Trump’s Trials, Plus Barbie and Oppie
On this episode of Start Making Sense, Joan Walsh talks about prosecuting the ex-president, and John Powers discuses this summer’s two biggest movies.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news.Start Making Sense hosted by Jon Wiener, Edge of Sports hosted by Dave Zirin, The Time of Monsters hosted by Jeet Heer.
This month, Donald Trump will be facing four indictments in four different jurisdictions at the same time, each for multiple felonies. Yet, Republicans still want him as their candidate. On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, Joan Walsh comments on the former President's latest legal developments, and the latest poll numbers.
Also on this episode: Barbie is one of the most feminist blockbuster films ever made, and it grossed $774 million worldwide in its first ten days. In the same period, Oppenheimer made $400 million worldwide. John Powers joins the podcast to discuss this summer’s two big Hollywood hits. He’s Critic at Large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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This month, Donald Trump will be facing four indictments in four different jurisdictions at the same time, each for multiple felonies. Yet Republicans still want him as their candidate. On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, Joan Walsh comments on the former President’s latest legal developments, and the latest poll numbers.
Also on this episode: Barbie is one of the most feminist blockbuster films ever made, and it grossed $774 million worldwide in its first 10 days. In the same period, Oppenheimer made $400 million worldwide. John Powers joins the podcast to discuss this summer’s two big Hollywood hits. He’s critic at large for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
(Host) Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show: “Barbie” is the most explicitly feminist movie ever made, and it grossed $774 million worldwide in its first ten days. In the same period ‘Oppenheimer” made $400 million worldwide. John Powers will discuss this summer’s two big Hollywood hits. But first: The felonies faced by Donald Trump continue to multiply – but Republicans still want him as their candidate. Joan Walsh will comment – in a minute.
Jon Wiener: One introductory note: After this segment was recorded, Special Counsel Jack Smith announced the charges he was bringing against Trump for his crimes leading up to January 6. Three conpiracies: one to defraud the United States, a secnd to obstuct an official government proceeding, and a third to deprive people of civil rights. Trump is also charged with a four count, obstructing an official proceeding. All are felonies.
Donald Trump this month will be facing four indictments for crimes in four different jurisdictions at the same time. That level of legal exposure would put most mafia bosses to shame. For comment, we turn to Joan Walsh. She’s national affairs correspondent for The Nation Magazine. She’s been a commentator on MSNBC and CNN. She’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The LA Times. And, she served as editor of Salon for six years. We reached her today at home in Manhattan. Joan, welcome back.
(Guest) Joan Walsh: Thanks, Jon. Great to be with you.
Jon Wiener: Trump had already been charged with felonies in two separate cases, and two more are likely this month. If that happens, Trump will have to spend much of the next year traveling up and down the eastern seaboard, defending himself in courtrooms in New York, Washington, Atlanta, and Fort Lauderdale, while he’s campaigning for the presidency. Let’s start with last week’s news about the Mar-a-Lago case involving classified documents. The special counsel last week informed Trump about new federal criminal charges for his seeking to delete security camera footage at Mar-a-Lago. This brings the total number of charges in that one case to 40, starting with holding onto classified documents, including conspiracy to obstruct the government’s repeated attempts to reclaim the classified material. The new charges, you wrote, in The Nation were a bit of a letdown. If that was anyone else in America, being charged by federal prosecutors with three felonies would be a life changing disaster.
Joan Walsh: Yeah. It’s a big deal. And these charges do put him even in deeper trouble, but he was already very much on track to be going to jail for a long time. So, I couldn’t get all that excited. Also, like most people, I was waiting for indictments related to January 6th. And we don’t know exactly what they’re going to be, but there almost certainly will be some. And, I’ve said all along, every one of his crimes matters, that Alvin Bragg got to him first, and it was business fraud charges, and he would probably just pay a fine. People were let down by that. I said, “No, it’s a good thing. Just let the system work.” I still feel that. But I think there’s no way around feeling like the biggest crime is attempting to overthrow our democracy.
Jon Wiener: Yeah.
Joan Walsh: I think we’re all, consciously or not, really waiting for that one, and to see exactly what he’s charged with. Because what we’ve learned from Jack Smith’s first two steps out into the spotlight, he’s very thorough. He’s a good writer. When he unseals his indictments, he does it with a certain amount of
Jon Wiener: Yeah, I learned from your piece that someone drained a swimming pool at Mar-a-Lago that flooded the servers that stored the surveillance cam footage. But, I guess that could happen to any of us.
Joan Walsh: Oh, who among us hasn’t done that, right? I mean, no, it’s hilarious. And I mentioned it, but it’s not part of this action. My safest bet would be that they tried to do it, but it didn’t work. But, it’s really quite the coincidence that that would happen. And it was by the same – the new co-defendant, Carlos de Oliveira – he was the one who is said to have mistakenly done that.
Jon Wiener: Reminds some of us of the 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes. Also, in Atlanta last week, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis told the media she plans to announce a charging decision in the Georgia vote count case during the first three weeks of August. She said, “The work is accomplished. We’ve been working for two and a half years. We are ready to go.” Presumably, the charge would be conspiracy to commit election fraud. How strong is the evidence in that case?
Joan Walsh: Well, I think all of us feel – who’ve heard his conversation with Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who’s a Republican – I feel like that alone is pretty amazing evidence. But she’s also talked to a whole lot of other people, both in Fulton County and connected with Fulton County elections procedures, as well as Trump allies, and possible co-conspirators. So, she’s done her homework. She’s done a lot. And, she’s interviewed phony electors from other states. Like Smith, she seems to have her hands on a number of different ways that this could have played out.
Jon Wiener: Elsewhere on the legal front, of course, Trump, his whole career has filed his own lawsuits against people who are after him in court. But, a federal judge has thrown out Trump’s $475 million defamation lawsuit against CNN. The network had said, Trump’s claims of election fraud were, “The big lie.” Trump sued, because he said the phrase, “the big lie,” associated him unfairly with Hitler. Just to quote from his legal documents here, he said it was, “A deliberate effort by CNN to propagate an association between the plaintiff and one of the most repugnant figures in modern history.” The judge in the case had actually been nominated by Trump in 2019. He sits in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, not far from Mar-a-Lago. His ruling declared that CNN’s words were opinion, not fact. And therefore, could not be the subject of a defamation claim. I googled Trump and Hitler, and I got 17 million results. So apparently, it’s not just CNN that has had this idea.
Joan Walsh: No, I think it’s a good idea not to hang around with Nazis if you don’t want to get compared to Hitler, and not to call white supremacists, and actual Nazis good people, when they march to protect Confederate statues. I think that Trump has only himself to blame for the many, many associations with Hitler. It was widely said that he had a copy of Mein Kampf on his bedside table when he was married to his first wife, Ivana. I never saw it there. So I can’t testify. But, it’s not shocking.
Jon Wiener: And we also learned that Trump’s PAC has spent more than $40 million on legal costs this year. That’s the last six months for himself and many other people whose legal bills he’s paying. The PAC is called Save America. It is spending more on his legal defense than it is on anything in his presidential campaign. And, the $40 million in legal expenses is more than Trump’s campaign raised in the second quarter of 2023. It brings his post-presidential legal spending by his PAC to $56 million. And, everybody knows the cost of providing lawyers for himself and the dozens of other people who he’s trying to help, are going to continue to mushroom. The trials haven’t even begun yet. And those are expensive.
My favorite charge against Trump is mail fraud and wire fraud. Trump defrauding, not the United States, but his own supporters, because after the election, he appealed to these donors, sometimes 25 times a day, to help fight the election results in court and contribute to a defense fund. But there was no defense fund. He used the money that they contributed for other purposes. So, Trump’s crimes include defrauding his own supporters. They don’t seem to mind.
Joan Walsh: They really don’t seem to mind. But, Jack Smith has said to mind, this could be one of the charges that Jack Smith brings. He really seems to be tracking that money, and the claims that were made about it. And now, the way that it’s being used. So, he’s not out of the woods here with any of these things that are possibly illegal.
Jon Wiener: The big one, as you said, will be when Trump goes on trial for attempting to seize power through fraud and force on January 6th. As you’ve said, we’re not quite sure what the exact charges will be. Seems now like that trial could take place during election year, almost certainly after the primaries. But possibly, before election day in 2024. What effect have the dozens of felony charges against Trump had thus far on his standing with Republican voters?
Joan Walsh: They have not hurt him one bit. Arguably, they’ve helped him. He’s really opened up an enormous lead over Ron DeSantis, who was really surging earlier this year. Now, DeSantis’s problem is DeSantis. It’s not so much what’s going on with Trump. But, Trump’s numbers right now are a bit higher than they’ve been for a while. He’s up over 50% among likely Republican primary voters. There was a New York Times poll today – New York Times Sienna Poll, very reliable; although, national polls in a process that initially starts state by state aren’t always the best way to get a look at the dynamics. But the individual state level polls aren’t much better for DeSantis or for anybody else. Trump is really not being hurt. And I’ve listened to folks on the right, never Trumpers, not pro-Trumpers, but folks on the right who say, ‘Well, just because this is true now, doesn’t mean it will always be true.’
Of course, I can’t say it’ll always be true. But, there is a scenario in which, especially, given that the January 6th charges are likely to be just gnarlier and more violent, okay, maybe not with his own hands, beating policemen with flags, and spraying mace and bear spray and everything else. I think, if people are really forced to dwell, which they should be, on the carnage that day, who was injured, who died, the nature of their injuries, I think that that might have some sobering effect. But, I have said that before, and nothing has made a difference so far.
Jon Wiener: The New York Times poll came out this weekend, Monday, seemed to make it clear that Trump is so far ahead, and this is looking at the history of primary polling that he is, right now, we can say, almost certain to win the Republican nomination. The Republican National Convention is not until July 15th. And, at that point, we certainly will know the charges on January 6th. The trial probably will not have started. So, at the convention, he will probably be indicted, but not convicted. What do you think Trump’s acceptance speech will be about?
Joan Walsh: American carnage, again, and again, and again, and how electing him is the way to protect, not only him, but good people that have been harmed by this legal process. He’ll be able to pardon people. I think, he will not hide from these charges at all. He will revel in them. I think, he considers all of this, all of his legal troubles, part of his brief for why he must be restored.
Jon Wiener: We’ve talked about how these charges are not hurting Trump at all with his base in the Republican Party. They seem to be even helping him. If we look at the rest of the electorate, he’ll be running for president charged with dozens of felonies, maybe some convictions by election day. His one chance of avoiding jail time and convictions would be to get elected, pardon himself, or order the attorney general to drop whatever charges are underway. So, that will be the logic of his campaign. Last time he lost by 7 million votes. I wonder whether people who did not vote for him in 2020 will become supporters of his after dozens of felony indictments and maybe some trials underway. Is this going to get him more votes than he had in 2020?
Joan Walsh: Well, he got more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, which surprised me at the time. So, there are a lot of people out there who I don’t know, and who are doing crazy things with their votes, and harbor a real malice toward the country that we are becoming. I just can’t help but think that it will hurt him with average voters, with people who maybe did vote for him in 2016, but not in ’20. I don’t see what makes them go back to him after that.
Most of these questions about, “How much does this bother you?” They look really different among independents. Independents are very bothered by the charges. So, obviously, Democrats have made up their mind. But I think, for both sides, this is going to be a rallying cry. Disaffected voters are going to be told, ‘You’ve just got to come out. You can’t take the risk that this guy becomes president again, and pardons his cronies, pardons himself.’ If you’re not feeling Biden right now, there’s going to be a specific campaign, I think, to get those people to the ballot box. And I think that they’ll do it. I think that this is just an existential threat to our democracy.
Jon Wiener: And let’s remember that in the midterms, in 2022, virtually every Republican candidate who was a Trump election denier who ran in a truly contested election went down to defeat.
Joan Walsh: Right.
Jon Wiener: It didn’t work in 2022.
Joan Walsh: It didn’t. He wasn’t on the ballot they’ll say. But, it didn’t work. And, I think, it will only be more so – I think, the number of even Republicans who are going to be saying, ‘We’ve got to move on from this,’ is going to grow.
Jon Wiener: So, charging Trump with crimes for the January 6th insurrection is the final guarantee that 2024 will be more a referendum on Trump than a referendum on Biden. It seems to me. And, it seems to me, that is a good thing for Democrats.
Joan Walsh: It is, because of the built-in, baked-in bias against Biden, largely because of his age. I think it’s unfortunate in certain ways. The economy is astonishingly hot right now. And, wages are up, and inflation is coming down. It’s hard for me to believe that Democrats don’t have a great story to tell. But I think that fear of Trump is probably a bigger and better motivator than, ‘Thanks, Joe,’ or ‘Thanks, Biden-omics.’ I mean, I think they’re running on a lot of different messages, and they’re certainly out front publicizing what their record is. They’re not hiding from it and nor should they. But, I just feel that the overwhelming issue in the general is going to be, “Do what you have to do to keep that man out of the White House again.”
Jon Wiener: Joan Walsh: you can read her piece, “Trump’s Legal Nightmare Just Got Even Worse,” at thenation.com. Thank you, Joan.
Joan Walsh: Thanks, Jon.
Jon Wiener, host: The Barbie movie in its first 10 days made $774 million worldwide. In the same period, Oppenheimer made $400 million worldwide. Together, that’s more than $1 billion in 10 days. For comment on this summer’s two gigantic Hollywood hits, we turn to John Powers. He’s critic at large on the NPR show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where he has something like 5 million listeners. He’s worked for 25 years as a critic and columnist first for the LA Weekly, then for Vogue. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Nation. John, welcome back.
(Guest) John Powers: Glad to be here.
JW: You and I are not exactly the target audience for Barbie, the doll or the movie, but we still have opinions and ideas. What did you think of the Barbie movie?
JP: I think it was probably about as good as a Barbie movie could be.
JP: Starting from the premise that you’re having to make a film about a consumer product whose owners or controllers will in some ways stop you from doing certain things if you make something too wildly subversive, I thought it was filled with good jokes. It was high-spirited. It was bright pink, and I liked that. It wasn’t stupid. In all of those ways, I had a good time. I would add that it’s so much better than so many of the other movies that are coming out. Once we start attacking it or at least criticizing it, we should at least acknowledge the fact that this is a film about a doll that The Nation Podcast can talk about and not feel stupid in talking about it.
JW: I thought the movie was loads of fun. I agree that it was hilarious. It was smart. It was, let’s also add, the most explicit feminist movie ever made, I think. I have one basic problem with this movie. It ignores what made Barbie the doll special. Barbie has breasts. Barbie has blonde hair. Barbie is tall and thin. And feminists for decades have argued that Barbie encourages girls to hate their bodies. And scientific research says it does have that effect on girls. But the movie winks at all that by having our protagonist describe herself as “Stereotypical Barbie.” And she learns a lot from Weird Barbie, Kate McKinnon, who is wonderful and a fount of energy and good ideas in this movie. Stereotypical Barbie says she wants to, in her words, “be real,” and that’s kind of the drama of this movie. But the point of being real, first of all, would be for Barbie not to look like Stereotypical Barbie, a blonde with big breasts. And that’s the big thing that’s missing here.
JP: Well, it’s hard to know. I mean, you have to start with Stereotypical Barbie and there were other Barbies. So I mean, I remember when we were young, there was only one Barbie. And it was quickly pointed out that in addition to body shaming women who didn’t have the Barbie body, it was also racist because not everybody is white. And over the years, they did try to expand the Barbie franchise. So I’m more forgiving about that than maybe you, all things considered. I mean, if one were to attack the politics of it, and which we love to do here at The Nation Podcast.
JW: Yes, we do.
JP: Okay. Is I think one could point out that it does have a very binary sense of gender. That’s the thing that’s unmodern about it, is there are Barbies and there are Kens and then the Michael Cera character who could have somehow been something different to that, or the Kate McKinnon character who could have somehow been something that isn’t that. And I wonder two things about that. One is whether that if you’re trying to do a mass hit, you wanted to go there, or two, whether Mattel thought, ‘That’s too much.’ Suddenly we don’t want Trans Barbie. We don’t want a Barbie who’s a “they.” We don’t want a Ken who’s a “they.” We want him and her. But it’s a very him and her movie with kind of faintly retro visions of what female and male are.
JW: You’re absolutely right. This is not a gender fluid movie.
JW: But the people who made Barbie did have a lot of fun with feminist theory, like when Barbie tells Gloria, her articulate friend in the real world, “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you’ve robbed it of its power.” That’s a joke for the gender studies grad students in the audience.
JP: Right. It is. And, of course, because as we know it’s not true, it’s even a better joke. And because one of the things that’s striking is that if you are of a certain age is that the speech that she gives, that The LA Times thought worthy of reprinting in whole, such a speech, was I thought, “Oh, I remember hearing essentially that speech from women in 1974.” Far from being a breakthrough feminist idea, this is a 50-year-old speech that still has power and therefore proves the point that by saying it, it doesn’t topple the patriarchy, because the patriarchy is still there. Probably one of the things I liked least in the film is the way that every now and then it has to pause to tell you what to think. The great French filmmaker, Robert Bresson in his book of aphorisms, one of them was, “Hide your ideas but not so that nobody can find them.” And I think that probably when you’re making a film like this, if you didn’t have those speeches, huge parts of the audience may not actually get it.
JW: Well, we salute you for being the only person to bring up Bresson in the context of the Barbie movie. You’re blowing my mind here.
JP: No. Good. I’m glad
JW: The movie does wink at all of this throughout though. There’s that other great moment where Gloria, the real world depressed mother and housewife who works at Mattel, has been secretly drawing rogue Barbie models at her desk, “Crippling Shame Barbie” and “Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie.” So this is a lot of fun the movie is having. We’re not talking here about “Astronaut Barbie” or “Dr. Barbie.”
JP: No. No, we’re not. There are lots of really good jokes. Some of the jokes about men and wanting to watch the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League clearly is very much of this moment. And you have the kind of silly, kids could like jokes of the cars and the pink, and then you have the joke you mentioned earlier, the feminist theory joke and crippling the patriarchy with the speech. You have a lot of different levels of things going on where you’re trying to juggle it.
I think the true feminist meaning of this film in the grand scheme is that it’s the most successful movie ever made by a woman and that Greta Gerwig has gone from herself being Barbie, because it’s kind of an autobiographical film, being the kind of ditzy blonde in lots of movies, to being the person who can make the thing that’s going to make $1 billion and on something that people weren’t sure you could make $1 billion on – and have it be a film that’s critically admired. The real feminist thing is that she did that, much more than I think anything in the film.
JW: And as Michelle Goldberg argued in her column in The New York Times, the unfortunate thing is the lesson the Hollywood studios have taken from this, not that they should make more films, feminist films, for girls and women but that they should make more films about toys, more product films.
JP: Oh, yes. The Supreme Court got in early when it declared that corporations are people. And we’re now to the point where products are characters. It is very much part of the way capitalism does start controlling levels of thinking and art that you couldn’t even quite be – you would never have guessed that you should make movies about products. There was the Sneaker movie earlier this year. A very enjoyable movie. What’s interesting is that some of these movies about products are being made by some of the smartest people around and that they are quite entertaining and are more adult than a lot of the movies that are being made. So you think that you go see a movie about Barbie and it’s actually more intelligent and more thoughtful and more of a commentary on the world than probably 95% of the movies that had come out.
JW: So Barbie gives us a lot to think about, a lot to argue with, lots of great singing and dancing, lots of fun. What more could you want from a movie? Well, you might want to see a movie like Oppenheimer, a different kind of movie. I thought it was a terrific movie, three hours of absorbing drama, compelling characters, sophisticated storytelling about real historical problems. What did you think?
JP: I thought it was going to be terrible going in, partly because I had not admired his film Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, which I thought kind of made a hash of a historical thing. And I thought that it would be – that I wasn’t sure what he could do with this. Initially at the beginning, I wasn’t sure. There’s a little hint of A Beautiful Mind to it with – when somebody’s saying something and the sparks are flying before – but having said all of that, it is an intelligent movie. It was subtle in ways I didn’t expect it to be.
For us unrepentant, old lefties, it’s one of the rare Hollywood movies that spends quite so much time showing how even in the midst of World War II, the obsession with communism and finding subversives was running through stuff. When people were being heroic and giving their entire lives to defending the United States, the thought of lots of people in Washington is, ‘They may be communists. We have to stop them.’ I’m not sure I’ve seen any Hollywood movie that establishes how completely that operation was going on and the way people were thinking. So that in itself was quite interesting. Oppenheimer’s own politics were left kind of vague partly because I think Christopher Nolan isn’t really interested in them, and he was kind of vague I think in his political thinking anyway. He wasn’t like his brother, Frank, who was more committed. And in fact, if you’ve ever seen Frank talk, you think, “Oh, the movie’s a little unfair to Frank Oppenheimer,” who was a brilliant physicist. He’s made a little goofy in the film, but in fact in real life, he’s a beloved figure who knew lots about physics.
JW: I wonder what you thought about Christopher Nolan’s decision not to show any documentary images of the effects of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is the big criticism that lots of people have raised, because the theme of the movie is the horror of the bomb and how it looms large in Oppenheimer’s own thinking about his own life. Manohla Dargis in The New York Times wrote, “The horror of the bombings and the magnitude of the suffering they caused suffuse the film despite the fact that we don’t see any documentary footage.” Do you think that that is adequate?
JP: I didn’t feel that I needed to see it. I thought that a lot of that footage is some of the most famous footage of the last 100 years. You could imagine if you showed it, people saying you’re exploiting the death and murder of those people to make a Hollywood movie about a famous American. I didn’t think it was any less powerful. There’s a bad scene in the film, I think, where Oppenheimer’s talking and he’s seeing the people turn into the Hiroshima victims. I just didn’t like that scene. Also, he didn’t see it happen. He saw the one bomb. He was in the United States. He wasn’t down there with a newsreel camera. He felt it in the moment that it happened without seeing it.
And for most people, that’s what it was. And Oppenheimer wasn’t as good in fighting against it as he should have been probably. And the film doesn’t let him off the hook. We do see in lots of ways what’s interesting is how he is a vacillating guy who clearly at some level wants to do the thing, partly because you’re doing it. And he is a princeling. His antagonist in the film, Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., very, very well by Robert Downey Jr., who becomes his enemy. They’re two American Jews, okay, who meet. And Oppenheimer is the princeling who comes from the family that has Picassos and Van Goghs on the wall. And Strauss is selling shoes at the same point. And Oppenheimer is more brilliant than he is. And so you have their hatred going together.
But the princeling Oppenheimer, Strauss says of him something almost that the wife says, Kitty, which is essentially, “You wanted to do it and be the hero and you want to be the hero of stopping once you did it. You want credit on both sides, to be both the creator of the bomb and the greatest advocate against the bomb.” And I think that you can imagine that being part of him his entire life, being the special, chosen one. And you see that in the film. The film doesn’t say that, but it shows it.
JW: And that’s one of the great things about this film is what a complex figure they portray without making it easy to understand.
JP: And yet I don’t think Christopher Nolan understands him. One of the interesting things for me with the structure of the film, and it’s something I like maybe a little less, is the structure makes it interesting where you start with the hearings where his security clearance is at stake. So you know from the beginning it’s there. The only problem with doing it out of sequence is it creates a sense of inevitability where once you know that he’s going to get in trouble later, everything he says and does, you start thinking, “Is this going to be the thing that’s going to do it?” And also, one too many people tell him, “You’re going to get yourself in real trouble if you don’t do this.” There’s somehow in which it’s like the Chronicle of a Fall Foretold because built into his beginning is already the ending. And that’s slightly reductive because things could have gone in a different way. But if you told the story straightforwardly, everyone would say, ‘Oh, it’s just another crummy old biopic,’ and it would seem less interesting.
And this allows Nolan to cut corners in not having to show you everything, including lots of boring stuff. So as a narrative feat, I think it’s actually quite successful. It’s just it does tinge the whole sense with, “Oh, yes. This had to happen.”
JW: Well, speaking as a historian, I was very interested in how they convey the debate among the scientists about whether to drop the bomb on a civilian target, a very important historical question that Christopher Nolan wants to make part of this film. One historical element is missing. They talk a little bit about the importance of Russia in the American decision to drop the bomb, but there’s a lot more that they leave out. The movie does say pretty strongly that the motivation of our leaders was to save American lives by forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion that would’ve cost maybe thousands of American lives. That’s what most people think. But they do have Oppenheimer say one time late in the film that Japan was on the verge of surrender anyway. And they do make it clear that the Trinity test was scheduled to come before the Potsdam Conference.
The Potsdam came after the German surrender. It was a meeting between Truman and Stalin to decide on the structure of the post-war world. And it was very important that Stalin understand that America had the bomb. But there’s a lot more historical evidence that a major reason for dropping it was not only to let Russia know that we had the bomb, but that we would use it against our enemies, not just to end World War II, but we could use it during the Cold War too and we did not want Russia to enter the war against Japan, which they did. Two days after the Hiroshima bombing, Russia invaded the peripheral islands of Japan. That threatened to make Russia part of the post-war settlement with Japan, which we really wanted to prevent. We wanted Japan to surrender unconditionally to the United States and not to Russia and the United States. That’s not in the movie. It’s kind of a complicated story, but there’s a lot of other complicated parts of this debate that they do tell. And I think that should have been in the movie.
JP: It should be. I understand why it isn’t, because it’s taken you two minutes to explain it. And equally, there was something in the film called The Day After Trinity, which is now showing on television, which is a very good film. Frank Oppenheimer, I believe, is the one who says a very true thing, “If it ever came out that you’d had these weapons and invaded Japan rather than using them, as a political thing, every soldier who died going in would be used against you in election.” And you know that Harry Truman not being, I think, a grand thinker would be thinking, ‘That’s bad for me politically.’ And so at that simple level, leaving aside grand strategic things, there’s the small thing which is, ‘I don’t want anybody saying I didn’t kill everybody I could,’ which means to say that it’s a hugely overdetermined decision and one that was taken – Oppenheimer’s opinion and none of the scientists’ opinion mattered. The military people and Truman had already made the decision.
What’s touching in a way was somehow Oppenheimer got the job to run things because supposedly he can – he’s the one who can hold things together. He’s got the biggest intellect. And what he can’t see is that they’re all functionaries. They’ve taken what they want from the scientists and what they don’t want really is the scientists’ opinions.
JW: One last thing, Oppenheimer cost $100 million to make. They spent another $100 million promoting them. That’s what they spend making and promoting superhero movies. But this one is not The Avengers. It’s not Spider-Man. This one is a really serious good movie and it made 400 million in its first 10 days. So–
JP: I was saying to a friend, this is the first time maybe in maybe a decade, maybe more, that on the same day, there were two films that came out that reminded me maybe of the glorious days of maybe 1970s film where on a weekend, you could actually have two films that came out and you thought, “Oh, these are actually good and interesting.” Even if you didn’t like them, you thought, “These are real films trying to do something.” I would just say about “Oppenheimer,” as we’re linking it to Barbie, just as I was saying that Barbie is about Greta Gerwig partly, it’s autobiographical, I think Oppenheimer is too. Christopher Nolan clearly has some identification with Oppenheimer. He’s the guy who makes blockbusters. He’s the person who makes hit after hit. And I’m betting that, like Oppenheimer, having made hit after hit, when he goes into the studio people, they all still act like they’re the smart ones and really know what’s going on and that he’s their tool.
JW: Barbie and Oppie, two terrific movies. Our conclusion: hooray for Hollywood! John Powers is critic at large on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Thank you, John. It’s great to have you on the show.
JP: I loved being here.