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More biopic-esque than Nolan-esque
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is defined more by what it’s not than by what it is. Most of its failures are failures of omission.
You can go into the film expecting to watch a fresh, intricate Christopher Nolan flick or just another Hollywood biopic. Most people will watch it because of the former reason, which is a pity, because this is more of a conventional biopic than anything else.
I went down a World War 2 and physics rabbit hole last weekend because I was so excited for the film - see recommendations - but in a way you’re almost better off knowing less about the events covered here, which isn’t a good thing. Watching Oppenheimer, I sometimes felt that it was simply reiterating whatever I’d read on Wikipedia, albeit stylishly.
There’s multiple movies competing for space here, each focused on a different aspect of the protagonist’s life. They are about a) his student years, b) his personal life, c) his work on the Manhattan Project, and d) his post-war legal persecution. These installments aren’t shown chronologically, but instead brilliantly interweaved into each other throughout the film, so as to add layers and depth to the story.
But they don’t, because while all of these subplots aren’t equally important, the film treats them as if they were. Parts a) and b) are fine, but d) takes up way too much of the movie’s runtime. Spending so long on Lewis Strauss’ confirmation hearings and the allegations surrounding Oppenheimer’s Soviet ties is historically accurate but ultimately misguided, because most viewers in 2023 couldn’t care less about these narratives. It’s good drama which belongs in a different movie.
Because of course, it’s part c) that’s most important, and where the film should’ve spent the bulk of its time. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“JRO” / “Oppie” from here on) is famous for one thing, and one thing only: the atom bomb. As director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he successfully led the Manhattan Project to completion, in an undertaking that took six thousand people and cost upwards of two billion dollars. He had the world’s most brilliant scientists working for him during the deadliest war in human history, and together they succeeded in crossing scientific frontiers previously thought unconceivable, thereby building the single deadliest weapon ever known to humankind. None of these statements are exaggerations.
But Oppenheimer-the-film never takes an in-depth look into any of this! Of course it spends considerable time at Los Alamos, but then glosses over all the nitty-gritty details of what happened there. Firstly, the movie tells us everything about Oppie but never gives him a real distinctive personality, apart from the fact that he’s a troubled genius. Because of this, it’s never able to justify why General Groves picked him to lead the Los Alamos Lab when far better (i.e. equally smart, non-communist, more well rounded) candidates were available. Why did Groves stand up for him? What was so special about him? The script doesn’t show. It’s also unable to demonstrate how Oppie’s personal ethics and spiritual tendencies must’ve guided his work.
Secondly, the film doesn’t explain the physics of nuclear fission (or fusion) beyond a surface level. It never shows the step-by-step process of the bomb’s creation over the course of this project, or even a single scientific experiment of the hundreds that must’ve taken place there, apart from the final Trinity Test itself. It doesn’t bother diving into the contributions of the other physicists involved, the arduous trials and tribulations they must’ve gone through to make this ginormous feat happen. When I say the film is defined by what it’s not, that’s what I mean.
It doesn’t explore the ethics of nuclear warfare beyond a superficial level either. It understands that nuclear weapons are fundamentally evil (if necessary), that Oppie was eventually horrified by what he’d done, but was Truman justified in dropping the nukes on Japan? Is humanity better off having these Promethean tools in the long run? The film does have semi-definitive answers to these questions, but never tackles them from multiple angles in a way that’s intellectually satisfying. As a general rule, it just doesn’t probe around much.
But for all that its not, Oppenheimer is a good movie, fun to watch and technically excellent. It had some unforgettable moments, from Einstein’s advice that “it won’t be for you” to the aide telling Strauss that maybe Oppie and Einstein were talking about something more important. My jaw dropped during the gymnasium scene. The performances were good, a couple of them outstanding. Cillian Murphy was very good in the lead role, especially when conveying the weight of guilt and horror Oppie must’ve felt once he truly understood the consequences of what he’d accomplished.
Most importantly, the editing was sublime, somehow making it easy to parallelly follow multiple timelines without any chapter breaks for three entire hours - no small feat.
And due credit to Barbenheimer, but Christopher Nolan is maybe the only director in the world who can fill out theatres with a three-hour long historical biopic. So I am glad this movie got made and that its so popular, because someone as important as JRO deserves to have their name known in the mainstream zeitgeist. This film is useful both as a history lesson and as a conversation starter about nuclear weapons. But at the end of the day, like I said earlier, I get a sense that there’s just something fundamentally lacking here that I never felt with Nolan’s earlier work: personality.
I say this because it feels like Nolan uses JRO as a conduit through which to tell this story, rather than its central driving force. Although factually accurate, the movie never feels like it’s moving in a certain direction because something Oppie chose to do, but rather because that’s where Nolan wanted the story to go. JRO feels like less of a flawed human being here and more of an empty canvas, one for Nolan to paint his own impressions and anxieties on.
The result is that I spent three hours watching JRO talk, think, argue, work, and worry, but somehow still don’t have a sense of the guy’s character, of who he really was deep down. For all its strengths, Oppenheimer fails at giving you any meaningful insight into Robert Oppenheimer’s personal philosophy or general thought process, making the film feel frustratingly obtuse as a result. Nolan can have us gaze deep into Cillian Murphy’s tormented blue eyes on huge IMAX screens all he wants, but is ultimately never able to convey anything deeper about the man underneath them.