can see when you up the contrast on the two-second shot.

Gif: Universal Pictures / Gizmodo

It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the theater, but it was included for a very good reason. There are many people who believe Tatlock was murdered by the FBI because she could have potentially shared nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union, a natural ally of American Communists and an uneasy ally of the U.S. in the fight against the Nazis. And the way Tatlock’s death is described in the book definitely helps fuel the conspiracy theories.

Jean Tatlock’s body was found by her father, J.S.P. Tatlock, on Jan. 5, 1944. According to American Prometheus, her dad tried to call a day earlier but couldn’t reach her and just went to her apartment the following day. There was no response with the doorbell, so the 67-year-old Tatlock apparently climbed through a window to gain entry.

From American Prometheus:

Inside the flat, he discovered Jean’s body “lying on a pile of pillows at the end of the bathtub, with her head submerged in the partly filled tub.” For whatever reason, Professor Tatlock did not call the police. Instead, he picked his daughter up and laid her on the sofa in the living room. On the dining room table, he found an unsigned suicide note, scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope. It read in part, “I am disgusted with everything. . . . To those who loved me and helped me, all love and courage. I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t. . . . I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.” From there the words ran into a jagged, illegible line.

The book goes on to explain that Tatlock made some very peculiar choices after discovering his daughter dead, including a decision to burn the letters and photos at the apartment.

Stunned, Tatlock began rummaging about the apartment. Eventually, he found a stack of Jean’s private correspondence and some photographs. Whatever he read in this correspondence inspired him to light a fire in the fireplace. With his dead daughter stretched out on the sofa beside him, he methodically burned her correspondence and a number of photographs. Hours passed. The first phone call he made was to a funeral parlor. Someone at the funeral parlor finally called the police. When they arrived at 5:30 p.m., accompanied by the city’s deputy coroner, papers were still smoldering in the fireplace. Tatlock told the police that the letters and photos had belonged to his daughter. Four and a half hours had passed since he had discovered her body.

The book acknowledges the senior Tatlock acted strangely, but notes that “relatives who stumble upon the suicide of a loved one often behave oddly.”

The book also explains that many people who knew Tatlock thought she had reached a “plateau” of relative stability in her life and that she didn’t seem suicidal. It’s impossible to know, of course, what was actually going through Tatlock’s mind at the time. But it’s undisputed that the FBI was surveilling her and tapping her phone.

The way that Tatlock’s death is handled in the film is interesting for a number of reasons, but one particularly notable aspect is that it’s the only time we see outside of Oppenheimer’s line of vision during any color sequence in the film. The movie jumps back and forth in time, with one timeline in color and another in black and white. Almost all of the color scenes are presented from Oppenheimer’s very narrow perspective. The audience never sees the destruction of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, something a handful of critics didn’t like. But it was a decision that was clearly a conscious choice by the director. Nolan wanted the audience to see the world through Oppenheimer’s eyes, even when he goes through hallucinations, like when he sees bodies obliterated and turn to ash while giving a speech after the victory over Japan.

This sequence depicting Tatlock’s death is the only time we see inside a room that Oppenheimer isn’t presently in, though viewers still see it from the perspective of his mind’s eye. And that’s part of the genius in how this sequence was constructed. We’re presented with Oppenheimer’s idea of what may have happened in that San Francisco apartment when he wasn’t there. Was Tatlock killed by the FBI? It’s an idea that Nolan puts into Oppenheimer’s head to relay to the audience rather than presenting it as objective reality. And on that level, it works because it remains a conspiracy theory we’ll probably never get a definitive answer on.

If I’m being completely honest, I was disappointed with the movie immediately after I saw it. Some of that was probably a product of having such high expectations and going to see it on opening night. I really don’t remember the last time I bought movie tickets weeks in advance, but having read the book I was very interested in how it would translate to the big screen. It wasn’t just the letdown of high expectations though, as there were plenty of moments where I found certain choices to be quite bizarre. For instance, the decision to have Oppenheimer recite his most famous line, “I am become Death,” as an aside during sex felt more like something you’d see in a ham-fisted parody rather than a serious historical drama.

There was also the choice to elevate Oppenheimer’s security clearance battles during the last act of the movie in a way that felt completely out of proportion to the first two acts. The postwar Red Scare and Oppenheimer’s struggles there were appropriate to address, and they worked while they were interwoven with the main story in the first two hours of the film. But the intense focus on the security clearance seemed like such a mismatch given the gravity of World War II. The stakes of the film in the first two-thirds are all about beating the Nazis to build this weapon that’s changing the world. The stakes are literally about the potential end of the planet. Then suddenly the stakes become all about whether Oppenheimer gets to keep his security clearance at a time when he really didn’t even need it for his work. I left the theater thinking, who gives a shit about his security clearance?

After a second viewing, I feel like I enjoyed the movie more, though my initial criticisms didn’t go away. It seems extremely likely that Oppenheimer will walk away with plenty of Oscars on Sunday, deservedly so, as it’s a good movie, even with its flaws. It also handled Tatlock’s death in a way that gives an appropriate nod to the conspiracy theories. If you don’t believe Tatlock killed herself, you’re presented with that possibility, even if it’s the sometimes unreliable narrator in Oppenheimer’s head.

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