Published August 15, 2023 by Tom Porter

Bowdoin Scholars Weigh In on Blockbuster Movie Releases Oppenheimer and Barbie

Two Bowdoin professors featured in the news media in recent days to share their thoughts on two of the biggest movies to hit the silver screen this year—Oppenheimer and Barbie, which opened on the same day last month.

Allison Cooper (L) and David Hecht

Associate Professor of History David Hecht, a scholar of the Cold War and the history of science, posted an opinion piece about Oppenheimer in The Portland Press Herald over the weekend, while film scholar Allison Cooper took to the airwaves last week to discuss the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, as many are calling it.

Hecht said he enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer biopic—"the movie tells a complex story in a clear and compelling manner”—which explores the life of the brilliant physicist many describe as “the father of the atomic bomb” and his role in developing the world’s first nuclear weapon (an initiative known as The Manhattan Project).

However, the historian does have one question: “why focus on Oppenheimer in the first place? After all,” he commented, “it was Groves who hired him.” Hecht, author of Storytelling and Science: Rewriting Oppenheimer in the Nuclear Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), is referring to General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, played by Matt Damon in the movie.

Groves was central to the project, stressed Hecht, overseeing the construction of the test facilities, including Los Alamos, securing supplies of uranium, and ensuring the US military was able to transport the bombs and drop them on the chosen targets. “Of course, he did not do these things alone—much as Oppenheimer was not solely responsible for Los Alamos’s success,” wrote Hecht. “But any book or movie that aspires to tell the whole story of the Manhattan Project should surely have Groves as the main character, and Oppenheimer as the supporting one.”

However, he concedes, while a movie about Groves would be a “more complete and accurate depiction of the Manhattan Project,” it may be lacking in dramatic appeal. “The struggles of a brilliant but conflicted scientist make for better on-screen drama than would the minutiae of construction schedules and procurement protocols.” Read more


When it comes to viewing blockbusters, said Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Cinema Studies Allison Cooper, “people seem to be increasingly willing to go back into the theaters.”

Speaking as a recent guest on Maine Public Radio’s call-in show, Maine Calling, Cooper was joined by Jon Cavallero from Bates College to discuss Oppenheimer and Barbie and the impact the two movies have had this summer. Cooper said a number of her student researchers “threw themselves” into the “Barbenheimer” experience, opting to view the two films back-to-back.

She was encouraged, she said, by this renewed appetite “for being in a communal space together again, and not having to watch these films, that were designed for the big screen, from our couches and living rooms. It was really lovely to see that, actually.”

Cooper said she found Oppenheimer intellectually stimulating, while her reaction to Barbie was more complicated. The movie, which brings to life the eponymous doll—now seen by many as a feminist icon—as she searches for meaning in a world, “opens up so many different conversations.”

On the one hand, Cooper says she enjoyed the “sheer delight of [director] Greta Gerwig having this gigantic microphone to express herself and to speak on behalf of a lot of women.” On the other hand she was disturbed that the movie, funded and produced by the toy giant Mattel, also felt at times like a giant marketing exercise. Cooper was particularly disturbed, she said, when “weird Barbie marketing stuff started popping up on all my social media feeds.” Listen.