Notes on Oppenheimer
I am become death...
A break from our regularly scheduled programming for my thoughts on one of the two movies everyone is talking about.
I know little about Robert Oppenheimer. Going into the film I knew he was crucial to America developing the atomic bomb and that his security clearance was controversially revoked after WWII due to suspicions of his communist activities.
After watching the film and doing a bit more research, I’m surprised by how historically accurate it is. Many of the events in the film really happened, and actual dialogue from various characters was said word-for-word. Again, I’m not an expert, so I’m sure some liberties were taken. But overall, it’s great to see a film that takes advantage of real-life drama instead of just making it up (looking at you, Bohemian Rhapsody).
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One problem with biopics is that they usually have to reduce the number of people involved in a real-life event so that the audience can keep track of who is who. Political biopics especially are caught in this trap. The movie can either be historically accurate and have dozens of characters and leave the audience bewildered, or composite characters can be created so that the audience can follow along. Nolan does an amazing job in “Oppenheimer” by including a massive number of characters but giving the audience reminders of who they are.
This is done with two techniques. The first is Nolan’s use of famous actors in otherwise small roles. To some viewers this can be a distraction (“Wait, is that Josh Hartnett?”) when a character is first introduced. But it also grounds the character in the audience’s mind. Rami Malek’s character is in several scenes throughout the first three-quarters of the film, but always in the background. His coup de grace at the conclusion of the movie works because the audience is able to recognize him instantly. That wouldn’t be possible with just another face. Nolan’s other reminder technique is to depict a character in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashback that represents what Robert Oppenheimer’s mind is seeing. For example, Oppenheimer’s Cambridge teacher is introduced at the beginning of the film, and Oppenheimer tries to poison him with an apple. At the end of the movie the teacher is mentioned again, and there is a quick shot of him with an apple in the classroom from the beginning of the movie. It allows the audience to make the connection immediately, which is needed given the multi-hour gap between the character’s appearances. It’s a great mechanism that I’d like to see repeated in other films.
The soundtrack is almost its own character. The movie relies heavily on music and other sounds to convey the feelings in characters’ heads. This is nothing new, but seeing “Oppenheimer” in an IMAX theatre was magnificent.
The movie is too long. There are many, many different threads in this firm. The security clearance hearings, Oppenheimer’s personal life, Lewis Strauss’ confirmation hearings, and oh yeah, the race to build the atomic bomb. All of them are fantastic, but put together it tries to do a bit much. As a result, the atomic bomb blast is almost an anti-climax; it feels like it could end the film, but instead there’s still an hour left. This isn’t a major criticism because the final hour is very enjoyable, it just strains a viewer’s limits.
I’m a big fan of Nolan’s work, but I have to admit his dialogue can be a bit stilted. It’s his biggest weakness as a filmmaker. “Oppenheimer” has some traditional Nolan unnatural dialogue, but also includes some great lines. The first scene with Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon is fantastic; both just keep on hitting the other with witty rejoinders. Emily Blunt also gets some meaty dialogue, but the best might be when she says, “You don’t get to commit a sin and then make us all feel sorry when there are consequences.” It works in the moment of a wife addressing her husband’s infidelity, as well as the larger issue of Oppenheimer building the atomic bomb.
I can’t wait to watch the movie again and try to pick out other themes. Several commenters online have mentioned the symbolism of the ripple effects in the pond Einstein is throwing rocks into, something that went totally over my head but seems obvious now. I did catch the reference to how Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, but is now known for his prizes; the link between him and Oppenheimer is clear.
I loved the way complicated issues were dealt with throughout the film. Were the dropping of the atomic bombs justified? I think this is one of the biggest ethical questions of the 20th century, and the movie does a remarkable job airing both viewpoints without ensnaring the firm in the moral quandary. Some online commentators have been arguing this is a weakness of the film, missing the point that this is a biopic and not an agenda cloaked in a story (looking at you, Elysium).
Should Oppenheimer’s security clearance have been revoked? On one hand, I don’t think any evidence has been found to suggest he was a Soviet agent or ever passed other information to the Soviets. On the other, he did show terrible judgment on multiple occasions and trafficked in circles that someone with a high security clearance should have left alone. I think the movie does a good job showing the unfairness of the proceedings while still airing some legitimate concerns the US government had.
Christopher Nolan has taken dramatic tension to new heights. At the risk of being too poetic, I think of “Oppenheimer” in terms of crescendo and diminuendo rather than the more cinematic rising action and falling action. Most movies will have periods of rising and falling action interspaced with the occasional slow scene. This isn’t a bad thing; it lets the audience regroup (and use the bathroom). Instead, Nolan just expects the audience to buckle in for three hours without ever completely letting up (if you like this type of pacing, I highly recommend the underrated Cloud Atlas). He achieves this through plenty of non-linear scenes spliced together, an excellent score, and marvelous acting. His
previous film “Tenet” does the same, but that’s a film with plenty of action. To do the same in a movie without any gunshots or car chases is magnificent.
I think that the actual Robert Oppenheimer’s voice is used when the bomb explodes and he delivers his immortal line. Listen here: