20/08/23 16:44 Filed in: 2023
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
A while back, I blasted director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) for being an all action/no story WWII tale. Though set on another continent, and radically different in theme and tone, Oppenheimer also focuses on an inflection point in the war. However, Oppenheimer is the mirror image of Dunkirk; it’s all story with no action.
The film’s nonlinear story crosscuts between J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) rapid ascent during his collegiate years, his shepherding of the teams developing the atomic bomb in New Mexico, and his appearances at two governmental inquiries years after the war had ended. Keeping all the various storylines/timelines straight might be a challenge for some audience members. Wading through stretches of dense dialog dealing with physics or quantum mechanics also may be a challenge for those who just squeaked by in high school Science classes. However, the greatest challenge facing the film’s spectators, especially those approaching middle age, is the three hour running time.
So, the big headline leading up to the film’s release is that this is the first Nolan film to contain sex scenes. Unfortunately, they’re completely unnecessary. As with any sex scene in any movie or TV show, it’s possible to show the act without showing the goods. Here, Nolan flaunts his new-found filmic freedom by staging a naked couple sitting in facing armchairs as they carry on a post-coital conversation, or, far worse, by showing the same couple in the throes of passion during an official state meeting. The latter is a very inappropriate, very unsexy sex scene.
But enough about butts; let’s talk about the eponymous figure. Murphy was perfectly cast and his performance doesn’t hit a single false note. The actor deftly modulates between science professor, pick-up artist and tortured soul post-bomb drop. But this portrait is the first area where the film is disingenuous.
The movie, written by Nolan, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, exalts Oppenheimer as the “father of the bomb,” a man whose brilliance brought about the end of WWII. In contrast, the real Oppenheimer, according to many accounts, was a womanizer and glory hog.
Buttressing this opinion is the fine TV series on WGN America, Manhattan, which portrayed Oppenheimer as a creepy weirdo who did none of the work but took all the credit for creating the bomb. The latter point is obliquely verified by Nolan’s film, which doesn’t give any credit for the bomb to the other teams operating around the country, or to the army of scientists, physicists and engineers tirelessly laboring at the NM facility. The movie focuses on Oppenheimer and his contributions to the project to the virtual exclusion of everyone else’s (even Einstein (Tom Conti) is a mere footnote in the story). It’s as if Oppenheimer did all the work himself. Ridiculous!
The movie’s other, major disingenuous note deals with the bomb itself…and there’s a lot to unpack here. In short, while the movie lionizes its hero, it sanitizes the bomb. To its eternal discredit, the movie only briefly mentions Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fails to show even one still image (much less archival video clips) of the unimaginably devastating results of the atomic bombs: cities blasted to rubble and, most importantly, innocent souls being turned to mounds of ash. That’s the lasting legacy of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.
Downplaying the significance of the bomb drops in Japan is a tremendous disservice to future generations—who otherwise may be doomed to repeat such atrocities. Indeed, merely quoting statistics of the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is tantamount to saying Hitler killed lots of Jews without showing the ghastly, gut-wrenching images of Auschwitz, Dachau, or other concentration camps. It’s a rated R movie, so why not show the horrors of war?
But Nolan eschews such horrific realities in favor of a bloodless retelling of one of the most heinous chapters of human history. In that regard, how much of what we’re seeing is the truth? Since Nolan omits such a crucial part of the story, can we really trust anything else in the film?
To whit, after the successful detonation of the Trinity bomb (a rather unspectacular explosion compared to the one in Manhattan, or the haunting, mesmerizing slow push in of the mushroom cloud in an episode of the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks) in a remote region of NM, and after Germany has surrendered, some scientists in the movie question the need to use the bomb against Japan. The subtext is that to do so would be inhumane (true) and a show of wanton aggression (false). Anyone in favor of bombing Japan is portrayed as a warmonger.
Did Nolan forget the predicate for U.S.’s involvement in the war; namely, Pearl Harbor? Apparently so, because there’s no mention of Japan’s devastating sneak attack in the movie. So yes, without Pearl Harbor, dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems like unmitigated savagery on a grand scale. The bittersweet calculus of dropping the bombs in order to end the war and, thereby, save millions of lives, is brushed over in a line or two of dialog. Again, there’s a clear agenda at play here.
Final bit about the bomb: is it significant that the only atomic bomb explosion we see in the movie is on American soil? Could it be that Nolan planned it this way to give his America-hating liberal friends something to get off on (other than Florence Pugh’s tatas)? Also, consider the many foreign nations that would love to see the demise of America. Will they be emboldened (and titillated) by this terrifying tableau?
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but you can’t argue the fact that the only giant plume of smoke and debris audiences (both foreign and domestic) will see in the movie is the one violently expanding above the desolate NM plain. The film’s lasting image will be of America burning, not Japan. Subliminal propaganda?
The most distressing aspect of Nolan’s revisionist history is the impact it will have on the youth of today/leaders of tomorrow. As a highly anticipated film with a wide release, many people who aren’t familiar with the actual events the film is based on may fall prey to Nolan’s agenda-laden interpretation of history.
When I screened Oppenheimer, I was in a row with a surprising number of teenagers. As the credits rolled, I wondered what they would take away from the film. Conflicted hero? Heartless president (Truman, unexpectedly played by Gary Oldman)? Lots of talking? Not much action?
My greatest fear is that people, especially young people, will draw all the wrong conclusions from this flawed portrait of a flawed man. With the willful omission of the tragic events that preceded and succeeded the Trinity test, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is much ado about nothing—just like Dunkirk.
But at least that Nolan debacle delivered some good action scenes.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4