Movie Curiosities: Oppenheimer

In a recent Twitter poll, I submitted a query as to what was the single biggest mistake of Warner Bros’ 100-year history. I’ve gone on record stating that it was the Batgirl tax write-off, but there’s naturally a case to be made for the AOL merger. And of course we can’t forget Batman v. Superman, the movie that cemented WBD’s doomed plans for DC on film and directly caused the chain reaction of failure that led WBD to their current predicament.

I don’t know if Tenet would quite be up there, but there’s an argument to be made for a dishonorable mention at least.

Christopher Nolan wanted to make an impenetrable sci-fi/spy thriller with an opaque time travel gimmick, and WB gave him the greenlight. Nolan wanted to literally purchase a 747 just to blow it up, and he could do it because the budget was “yes”. Nolan insisted on releasing the film in theaters in 2020, even though theaters were closed and everyone was staying home because of the goddamn COVID plague, but WB went ahead and put the damn film in theaters because it’s Christopher fucking Nolan and he knows best.

In the end, WB lost tons of money on a historic box office flop, and Nolan jumped ship to Universal, dissing WB on his way out the door. After WB gave Nolan everything he ever asked for, and he took it all. It’s hard to tell who the bigger fool was.

Now here we are with Oppenheimer, Nolan’s first effort with his new home at Universal, famously released day-and-date with Barbie (ie: WB’s last best shot at a billion-dollar hit before they collapse). A fun summer blockbuster romp opposite a three-hour awards contender. Gods above, I’m going to miss the memes.

So, what did we get with this three-hour deep dive into the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer, here played by Cillian Murphy? Short answer: Imagine if Darren Aronofsky had made Dr. Strangelove.

This isn’t exactly a cradle-to-grave biopic, but begins in 1926, when Oppenheimer was a young student learning from Bohr and Heisenberg and all the other great European geniuses at the forefront of quantum physics. The film ends at roughly 1954, when Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked during the Second Red Scare. For context, this decision was finally revoked in 2022 on the grounds that it was a “flawed process that violated the Commission’s own regulations.” I might add that Oppenheimer died in 1967, and his career never completely recovered, not even after President LBJ gave him the Enrico Fermi Award as a kind of public apology.

The film effectively has two narrators, each telling the story in flashback and helpfully color-coded. One narrator is Oppenheimer himself, telling his life story and airing his dirty laundry for his security clearance hearing. The second narrator is Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), formerly of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now up for a cabinet post as Secretary of Commerce. For his senate confirmation hearing, Strauss recounts his own perspectives and history working with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project. I should add that Oppenheimer presents his story in vivid mind-blowing color while Strauss lays out his case in stark black and white.

For the uninitiated, Oppenheimer had a well-documented reputation as a theatrical eccentric, not to mention a womanizer with multiple extramarital affairs. Indeed, the film gives significant screentime to Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), the woman who took Robert for her fourth (!) husband after getting pregnant in an extramarital affair and promptly divorcing Husband #3 thereafter. I should add that between the stress of raising two kids pretty much on her own, not to mention the stress of being married to freaking J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kitty’s erratic alcoholism is very much on display. Alas, the film only barely hints at Kitty’s own education as a biologist, wasted on playing housewife so the men get all the glory.

(Side note: Seriously, look up Kitty Oppenheimer’s life story. Where the hell is her biopic?!)

The other female lead is Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), Oppenheimer’s on-again/off-again mistress. That sordid affair goes all manner of wrong in too many tragic ways to list here, but the main recurring factor is that Tatlock was an outspoken communist. In fact, Oppenheimer’s wife, brother, sister-in-law, many of his colleagues, and even Oppenheimer himself were former, current, or suspected communists. I should add that Oppenheimer spent a significant chunk of his academic career as a professor at Berkeley, so of course dealing with left-wing people and ideas came with the territory.

More to the point, Uncle Sam (mostly by way of the aforementioned Strauss and General Leslie Groves, the latter played by Matt Damon) was all too eager to deal with suspected communists when they needed those intellectual eggheads to build an atomic bomb. But many of those same eggheads reasonably question the ethics of using their advanced knowledge to build such a terrible weapon, and what the world could become when that weapon is revealed. And sure, the Americans will tolerate Oppenheimer and his suspected commie ilk while they’re necessary, but what happens after they’re not?

Of course Oppenheimer sees the logic in these concerns. But on the other hand, the atom has been split and if the Manhattan Project doesn’t use that knowledge to make a bomb, somebody else definitely will. Is the USA really trustworthy to have such terrible power as a nuclear weapon? Nobody can say for sure, but that’s not the point. The Nazis sure as hell can’t be trusted with a bomb, and THAT’S for damn sure.

As with any biopic, there’s always a concern that the filmmakers will glorify the chosen subject. And the choice to portray the goddamn father of the atomic bomb as a suffering genius might have been in controversial (ie: wildly insensitive and wrong-headed) taste. But these filmmakers don’t really go there. I should add that while Hiroshima and Nagasaki are frequently mentioned, neither of them are ever directly shown onscreen. Though it’s worth noting the military bigwig who ruled out bombing Kyoto simply because he honeymooned there with his wife, but I digress.

Indeed, the movie goes out of its way to show Oppenheimer’s numerous character flaws and his apparent messiah complex. Because this movie is about something so much bigger than Oppenheimer himself. This isn’t a movie about how Oppenheimer was a misunderstood genius. This is a movie about how humanity as a whole — including and especially Oppenheimer himself — are deeply flawed and short-sighted idiots.

Humans are tribal by nature, focused on the needs of their own group and living in fear of The Other. Humans — most especially the kind of politicians and generals who we trust to deal with nuclear fucking weapons — are too ambitious and self-centered to see past their own egos. For that matter, humans are so woefully incapable of predicting the future that they’ll focus on the here and now without any way of knowing how their actions could bite them in the ass later on.

One character observes that genius doesn’t necessarily beget wisdom. It’s a cruel and ironic tragedy that humanity is smart enough to split the atom, but we’re not wise enough to use that knowledge and power responsibly. Even and especially in the case of our foremost leaders, we look at something big enough to destroy literally everything, yet we only focus on how it can benefit us and destroy The Enemy. Hell, when we’re talking about power and destruction on a scale greater than the human mind is mentally or emotionally capable of comprehending, of course we’re going to fall back on our small-minded instincts, if only out of reflexive self-defense.

The military brass keep trying to discredit Oppenheimer because he’s supposedly a communist and therefore a security issue, but that’s not really the point. The military brass want to use atomic power to take over the world and Oppenheimer is in the way because he’s trying to put the atomic genie back in the bottle, THAT’S the point. If — hypothetically — Oppenheimer had been all in favor of nuclear proliferation and bombing the Soviets until they glow, you think anyone in Congress at the time would’ve given a damn about his commie mistress? I think not.

Getting back to the dual narrators, it’s rather telling that Strauss’ account is relatively straightforward while Oppenheimer’s perspective is much more stylized. The film uses all manner of cutaways and visual effects and other tricks to put us into Oppy’s state of mind. A particularly laughable highlight comes when Oppenheimer is recounting a sexual tryst before the security clearance hearing, and he’s picturing himself naked at the hearing with a nude Jean Tatlock grinding his lap.

Then there’s the sound design. Ye gods, the sound design. I get that Nolan wanted to effectively capture the deafening roar of the atomic bomb, but it wasn’t enough just to do that with the centerpiece Trinity Test sequence (which is awesome, by the way). No, he had to show Oppenheimer’s mental state by way of that oppressive nuclear roar through otherwise ordinary scenes of quiet contemplation.

Folks, I remember sitting through mother! on the big screen. I know for a fact that there’s a fine line between “an immersive theatrical experience” and “actively assaulting the audience”. I get the logic of portraying an atomic blast as a horrific evil beyond human comprehension. And I get the intended goal of putting us in the protagonist’s headspace to show his anxiety over what has happened and could potentially happen. But for better or worse, there’s such a thing as going too far. At some point, I have to wonder how much of this is about telling the story and conveying the themes, and how much of this is about showing off to the audience and flexing for the technical Oscars.

The cast is so thoroughly packed that it’s hard to pick out any particular names or highlights. It got to a point where I was less concerned about what was happening, and more about “Oh, we’re going to meet President Truman? I wonder who they got to play him!” (It was Gary Oldman, by the way, for all of thirty seconds.)

Murphy and RDJ are of course the standouts, though Alden Ehrenreich delivers an admirable supporting turn with a legendary mic drop near the end. Matt Damon is suitably dynamic, and I found Tom Conti’s take on Albert Einstein to be nicely endearing. As for Emily Blunt, Josh Hartnett, Jason Clarke, David Dastmalchian, and too many others to name, they basically succeed by virtue of playing within their respective wheelhouses. Even with a three-hour runtime, there are simply too many outstanding stars and character actors here to give everyone their proper due. And why in the nine hells was an Oppenheimer biopic cast as an ensemble picture anyway?!

Oh, right. It’s a Christopher Nolan awards-bait picture, so everyone wanted in and so they all crowded each other out. Did we learn nothing from Amsterdam? Ain’t nobody getting an Oscar nomination for a glorified speaking cameo!

I’m sorry to say that the clear loser here is Florence Pugh. Yes, I’m always glad to see Pugh get more work, and you won’t catch me complaining about all the time she spends topless. Even so, she plays her character as aloof and enigmatic to the point where it feels like she’s phoning it in, and her chemistry with Murphy falls pathetically short.

As with his previous film, Oppenheimer is further proof that Nolan’s ambitions have grown too far out of control. From the burdensome runtime to the grandiose concepts to the overstuffed cast, it’s abundantly obvious in all aspects of the production that the excess was the entire point. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie necessarily, it’s just too damn self-indulgent.

Yes, the film has any number of well-reasoned statements about the strengths and limitations of humanity. Yes, it’s a superlative film on a technical level. But even without the IMAX presentation (Gods be with you if you’re actually seeing this on 70mm in surround sound), the visuals and audio design are so aggressively over-the-top that it felt physically painful. And as a rule, I have a rough time giving a positive write-up to a film that elicits actual physical pain. Never mind a film that does so for three hours.

To you, my humble readers, I’d recommend waiting for a home video viewing. To Mr. Christopher Nolan, sir, I humbly implore you to get your head out of your ass immediately.

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