David Baddiel on why Cillian Murphy should not have played Oppenheimer
"Another day, another film/TV show/play in which a famous Jew is played by a non-Jew."
Comedian and author David Baddiel has penned an opinion piece in which he criticises the casting of non-Jewish actors to play Jewish people in the historical drama epic Oppenheimer.
In the Christopher Nolan-directed movie, Cillian Murphy plays real-life theoretical physicist and "father of the atomic bomb" J. Robert Oppenheimer. The scientist was born in the United States to Jewish immigrants from Germany.
Also in the film, Tom Conti plays fellow theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, who was born in Germany to Jewish parents. Both Conti and Murphy are not Jewish.
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and the real-life man
In the days following the movie's release, Baddiel - who is Jewish - wrote an article for The Jewish Chronicle titled: "Oppenheimer liked to pretend he wasn’t Jewish — like the film."
In it, the comedian writes:
"Another day, another film/TV show/play in which a famous Jew is played by a non-Jew.
"I have talked and written about this many times — about how it’s a question not of acting but of context: minority casting being presently dominated by the notion of authenticity, the question is why that doesn’t apply to Jews, and what that means for how people see Jews — so I shan’t rehearse it again.
"But there is another, more complex issue thrown up by the casting in Oppenheimer. Any biopic on such a serious subject as the creation of the atomic bomb needs to delve deep into the psychological underpinnings of the narrative."
Baddiel argues in the piece that J. Robert Oppenheimer's Jewish heritage and the threat posed by Nazi Germany were key factors in why the scientist helped develop the atomic bomb.
"The emotional undercurrent for J Robert and Albert Einstein and the other Jews involved in trying to make this weapon before the Nazis did, was fear and desperation," he explains.
"Oppenheimer does include scenes where mentions of J Robert’s heritage are present and correct, but the film lacks, perhaps because of the casting — and this is where authenticity casting, whatever you feel about it, has some artistic value — any profound sense of that ethnicity being key to who he was, the secret driver of his work at Los Alamos."
Baddiel later concludes:
"I’ve called Oppenheimer J Robert in this article, because his first name was in fact Julius. He, however, insisted it stood for nothing, because he didn’t want people to think he was Jewish, or that Jewishness mattered much to him — and there is a sense in which Oppenheimer the movie has gone along with that. But to do so is to miss, perhaps, the deepest undercurrent of the story."
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that Murphy almost played Oppenheimer nearly 10 years later in a TV show. You can read about that near-casting right here.
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