August 02, 2023
In director Christopher Nolan’s campaign to save moviegoing from technological and social obsolescence, his latest ploy is his most clever yet: to lure grown-ups with three-digit IQs to see his Oppenheimer in numbers that had no longer seemed attainable in the 2020s by making his film outstanding in quality. (Why didn’t anybody ever think of that before?)
When I started reviewing movies 22 years ago, I noticed to my surprise that much of the difference in the quality of movies is really not a matter of opinion: Some films, such as Oppenheimer, are simply much better made than most other films, and practically everybody can see it.
Nolan is an extraordinarily adept filmmaker, as everybody knows. Five of his movies—The Dark Knight and its sequel, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk—have made at least a half billion at the global box office, and Oppenheimer is over $400 million in its first two weekends.
And yet, Nolan has always pushed the envelope in how cognitively challenging a movie can be. Hence, Oppenheimer is three hours long and admirably (perhaps excessively) historically accurate. It depicts enormously complicated events using a gigantic cast. For instance, 78th in the credits list is Gary Oldman as Harry Truman. (And there’s negligible diversity casting: The vast majority of the characters are unapologetically white.)
But at least you can instantly discern Truman and Einstein (Tom Conti). Much of the rest of the dramatis personae consists of masterminds you’ve heard of—such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Ernest Lawrence, Vannevar Bush, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Isidor Rabi, and James Conant—but feel a little guilty for not recognizing them in their reenactments.
So, what’s better: the intensity of seeing Oppenheimer now in a theater the way Nolan intends? Or waiting a year for it to be on streaming when you can watch it with the captions on and a remote in your hand to pause the movie and look up Luis Alvarez on Wikipedia? (Oh yeah, he and his son figured out what happened to the dinosaurs.)
I worried that Oppenheimer’s dialogue would be muffled as in several other Nolan movies such as Interstellar, but fortunately, this time he’s reined in his preference for muddy, booming soundtracks. Still, despite the welcome clarity of the sound, he layers a nervous modernist orchestral score under every line, so you might want to await subtitles.
Further, Nolan abstains from the documentary-style techniques that have become common since perhaps Goodfellas in 1990 to help audiences follow complex stories, such as voice-overs, freeze frames to introduce characters, and supertitles of names and dates. Nolan engages in prodigies of screenwriting craftsmanship to have other characters remind you verbally who is Hans Bethe and who is Leo Szilard. But why not just print the names of the great physicists on the screen the first few times they appear?
Or consider dates. The movie ranges from that curious 1926 incident in which a jealous young Oppenheimer gave a more accomplished physicist a poisoned apple to the late-1963 White House ceremony in which LBJ presented J. Robert Oppenheimer with the Fermi Award, thus officially ending his decade-long cancellation for having been a Stalinist fellow traveler in the 1930s. The earlier events (labeled “Fission”) are in color and the later events (“Fusion”) in black and white, but you are left guessing what year it is merely by how wrinkly Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer gets. And Nolan puts the chronology through his usual slice-and-dice editing because he wouldn’t want to make this story about guys with 180 IQs too easy for you to follow.
I realize that a lot of people despise dates (every history teacher begins his class by promising that he won’t emphasize dates, even though they are essential to having intelligent opinions on historical causality). But Nolan missed an obvious alternative: to count down and up from Oppenheimer’s Trinity test of his Fat Man atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, as The Year Zero. Thus, the movie could begin at –19 Years and end at +18 Years. Each time the date changes, print it on the screen.
Sure, designating Oppenheimer’s detonation of the first A-bomb as the hinge of history would be on the nose. But, yeah, that’s why we’re at the theater. Oppenheimer saying, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” ranks up there with the best mid-century comic-book true moments, along with J. Edgar Hoover sending Donald Trump’s MIT physicist uncle to inspect the late Nikola Tesla’s hotel suite in 1943 to see if he’d invented any war-winning death rays and forgotten to tell anybody about it.
Oppenheimer’s most vivid comic-book callout comes after his best friend Rabi talks him out of wearing a comic opera military uniform at Los Alamos. He is then shown in a classic superhero origin-story scene donning his historically iconic look: the tailored business suit, the pipe, and the porkpie hat with the wide Western brim.
More broadly, Oppenheimer features that popular theme of 21st-century movies, “I’m putting together a team,” as he travels about by train recruiting the best physicists in America to move to a secret town he is having built near his beloved ranch in New Mexico. (“Assemble the samurai” has been a favorite theme of directors like Nolan at least since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, because hiring the best film craftsmen is a big part of their jobs.) Only Rabi turns down his offer, telling Oppenheimer that he doesn’t like the idea that “the culmination of three centuries of physics” would be a big bomb, and choosing to stick to his war work on radar instead.
I praise Oppenheimer strongly even though I don’t particularly like Nolan’s penchants and predilections. For instance, Nolan has practically no sense of humor. Despite his flair for self-dramatization, J. Robert Oppenheimer himself recognized that playing up his 1954 star chamber security clearance hearing as a historic cataclysm was overblown: “The whole damn thing was a farce, and these people are trying to make a tragedy out of it.”
The Coen brothers could have done more with the extensive political passages in Oppenheimer, which revolve around Oppenheimer’s Stalinist 1930s and the revenge the right-wing Jews Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss took upon him in the 1950s. The Anglo-American Nolan doesn’t bring any particular insight into the conundrum of why Jews came to be associated with nuclear weapons in the 20th century, rather like Germans and rockets or WASPs and eugenics.
If anything, the movie is overly critical of Oppenheimer, choosing to probe his contradictions and flaws relentlessly when it could have devoted more time to showing how a theoretician in his late 30s suddenly turned himself into the recruiter and manager of the most famous assemblage of talent in history. What made Oppenheimer the Danny Ocean of physicists, the leader whose judgment of their skills the other sages found nearly foolproof? Oppenheimer was to physicists what Johnny Carson was to comedians: their rightful St. Peter, worthy of judging them.
Oppenheimer wasn’t the greatest researcher of that heroic age—although his finest discovery, the publication on Sept. 1, 1939, of the theory of black holes, got overlooked in that day’s surfeit of events. It would have eventually won him the Nobel if he hadn’t smoked himself to death by 1967.
But, as Bethe noted, he was a rare American physicist with “taste”: an awareness of what are the key scientific questions of the age, what to focus upon and what not to bother with.
Although not endowed with tireless concentration—he lacked what German scientists call sitzfleisch, the willingness to apply posterior to chair until the question is fully thought through—his mind’s quickness and breadth (who else taught himself Sanskrit for fun?) made him the Platonic seminar leader, crisply summing up one man’s rambling presentation of his new idea and then calling on precisely the right next man to extend that insight.
The casting of the major roles in Oppenheimer is strong. Nolan’s wraith-like Irish regular Cillian Murphy (this is Murphy’s sixth Nolan movie) looks strikingly like the emaciated Jewish Oppenheimer, who never in his life weighed 130 pounds and might have dropped into double digits during his Los Alamos ordeal. Generally speaking, with its close-ups and need for realism, films are best cast within broad ethnic groups (e.g., Italians and Jews regularly play each other, while Irish and Jews are a stretch). Yet it’s hard to imagine anybody other than Murphy coming close to matching Oppenheimer’s combination of appealing and alarming looks, the bright blue eyes and the rock star skull right beneath the skin.
Matt Damon is enjoyable as usual as Oppenheimer’s hearty 250-pound boss, Gen. Leslie Groves.
Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh are fine as, respectively, Oppenheimer’s Communist wife and Communist mistress.
The part-Jewish Robert Downey Jr. is excellent as Oppenheimer’s Iago-like nemesis, financier–turned–public servant Lewis Strauss, who decided to have the great man canceled in 1954 for, among much else, wounding his amour propre.
On the other hand, Nolan is not really an ensemble filmmaker, so don’t go to Oppenheimer in hopes of seeing charming vignettes of the famous figures in the supporting cast. The movie is rightfully named Oppenheimer, not Los Alamos, due to its intensity of focus on the title character. For example, two of the most enduringly popular bomb scientists, the jolly genius John von Neumann, who drove his office neighbor Einstein crazy at Oppenheimer’s Institute for Advanced Studies by playing marching-band records full blast while doing his math, and Richard Feynman, the Bugs Bunny of American science, are outside of Nolan’s wheelhouse. Thus, the young Feynman is mostly shown in quick cuts of him playing his bongos at parties, and von Neumann may have been left on the cutting-room floor entirely.
After World War II, Oppenheimer was called upon to play philosopher-king, writing much of the Truman administration’s 1946 Acheson-Lillienthal Report. This proposed committing the U.S. to dismantle its nascent nuclear arsenal, share its atomic bomb secrets with the Soviet Union, and give control of the world’s uranium and thorium mines over to an international body.
How was that ever supposed to work?
During his liberal phase a half decade before, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein had sympathetically tried to anticipate the logic of international control of weapons of mass destruction in a 1941 short story in which the U.S., led by an admirable General Groves-like officer, wins World War II in 1945 by dropping radiation weapons on an Axis city. The U.S. then magnanimously creates an international “Peace Patrol” with a global monopoly on the new weapons under the leadership of the fictional Groves, who finds, to his regret, that he must overthrow the elected president and become the dictator of the world. It’s entitled “Solution Unsatisfactory.”
Truman brought in Bernard Baruch to present the Acheson-Lillienthal plan to the U.N. Baruch toughened up the deal, which caused Stalin to back out, leaving the Bohr-Oppenheimer fantasy of international control of the atom dead by the end of 1946.
As head consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission, Oppenheimer then worked to stymie Teller’s dream of a fusion (a.k.a. hydrogen or thermonuclear) superbomb for fear of heightening the arms race with the Soviets. This is the main plotline of Oppenheimer post-Trinity, in which Teller (Benny Safdie) and Strauss conspire to cancel Oppenheimer’s security clearance for his foot-dragging over the H-bomb by bringing up that he’d admitted to having been “a member of just about every Communist Front organization on the West Coast.”
But the movie somewhat glosses over Oppenheimer’s advocacy of miniaturizing his fission atomic bombs so they could be used on the battlefield. This made him popular with the Army but unpopular with the new Air Force.
We wound up with both Oppenheimer’s fission tactical weapons and Teller’s fusion strategic weapons, a potentially catastrophic combination. Ironically, although many people have come to grasp the bizarre logic of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) via strategic nuclear weapons, Oppenheimer Era tactical nuclear weapons, such as the Atomic Cannon and the Backpack Nuke, now seem even nuttier.
Still, a nuclear weapon hasn’t been used in anger since 1945, which is testimony to the combined sagacity of all those who have debated the topic. Then again, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev threatened over the weekend that Russia would be “forced” to use nuclear weapons if the Ukrainian offensive is a success. The nuclear era could turn out like the old joke about the man who jumps off the Empire State Building and is asked by a bystander on the 50th floor, “How’s it going?”
He replies, “So far, so good.”
The Soviets tested their first fission bomb in 1949, largely due to having (at least) four spies at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer focuses upon Klaus Fuchs, a German gentile Communist who was a particular favorite of the Hungarian Jewish cold warriors Teller and von Neumann, who was arrested in 1950. The other publicized spy was David Greenglass, a blue-collar worker who ratted out his sister Ethel Rosenberg and her husband, Julius.
But the existence of two other Manhattan Project spies was covered up for generations: Teenage physics prodigy Ted Hall, who might have done even more damage than Fuchs, wasn’t revealed until 1995 (his older brother Ed Hall was the Air Force’s top American rocket scientist). The name of Oscar Seborer wasn’t disclosed by the U.S. government until 2019.
Would the Soviets have independently invented the fusion bomb if the U.S. had forsworn building one, as Oppenheimer desired?
Perhaps. Due to the Red Scare, American security was much better in the 1950s than in the 1940s, when the conservative Cold Warrior von Neumann and the communist spy Fuchs had jointly filed for a patent on a trigger for a “thermo-nuclear reaction.” So far, there’s no evidence that the Teller-Ulam breakthrough of 1951 that made full-scale hydrogen bombs practical was ever stolen by the Soviets.
On the other hand, by then the Soviets had gifted physicists like Andrei Sakharov and Yakov Zeldovich (father of one of my longtime readers). They apparently figured out from American H-bomb test fallout that the U.S. must have a much more powerful design and thus reverse engineered the Teller-Ulam mechanism. Khrushchev’s Soviet Union was less maniacal than Stalin’s but comparably ambitious, as shown by their taking the lead in the space race. The Cuban Missile Crisis might have turned out quite differently if the Soviets had a monopoly on fusion weapons.
Sakharov felt sorry for Oppenheimer over his humiliation but thought he was naive to recommend America forswearing fusion bombs in the hopes that Stalin and Beria would follow the USA’s lead. Sakharov wrote in his memoirs:
…all steps by the Americans of a temporary or permanent rejection of developing thermonuclear weapons would have been seen either as a clever feint, or as the manifestation of stupidity. In both cases, the reaction would have been the same—avoid the trap and immediately take advantage of the enemy’s stupidity.
Oppenheimer had a long track record of misjudging Stalin’s character, so it made sense to phase him out of influence under the Eisenhower administration. On the other hand, the show trial Strauss orchestrated was petty and vindictive. Rabi, who is portrayed in Oppenheimer by David Krumholtz as the most street-smart of the physicists, testified:
“…he is a consultant, and if you don’t want to consult the guy, you don’t consult him, period. Why you have to then proceed to suspend clearance…he is only there when called, and that is all there was to it. So it didn’t seem to me the sort of thing that called for this kind of proceeding at all against a man who had accomplished what Dr. Oppenheimer has accomplished.”
Not that Oppenheimer suffered materially: He continued as head of the world’s most glamorous academic organization, the Institute for Advanced Studies, a job at which he was superb due to his polymathic near-infallibility of judgment of promise across innumerable academic specialties in the sciences and humanities.
Oppenheimer can work as a clever anti-woke message movie to the acute, although it’s unlikely that the lower brow will much get it. Great movie directors like Nolan can never be fully woke because, like Oppenheimer, they believe, most of all, in talent.
In contrast, the woke want to cancel the talented.
For example, consider the recent cancellation of the physicist who hired Oppenheimer to teach at Caltech, 1923 Nobel Laureate Ernest Millikan. In the late 1920s, the greats of European physics such as Bohr and Born wanted Oppenheimer to stay on in Europe. But Oppenheimer resolved to return to his native country and build up American physics in the promised land of California. Nonetheless, there was nobody worth spending the whole year with in the U.S., so he decided to teach one semester at UC Berkeley and one at Caltech, allowing him to stay in close touch with two sets of experimentalists. Generally speaking, colleges don’t let egotistical grad students dictate such terms, but Millikan, Caltech’s founding president, was okay with Oppenheimer’s demand because he was Oppenheimer.
By the time of Millikan’s retirement in 1945 after two dozen years as its leader, Caltech was one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. And thus many other educational institutions were named after Millikan. For example, I learned to type in summer school at Millikan Junior High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
While Oppenheimer had been a Stalinist in the 1930s, Millikan had been a eugenicist in the 1920s. So, during the recent Racial Reckoning mania, Millikan was canceled, having his name removed from three buildings at Caltech. And Millikan M.S. has been renamed after Louis Armstrong. Granted, the trumpeter was a great guy, but having been born in New Orleans and lived in Queens, he didn’t have much to do with education or Southern California.
I try to hold glass-half-full opinions of scientists like Oppenheimer and Millikan and admire them for their historic accomplishments rather than cancel them for their mundane political opinions.