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Why Oppenheimer's Affair With Ruth Tolman Is More Tragic Than You Think

Contains spoilers for "Oppenheimer"

A great number of crimes (moral and otherwise) are levied at J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) throughout the new Christopher Nolan film which bears his name, though perhaps not in equal measure. Told from the subjective cultural viewpoint of the period in which it's set, "Oppenheimer" spends most of its runtime weighing the moral consequences of his Communist associations, his emotional recklessness with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) throughout their relationship, and, of course, his role in the development of the world's first nuclear bomb.

These are worthy issues, yes, but perhaps ones that unintentionally drown out others. Japan's alleged attempted sue for peace prior to the first bombing receives just one sentence's worth of mention in the three-hour film; there is absolutely no discussion about how the Trinity Test affected the surrounding communities for decades afterward.

For a film that rides a thin line between brilliance and confusion, they were surely conscious of how much they included in order the keep the massive story as focused as possible. But one storyline that does receive a fair bit of play in the film still gets lost in the historical melodrama of it all: the story of Ruth and Richard Tolman, the friends Oppenheimer betrayed.

Richard and Ruth Tolman were mistreated by Oppenheimer

Even just taking Christopher Nolan's film at face value, Oppenheimer's treatment of the Tolmans is unforgivable. If it doesn't feel that way yet, it's probably because this subplot unfolds in single lines several scenes apart.

Viewers likely remember that Oppenheimer stayed with the Tolmans in Pasadena while teaching in California — what they may have missed is the brief exchange Oppenheimer and Richard Tolman (Tom Jenkins) have at Berkeley that implies he was sleeping with Ruth (Louise Lumbard) in retaliation for being excluded from the Manhattan Project. After Richard, Vannevar Bush (Mathew Modine), and Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) refuse to reveal the purpose of their secret meeting, Oppenheimer asks Richard to inform his wife that he'll be arriving in Pasadena later that week. The meaning becomes obvious when it's later revealed they were having an affair throughout his time in the Tolmans' home.

If this wasn't bad enough, Oppenheimer finds out from Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) later on that his anger had been misplaced. Of all the people interviewed by the general, Richard was the only person with anything positive to say about Oppenheimer that might sway Groves to employ him. According to Richard, Oppenheimer possessed "integrity." As he later states during his security hearing, Richard never discovered Oppenheimer's affair and died ignorant that the man he trusted and admired took advantage of his kindness out of pure jealousy and ego.