Over the weekend, like droves of others across the country, I participated in the cultural phenomenon known as Barbenheimer. While Barbie was—in my colleague Rich Juzwiak’s words—a “clever dressing-down of the patriarchy,” Oppenheimer offered a more succinct, searing look at a byproduct of it: state-sanctioned mass destruction in pursuit of ultimate dominance and one man’s guilty conscience only after the damage was done.
By now you’ve seen the range of responses to Oppenheimer, from the essential to the deeply silly. Obviously, women didn’t get an invitation to the build-a-bomb bonanza of the 1940s—so the fact that a woman doesn’t speak until 20 minutes into the movie makes sense. Still, the film could have benefitted from, like, a few more details about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s lover, Jean Tatlock.
Tatlock, portrayed by Florence Pugh, isn’t in the film all that long, and yet, she’s inspired a slew of questions from audiences—namely, who, apart from Oppenheimer’s apparent situationship, was she? In short: a cool, complex, and compelling woman who did a lot more in her 29 years of life than ride dick, reject flowers, and ultimately, choose to end it (supposedly).
Though I think Oppenheimer is Nolan’s best film, his portrayal of Tatlock reminded me of President Obama’s memoir, where he described women he once romantically pursued as “ethereal bisexual” or a “long-legged socialist.” There’s nary a historical retelling by a man in which a fully-realized woman doesn’t become a manic pixie dream girl-shaped footnote, but I really must advocate for Tatlock, a worthy subject in her own right, to get a feature film of her own. Complete with more titillating sex scenes, of course.
Tatlock was a card-carrying communist, sure. But, as detailed in An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer’s Life, she was also a graduate of Vassar College and Stanford Medical School, a trained psychiatrist who treated children, and a reporter and writer for the Western Worker, the Communist Party’s publication. Not bad for a gal in the 1940s, no?
As a person, Tatlock was described in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (of which the film is adapted) as a “free-spirited woman with a hungry, poetic mind.” She was, as friends remembered, “bold,” “impetuous,” and possessed a desire to help people in need. While a bit of this could be gleaned from Pugh’s portrayal, some vital context was explicitly left out of the film—the first, being her apparent queerness. Writings from Tatlock to friends describe questions about where exactly she fell on the sexuality spectrum. According to those that knew her, she had relationships with both men and women. Of course, Tatlock’s sexual identity isn’t pertinent to the conceptualization and construction of a weapon of mass destruction. Her relationship with Oppenheimer and their shared interests and leftist affiliations are. But could it have provided important information about her complicated relationship with him? Definitely.
What’s perhaps worse is the way the film treats her apparent suicide as a fact. While it’s shown that Oppenheimer was surveilled by the FBI for his connections to communism, it’s known that Tatlock was too. In the years that followed her death, its suspicious circumstances prompted speculation. American intelligence agencies don’t exactly have the soundest reputation when it comes to the assassination of people like Tatlock and yet, the questionable circumstances surrounding her death weren’t mentioned in the film. Given how much Oppenheimer hinges on the probe of his own communist sympathy, this also feels like a head-scratcher.
“Jean was Robert’s truest love,” a friend of Oppenheimer’s remarked in American Prometheus as reported in Vanity Fair. “He loved her the most. He was devoted to her.” So devoted was Oppenheimer, in fact, that he proposed to Tatlock more than once only to be rejected each time. These instances, too, are not depicted in the film. Instead, the audience sees a handful of occasions in which they have sex, and later, break up as Oppenheimer is set to begin the Manhattan Project. Their bond may be apparent, but vital information about what sustained it for several years is sadly lacking. I mean, Oppenheimer wasn’t down bad just because the sex was bomb (pun intended). She was, as we say in 2023, an indisputable baddie. Frankly, Nolan’s interpretation doesn’t make that quite clear enough.
It’s been said time and again—by innumerable people—that women like Tatlock deserve the Hollywood treatment, too. So, just in case someone like, I don’t know, Greta Gerwig, is reading this: I have some ideas.