THE RECENTLY concluded PBS miniseries "Oppenheimer" provides a case study of the liberties which filmmakers sometimes take with historical detail in the name of a feasible and entertaining presentation of truth.
Peter Goodchild, who produced the docudrama for the BBC, maintains he can verify 80 percent of what appears on the screen with the rest "invented or condensed simply to keep the story moving on." To him, the need to resort to "dramatic convenience" resulted from the problems he faced in dealing with many complex characters and events taking place over a long period of time.
Since most viewers accept what they see on television as reality or, in this case, history, the final -- but inaccurate -- image they will get of J. Robert Oppenheimer is of a man destroyed by the military in order to facilitate the development of the hydrogen bomb.
To what extent, then, does dramatic license excuse errors of fact and distortions of historical record in docudramas? Since "Roots" blitzed the nation in 1977, historians, media critics and producers have debated the level of truth required in productions purporting to tell it the way it really was.
More and more, people's perceptions of subjects such as Watergate, the Holocaust, the presidents and the Vietnam war come from watching history according to television. Did the portrayal of Hitler's final solution in "The Holocaust," "Playing for Time" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" recreate the savagery of Nazi Germany or did the docudramas mute the horrors in order to retain their audiences? Did Marco Polo set out on his travels because he was involved with the daughter of a courtesan and had to get out of Genoa? Did Golda Meir get into the kibbutz only because she had a phonograph? Does it even matter?
David Wolper, the producer of "Roots," "Blind Ambition" and the historical film "Bridge at Remagen," believes docudramas should provide "an overall truth" and that audiences can go to history books for the details. To him, history on television is "supposed to give an emotional feeling and a sense of what it was like.". He notes that with the exception of courtrooms and the Oval Office, conversations seldom get committed to paper. Consequently, a writer must make up words to provide a sense of what people actually said. Likewise, he considers it valid to create a scene in order to portray events leading up to the written material the writers have to work with.
Still, "Oppenheimer" emphasizes the risks of condensing events and having people assume roles that inaccurately portray their true historical activities. The Army, reviewing the producers' request for cooperation, found Goodchild's portrayal of Gen. Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer's boss, to be very "negative." In reply, the producer explained that part of the problem "stemmed from the use we make of him as a sounding board for all scientific explanations and this makes him seem less intelligent that he obviously was." At the same time, Goodchild claimed that he had a "great deal of evidence" from both the scientists who worked with him and his military colleagues that Groves "was a difficult and demanding man."
Gen. K.D. Nichols, the district engineer for the Manhattan Project and a featured character in the series talked with Goodchild about Gen. Groves. However, after watching the series, Nichols said the portrayal of Groves contained little resemblance to the information he provided. At the same time, Nichols observed, "Not a single scene in which I appear is historically correct."
Viewers may dismiss many of these historical inaccuracies as insignificant to the portrayal of Oppenheimer as a tragic and martyred hero to the cause of nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, misrepresentation of characters, errors of fact and distortion of detail, whether large or small, erode the credibility of the entire work.
Perhaps only a steam engine enthusiast would know to object to the use of footage of diesel locomotives instead of steam engines pulling trains on which Groves and Nichols traveled during the war. It may be nitpicking to note that colonels do not chauffeur generals, as the series regularly portrays then-Col. Nichols doing, when in fact both men had their own drivers. It may not even matter that Nichols and Groves seldom traveled anywhere together anyway since each was fully occupied with his own work. Goodchild's explanation that he placed the two men together so often in order to use Nichols as a sounding board for Groves' ideas.
Such dramatic convenience does facilitate telling the story. But it creates distorted history. It does make a difference that Nichols did not accompany Groves when he decided to buy Los Alamos as the site for the atomic bomb factory as shown in the series. The purchase took place in the fall of 1942, not in December on the day the scientists created the first chain reaction in Chicago. It is probably more dramatic for the two events to be juxtaposed, but it distorts history and the significant role Nichols had in building the bomb. Likewise, it is historically inaccurate to place him at the New Mexico bomb test in July 1945, when in fact he was in Atlanta at Gen. Groves' direction in order to keep foreign agents from connecting Nichols' work at Oak Ridge with the blast.
By putting Nichols in places where he did not go, in not showing him performing his crucial work of building the bomb facilities, by portraying him as a sycophant whose primary function seemed to be buying candy bars for Groves, the series opens itself to questions of credibility in all its portrayals.
Hans Bethe, one of the physicists who worked with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, found the portrayal of his character "substantially correct," comparing it to an Impressionistic painting in which the important features are there but some of the details are missing. At the same time, he had strong objections to the portrayal of Oppenheimer's wife, who had a drinking problem but was not the shrew that she was presented as.
Others who also knew and worked with Oppenheimer felt the portrayal was relatively faithful to the man. But the final episode of the series in which the AEC removes Oppenheimer's security clearance illustrates the problem of combining history with drama.
The program does use the actual dialogue from the transcripts of the hearing to create an authentic history ambiance, with the characters generally delivering their lines in the manner of the actual people. But events leading up to the hearings are badly misrepresented.
Gen. Nichols and the military emerge as the villains of the piece. Earlier, Nichols had been portrayed lurking in the background when Oppenheimer appeared at the 1949 House Un-American Activities Hearings. In fact, Nichols did not attend the hearings, but his fictional attendance is used to suggest that he will later appear to perpetrate evil upon the scientist. This occurs when, as general manager of the AEC, Nichols is shown ordering an AEC lawyer to prepare a case designed to take away Oppenheimer's security clearance. The impetus for the case actually came from President Eisenhower, who then made the final decision to revoke the clearance based on the AEC recommendation.
In the end, the failure to adhere closer to the truth may tell us more about the producer's problems translating history to drama as well as his political and artistic views than about the complex man who contributed so much to the world in which we live.
Truth, as usual, is more interesting and far more complex. Oppenheimer did not oppose the building of the hydrogen bomb per se. He argued instead for a more balanced allocation of the nation's resources and production of weapon systems that might not lead to a nuclear holocaust. The villain in the story was McCarthy and the Cold War, not the military, which is the image most viewers probably carried away with them from the Oppenheimer series.