Is it worth watching Oppenheimer?

Is it worth watching Oppenheimer?

In the end, it’s the human face that stands out as the film’s most memorable element. Despite the anticipation around Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which was supposed to recreate the first atomic bomb’s explosion through the use of analog epic techniques, the film ultimately failed to do it. 

More than three hours pass by in this Cillian Murphy-led film about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Regular conversations take place between the two of them. They pay attention. Whether the news is good or terrible, people have responses. No one more so than the protagonist, a leader in the Los Alamos nuclear weapons program known as “The American Prometheus” for his cataclysmic scientific contribution (as the title of Nolan’s major source, a biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman, suggests). Brilliant mathematician, low-key showman, and leader Oppenheimer’s private life was a catastrophe due to his impetuous personality and voracious sexual cravings. His greatest contribution to humanity was a weapon with the potential to wipe out whole civilizations. The large-format IMAX film technology is used by Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to show the contrast between Oppenheimer’s calm exterior and his inner struggle. Close-up after close-up displays star Cillian Murphy’s face looking into the middle distance, off-screen, and sometimes directly into the lens as Oppenheimer dissociates from difficult circumstances or becomes engaged in memories, dreams, and waking nightmares. The protagonists in “Oppenheimer” recognize the power of extreme close-ups of their faces as they grapple with their identities, the identities others have assigned them, and the consequences of their actions.  

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There might be brief interludes between the facial close-ups when we see the characters’ reactions to unresolved or recent events. There are both non-incendiary images that remind us of previous awful human catastrophes and incendiary images of flame, debris, and smaller chain-reaction explosions that seem like strings of firecrackers. (Much of the flashbacks in this film are constructed like a snowball: you see a snippet at first, then a little more, and finally the complete thing.) These are not just about the big bomb that Oppenheimer and his team plan to set off in the desert, or even the little bombs that keep going off in Oppenheimer’s life, sometimes because he pushed the big red button in a fit of rage, pride, or lust, and sometimes because he made an innocent or careless mistake that irritated someone a long time ago, and the wronged person responded with the equivalent of a time-delayed bomb. Using a phrase from physics, “fissile” cutting is a metaphor for the domino effect caused by individual acts and the subsequent chain of events. Foreshadowing both Oppenheimer’s demise as a public figure and the detonation of the first nuclear weapon at Los Alamos is the opening close-up of raindrops sparking growing circles on the surface, and subsequent shots of ripples in water help to further emphasize this notion (which observers see, then hear, then finally feel, in all its awful impact). 

The faces of the movie’s major characters, including Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), whose strategic thinking could have prevented many disasters if Robert Oppenheimer would only listen, and the Atomic Energy Commission’s Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), carry the story’s themes and interests. The second is an independent, neighboring, full-length story about vanity, mediocrity, and envy. The adulterous and communist sympathizer Oppenheimer is to Strauss’ Salieri’s Mozart. Strauss is constantly and pitifully reminding people that he previously studied science as well and that he is a great man. (The film suggests that Strauss shared the FBI file on him with an outsider who then wrote to J. Edgar Hoover about his progressive and communist leanings.)

Detecting quantum processes using a detector or other instrument can alter the results of an experiment, a concept of quantum physics repeatedly referred to throughout the film. The author achieves this by introducing additional information that casts doubt on our initial interpretation of a character’s motivations or makes us question how well we understand those motivations. The editing is illustrative, since it constantly reframes the same occurrence to alter its significance. 

Such repercussions on the war and the Japanese civilian population are explored in “Oppenheimer,” but they are never shown. I think it is more essential than the atomic bomb itself. Filmmaker Michael Oppenheimer, appalled by the effects of the atomic bomb on human flesh, imagines what it may have been like for Americans during the bombing of Japan. Those who sought a more straightforward look at the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be disappointed, while those who agree with Strauss and others that the bombs had to be used because Japan would never have capitulated otherwise would be outraged. The movie doesn’t make it obvious if it agrees with Oppenheimer and others who said Japan would have surrendered even if they hadn’t been hit by atomic bombs, or if it agrees more with the former. In this film, the freedoms and excesses of novelists, poets, and opera composers are allowed. It does what it sets out to do, which is to visually challenge us with a dramatic retelling of Oppenheimer’s life and the lives of other historically significant figures in his sphere, while also allowing all of these people and all of these events to be used metaphorically and symbolically, so that they become pointillistic elements in a much larger canvas about the mysteries of the human personality and the unanticipated effects of individual and societal decisions.

There is another aspect of “Oppenheimer” that deserves mention. Murphy’s sinister face and threatening yet clouded eyes steal the show, but Oppenheimer isn’t the primary focus of the picture. It delves into how Oppenheimer’s persona and actions affected others, such as the troubled Kitty and Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh, who possesses some of Gloria Grahame’s self-immolating smolder), among the other strong-willed members of his atomic bomb development team (such as Edwin Teller, played by Benny Safdie, who wanted to advance to the much more potent hydrogen bomb and ultimately

Jennifer Lame’s editing approach, which often has a faint Terrence Malick feel, is prismatic and persistent, often jumping back and forth in time three or more times in a single scene. The film’s continuous speech and monologues, along with Ludwig Göransson’s practically uninterrupted soundtrack, form a strange but unusual aria of scientific explanation. You can get the same feeling by reading American Prometheus while listening to a mixtape of Philip Glass’s film music. Non-linear videos, like this one, better reflect the pinball-machine motions of human brain than linear films can, and they also portray what it’s like to read a third-person omniscient book. It also captures the reader’s internal conflict as they grapple with the material on several levels (intellectual, emotional, and visceral). The words have stuck in my head. Yet it goes farther than that, drawing parallels not just with other writings but also with facts from the outside world, personal experience, and the author’s own creative imagination.

Not because it isn’t crucial—it is—but because, as is so frequently the case with Nolan, the story itself is secondary to the director’s presentation of it. Neither the film’s plot nor its historical background have been discussed at length here. Others have said that Nolan is less of a dramatist and more of a half showman, half mathematician due to his reputation for making blockbusters that are loud, excessively complicated, but ultimately confused and unsophisticated, and which resemble puzzles more than narratives. If you look at how cleverly and fruitfully it has been used to a biography of a real person, though, you can forget about whether or not that characterization was ever entirely true (and I’m more confident that it never was). It’s possible that “Oppenheimer” will be seen in retrospect as a watershed moment in the director’s oeuvre, marking the moment when he turned inward all of the stylistic and technical practices he’d honed over the previous 20 years in intellectualized pulp blockbusters, using them to explore the far reaches of the mind and heart rather than merely rearranging human pieces on a series of interconnected, multidimensional storytelling boards.

This movie is an academic-psychedelic biography in the vein of Oliver Stone’s 1990s biopics (at points, it feels like the park bench scene from “JFK” was extended to three hours). There are also moments of dark comedy, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s technique, such as when a group of high-ranking government officials review a list of possible bombing targets in Japan, and one of them reads aloud that he has removed Kyoto off the list since he and his wife honeymooned there. (Matthew Modine, who co-starred in “Full Metal Jacket,” plays American engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush, adding credence to the Kubrick connection.) In addition to “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “The Pawnbroker,” “All That Jazz,” and “Citizen Kane,” “Oppenheimer” makes allusions to “The Insider” by Michael Mann, “The Pawnbroker,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” and late-period Terrence Malick (there’s even a Rosebud-like mystery surrounding what Oppenheimer and his hero Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, are Most of the actors seem to rush through their lines and don’t make as many expressive facial expressions as they could in a modern narrative, giving the film a “old movie” vibe. Most of the delivery is brisk, lending the speech an air of screwball humor. This is most apparent during the heated exchanges between Strauss and the Senate aide (Alden Ehrenreich) who is advising him during his testimony before the committee that he hopes will approve him to serve in President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet, and during the fights between Robert and Kitty over his sexual indiscretions and his refusal to listen to her generally excellent advice.

Oppenheimer, though, is a physically distinct sensation; it’s hard to put into words what makes it so exciting. It’s ironic that Oppenheimer and Strauss spend much of the movie trying to get government approval for Eisenhauer and renewing their security clearances, which takes up the most of the third hour. I’ve already heard people say the film could have concluded with the first bomb going off and cut out the parts about Oppenheimer’s life. Nonetheless, the film’s brutally entropic tendencies complement the scholarly explanations of the hows and whys of the individual and communal psyche. All the characters are giving testimony in court, explaining away their many flaws, hypocrisies, and wrongdoings. The courthouse is located in the area of complete darkness. We have been given the information we need to make a decision without being told what to do with it.

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