When Communists Were Really, Really Hot
My review of Oppenheimer
I loved that movie. It is one of the top ten movies I have ever seen. I love how people dressed back then, as depicted in the costumes. I loved the score, which as many reviewers have said was almost its own character. I loved how antisemitism was pointed out and not just shrugged off, though I’m sure there were many nuances that people more expert in the topic than I could point out. And okay, the guy who played Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) was hot, super hot, leading me to search my memory banks and discover that I have never dated a Robert or an Oppenheimer (no I never dated that one in college though we were friends and I really should send him a hello at some point, as a fellow writer and all that… I think one of my closest friends is his cousin too but moving on…)
The thing I loved the most is that the movie did not attempt to fit into any one side or the other of today’s politics. Almost all the conservatives I know liked it, though you might say it leaned left because it depicted Communists in a pretty favorable light and anti-Communists in a pretty unfavorable light. It showed a time when smart professionals were organizing unions, and it showed smart professionals ignoring that or making it go away to advance their own careers or causes. Nothing much changed about that, and nothing particularly idealized. The real Communist, though, Jean, Oppenheimer’s lover, played by Florence Pugh, was beyond fantastic.
I have met very few real Communists. They were run out of the labor movement a long time ago, which to my mind bled the labor movement of its best minds and its strongest ideals of hard work and discipline. The labor movement - to which I dedicated the first twenty years of my adult life with barely a minute off - later came to be dominated by institutional inertia and nepotism, and a misguided belief that the bosses still wanted to play nice with the workers, somewhere under all that attempting to kill us tough exterior. The AFL-CIO Organizing Institute tried to revive the idea of a cadre of ideologically driven, smart, dedicated young people and recruited me and some of my good friends back in 1996, as well as many classes from Yale strikes. (If you’re not familiar with Yale and labor inside baseball, ignore this part and make a mental note that I made a baseball reference.)
Real change requires a great deal of organization, discipline, hard work, and deciding that someone will be in charge (or some someones) and then following them.
To organize unions in the face of brutal opposition from employers who have no regard for workers’ rights or the law requires discipline, a work ethic that means you are in a movement, not a job, and actually talking to workers, day and night. It is not for entitled persons of any age or generation, and most people I started with went to law school or grad school after a couple of years. Without the real fire of not just a belief system but a well-disciplined organization, most people couldn’t last very long. Why would you want to work early mornings, late nights, all weekends, get no vacations and get treated worse than a door-to-door salesman by about half the workers, most of the time, when you could live a life much more in line with the status to which even those of us not born into wealth became accustomed, after a certain kind of education?
You might, however, change your mind, if your comrades were as sexy as Jean. I mean that scene where she tells him to read “I am become death…” I’ve lived an interesting life, and I can only point to five (I just counted) such steamy scenes. Granted, this is film, but in this film, the lead Communist is not to be laughed at or dismissed as just an ideologue: she is a brilliant, if troubled, confident, strong woman.
I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the Communist Party. The last time I saw a bunch of real live Communists was 2000 at a pre-Republican National Convention Protest where I was leafleting for something as a young union organizer and a bunch of Communists in their nineties were at the next table. They were so nice and gave me and my also twenty-something comrade bottles of water. They were kinda cuddly, in a not too much threat to the establishment anyway sorta way. (I did not, however, cuddle any Communists, to my knowledge.)
Real change requires a great deal of organization, discipline, hard work, and deciding that someone will be in charge (or some someones) and then following them. Back when I led labor organizing and contract campaigns, we were far from anarchist organizations. We were a little more like military organizations in our internal discipline, and we didn’t get much sleep. But we won.
These days as a freelancer, I value my time and autonomy. Things are different at 49 than they were at 19 or 29 and by 39 I was finally on my way to even weirder pastures, with a career in public health and harm reduction looming in the not-too-far-off distance. But I remember what it was like to be part of a movement. Part of a group of people who believed in something, and who believe in each other. I haven’t felt that way in almost as long as it had been since someone had called Ben Kenobi Obi-Wan at the start of Star Wars: A New Hope.
I loved Oppenheimer because it was a beautiful, powerful movie that celebrated complex, brilliant, troubled and ambiguous characters in fabulous outfits. Barbie, which I also loved, pointed out the very real fake playhouse nature of a lot of our media, superimposed upon the sad reality of a lot of very real women and men too. I can see how both feel important to so many people at this point in history.
I think it is hard for most Americans, right now, to take seriously the kind of threat that Germany, Japan and the former Soviet Union once posed to the way of life that, while far from perfect, allows people to protest in the streets and wear truly horrible outfits. I take seriously the bullying that constitutes censorship that comes from both sides of the political spectrum these days, but it beats a lot of the alternatives that winning both World War II and the Cold War prevented.
A series of people doing things that were both heroically right and tragically wrong made it possible for us to be here today, arguing or agreeing but hopefully not killing each other. And watching a great movie.
I’d love to see it again. Anyone want to go?
This flower is a beautiful explosion. It never hurt anyone.