Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan at the peak of his power making a grand epic. But, it’s a grand epic in 2023. That means it plays with all the business angles needed to sell a story to the widest possible audience. If that wasn’t enough, it has to understand the politics and related issues of highlighting a man who created the first major weapon of mass destruction. People will find fault, but who will look past the surface to understand Nolan’s art?
Ooops! All Radioactivity!
The nuclear age is one of the most fascinating segments of Americana. Don’t believe me? Study any part of our cultural history from the rise of giant insect movies to the popularity of Fallout games. The nuclear bomb won World War II and became the sustained threat of Western superiority until the Rosenbergs cracked the code for the wider market.
But, Oppenheimer is as much as psychological study as it is modern biopic. While it is known that Robert Oppenheimer expressed immense regret over the creation of the Atomic Bomb, his years after the Atomic Bomb rarely get equal attention. This is why Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Edwin Strauss is so damn important to the film’s success. He’s the Salieri of the 1940s, forever haunted and driven mad by the Mozart that escapes him.
However, having that figure is almost what starts after the sole weak point of Oppenheimer. Well, at least for people expecting more than a straight dramatic narrative. Robert Oppenheimer isn’t the kind of figure that needs someone rooting against him or some insurmountable foe. He’s fighting against forces far beyond anything we will ever have to comprehend as humans.
There’s no crying in front of Harry Truman
Gary Oldman plays Harry S. Truman remarkably well for the short amount of time he was in Oppenheimer. However, playing the famous successor to FDR comes with its own baggage. Specifically, you’re playing the follow-up to one of the greatest Presidents in history. But, you’re also playing the guy who in a rather short amount of time had to up-end so much of history in the 1940s and early 50s.
Truman’s few scenes with Truman are a way of reinforcing something that Nolan likes to call upon in all of his work. Specifically, the moment when his heroes get questioned about their methodology and why it doesn’t work for the establishment. While it was way more upfront in The Dark Knight trilogy, the same underpinnings can be found in everything from Memento to Insomnia to Inception. Nolan is a big fan of central figures that don’t match expectations.
The historical Truman lives as a stark reminder of what came out of World War II. Specifically, the arrogance of being the only major first world nation not to have had sustained direct conflict on its soil. Oppenheimer tip-toes around this point, but it remains true. America became America in the 1950s because it didn’t have to rebuild its economy and infrastructure from the ground up.
Everything from Thatcher’s England to the tech boom in Japan arose from the aftermath of how Truman and others handled the rebuilding from World War II. Then, there is Oppenheimer. When the Nolan film was first announced, I immediately wondered how in the hell they were going to be a successful narrative on the guy who famously spent his last years on Earth vehemently in shocked disgust and horror.
But, much like Amadeus (to which this film owes a great deal), Oppenheimer is about creators who exist to spite the world. Think about the scenes with Einstein, which may or may not have totally happened. But in the Nolanverse, Einstein in various retellings is seen telling Oppenheimer about the dangers of what he did. The audience gets more of this information, the more we come to Oppenheimer realizing the impact.
Kubrick without the Humanity
Oppenheimer is so heavy, the film is breaking IMAX projectors. That being said, Oppenheimer does nothing new when it comes to Nolan’s ongoing themes of escalation. As Albert Einstein talks to Oppenheimer in the gardens, we realize what Oppenheimer realizes mid-talk. You don’t just create nuclear weaponry, you curse the Earth with it.
Einstein always viewed nuclear weapons as an on-paper threat rather than something that should exist. However, his background as a German Jew arm wrestled him into helping laying the groundwork that Robert Oppenheimer built on. After all, the Allies had to make a nuke before the Nazis did it. That threat is what ends up powering escalation in Nolan’s work.
Whether it’s Batman creating Gotham’s greatest villains or Joseph Cooper being willing to return to NASA; great ideas always have consequences. But, it’s almost mythic in a way. And that doesn’t quite gel with me when telling a story of the Atomic Age’s origins. Especially when you can put real world names and faces and deaths to the race that Oppenheimer began without ever knowing the long-term consequences.
British people covering American history
Much attention was paid in the mid 00s to early last decade about how many international stars were playing American heroes. Brits and Aussies were playing Superman, Batman and Wolverine. But, what about when other nations get a hand at playing our national history figures? I agree with the sentiment that anyone can play anything as long as it doesn’t tread into parody. However, I don’t buy Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer except for some of his gaunt features.
There is something about the lead to the Trinity test that made this stick out for me in the film. Given the sheer nature of the supporting cast, you will hear people call out Benny Safdie, Robert Downey Jr and David Krumholtz for their stunning supporting performances. Even Josh Hartnett came across rather amazing in his time onscreen, then it starts dropping off into casual interest territory.
This is a minor nitpick in a rather flawless film, but I’d be misreporting the film if I didn’t bring it up. When performing, there is a difference between becoming and mirroring. And as it comes to historical films, I tend to see the Brit/Aussie style as more mirroring unless it involves something from their cultural heritage.
Give Robert Downey Jr his Oscar now
There have been a lot of comparisons to Oliver Stone’s JFK and Oppenheimer achieves it majorly in one regard. The supporting actors steal all of the focus away from the lead. Out of that supporting cast, Robert Downey Jr leads the pack as Lewis Strauss. For those that aren’t familiar with Strauss, let’s take a minute for me to go all history nerd on you.
Strauss was the direct advisor/assistant to Herbert Hoover. He helped devise the plans that helped America survive the aftermath of World War I, Spanish Flu epidemic and every other problem that hit the country in a short amount of time. He stepped back for a bit when his parents died of cancer in the 1930s. But, he then used his amassed wealth to fund Physics Development like no one had funded on Earth until that point.
Basically, he put his entire fortune on the line to create a radiological way to treat cancer and help people survive. Many of his paid discoveries are saving lives to this day. As World War II slowly ramped up, Strauss was directly involved in migrating scientists out of Nazi Germany to America to gain their knowledge and save their lives. Towards the end of the War and the start of the Truman Administration, Strauss worked his way onto the Atomic Energy Commission. It’s there where he first really started butting heads with Oppenheimer and earned Truman’s favor.
Nolan’s work isn’t that concerned with the real Strauss, so much as how he stood against Oppenheimer and the lingering impact of The Manhattan Project. While Oppenheimer would spend his last years in grief, Strauss pressed further on with the Rockefellers and The Population Council. I appreciate the living hell out of how RDJ portrays Strauss and it is Oscar worthy. Because anyone else would have turned him into a one dimensional villain.
That’s not who he was. If anything, Strauss was a compassionate human computer that could analyze risk faster than anyone else at the table and was able to get the ear of Truman and Eisenhower. He knew that Oppenheimer was a big risk the US undertook just to be able to win the War and save lives. However, in peace time, that risk was no longer worth undertaking.
That might sound callous and cold, but Strauss spent his life making those hard calls. Oppenheimer at best was an emotional academic who never fully committed to his work and relied on the strength of his tribe to hang together his final projects. Even when we see Strauss observing Einstein and Oppenheimer, we see the first tidbit of how all of this in a great cosmic undertaking plays out.
What we do when we reinterpret the past
I’ve been a fan of history since I was a little kid. However, the last decade has seen a concentrated effort to reinterpret facts in a way that make personal narratives feel better. Some of this was for noble intentions and other engagements were based in outright malfeasance. So, what is one to make of how Nolan approached Oppenheimer?
Oppenheimer lives and dies on its ability to make audiences sympathize with its lead. Much like Oliver Stone’s JFK, it falls short because the central figure only did one great undertaking in his life. That one thing ended up directing the rest of his destiny that the human could survive its impact. But, how do we segment out what has been happening?
Education vs. Entertainment
Edutainment is not a thing. It’s the bastardization of trying to educate, but really just wanting to entertain. The two worlds can’t ever meet in a way that will be found appealing and satisfying to the masses. Most efforts to do so are thinly disguised fictions created to make the ill-informed feel better about what they don’t know. On the other hand, you have the cold hard truth of actual education which isn’t entertaining, but you’re better for it.
Oppenheimer isn’t education, but it’s presented entertainment to help give Universal the lead spot at next year’s Oscars. If you learn anything from this movie, it will be from what you research after watching. Hell, sit down with your dad and do a little co-research into World War II. All dads super get into that time period.
The purpose of Oppenheimer is…
The purpose of Oppenheimer is to create a biography that seemingly absolves The Father of the Atomic Age from guilt. But, it doesn’t do that. Well, do any Nolan films ever forgive its heroes. Cooper left Murph behind for the majority of her life for what? Leonard Shelby is doomed to a loop for the rest of his days. Bruce Wayne loses his identity forever just to have a sense of normalcy. The only film that comes close to absolution is Insomnia and that ends with Dormer confirming his guilt.
The rigidness of Nolan’s cinematic worldview isn’t for everyone. But, it will not let up at all and I applaud an adult director willing to spend the last 25 years working within those parameters. Does Nolan absolve Oppenheimer at the end of this movie? No. But, those few scenes with Einstein end up telling everyone in the audience what Nolan’s true intent was with this story.
It ain’t Barbie, but what is?
Barbie and the Barbenheimer event was designed to capitalize on the natural appeal of people needing something to do. Watching as certain audience flock to their preferred tastes only reaffirmed those whitepapers I was reading in the empty Sound of Freedom theater. Well, at least before the four pack of senior citizens showed up and yelled at me for having a screen to my face during the AMC commercials before the trailers started. If you’re a local, you’ll know where I was working on the drafts of these reviews.
That being said, I appreciate the fact that we can have a weekend where the mainstream can watch a popular film that might challenge them. And then we can watch a lengthy screed about intellectuals learning that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean that you should do it.