“Oppenheimer,” September 3, 2023, The Venue. Yes, I know, a small theater. Well, it had left IMAX, and medical issues inhibited attending 70 mm (my choice) due to scheduling. So, you see it where and when you can. But I digress.
What’s there to say about writer-director Christopher Nolan’s gigantic, 3-hour-long and visually stunning, look at the physicist responsible for coordinating the creation of the atomic bombs used in WWII as director of Los Alamos? A study in genius, physics, political victimization, naivete, arrogance and hubris. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life reflected all the above. The excellent and remarkably controlled and intense Cillian Murphy manages to make this contradictory figure human and humane, even as we see him crafting this horrific instrument that still looms over us every minute. His was a life with more than a few elements of Greek tragedy.
One of the early American students and proponents of quantum theory, this theoretical physicist was also a ‘fellow traveler’ before WWII and a supporter of progressive causes. His wife Kitty, well-played by Emily Blount, if underdeveloped as a character, was, for a while, in the CP. A long-term relationship with psychiatrist Jean Tadlock (Florence Pugh), who also journeyed through the Party, figured both before and during his marriage. Their collective personal and political dalliances and their encounters with others in their orbits leave them vulnerable to sharks like Lewis Strauss, an unrecognizable Robert Downey, Jr., (kudos!), and of course, Edward Teller (Benny Safdie). Even Oppenheimer’s advocates, like Manhattan Project Director General Leslie Groves, played with intensity and conviction by Matt Damon, who stood my him get that he just doesn’t really comprehend American politics.
Wonderful and nuanced small performances from Tom Conti (Einstein), Kenneth Branagh (Neils Bohr), Gary Oldman (Truman), and other fine actors make this historical biography all the richer. Rami Malek’s inclusion as an aide-with-a-conscience to the viperish Stauss (perhaps too-snakelike?) is the only role that rang false to me. I think his role poorly written and directed.
As the film makes clear, it was not simply Oppenheimer’s association with former Communists that led to his being persecuted and purged. The catalyst for these attacks was his opposition to the Cold War arms race itself. Although he led the development of the A-bomb, he understood the horror he had unleashed and opposed and development and deployment of the hydrogen bomb while advocating negotiation with the USSR. This alienated some physicists, such as Teller (Benny Safdie), bureaucratic climbers such as Strauss, and, Cold Warriers, including Truman.
Some final observations. This is a very white film. No surprise, that. Also, while Oppenheimer’s long-time liaison to one-time CP member, psychiatrist Jean Tatlock is portrayed with some explicit scenes (only female nudity—breasts) and simulated sex. It is not sordid, and quite honestly, even that wouldn’t bother me. Neither was the nudity, which has offended some, necessary except, perhaps, to demonstrate their profound intellectuality such that minde even ‘overrode’ sexual interactions. Their sexual connection, and its long history and meaning in Oppenheimer’s life, however, is very important to the story and to a sense of Oppenheimer’s personal complexities.
“Oppenheimer” is not an easy film to watch and listen to (I found the sound a bit muddied as is often the case in Nolan’s spectaculars), but I recommend it as a thoughtful look at those times and those difficult decisions. The film provides a remarkable historical ‘memory piece’ for Americans. We are, to say the least, again on the knife’s edge of nuclear and, of course, climate annihilation. Right-wingers opportunists and true believers are, again, screaming anti-communist/anti-socialist canards and banning books. Persecution of those who oppose them is the order of the day. “Oppenheimer” is a cautionary tale about genius, and the risks of having the courage to speak truth to power. The shifting sands of history and political cynicism can, together, eliminate anyone, no matter how ‘great,’ if they challenge those in or desirous of power.
See this one.