Part-Time Review: Oppenheimer (2023)



The epic but sleek photography, jaw-dropping in-camera special effects, meta-editing style, and unique vision that director/writer Christopher Nolan brought to the superhero, crime, science fiction, and war genre has been brought to the historical drama and it absolutely lives up to the hype. For Oppenheimer, Nolan adapted the Pulitzer prize wining American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer into both a history and film lover's dream. As the title of the book implies, the character of Robert Oppenheimer is not easily summed up as a hero or villain and Nolan's Oppenheimer is a soaring testament that historical films for adults can be engaging and satisfying while still being artistically presented, informatively filled to the brim with historical details and characters, and  presenting a complicated timeline told from multiple viewpoints. Seriously, if you love history, then you're going to eat well here: new physics, world war II, Manhattan project, atomic espionage, McCarthyism, and 20th century politics all laid out with wonderful details. Additionally, while I quite enjoyed my immediate experience of the film, is was in reflecting upon how the entire story (and its presentation) is intricately woven with the film's themes that has immensely deepened my appreciation for it.

To explain my praise, it might be helpful to frame the content of this review with the three major themes that continued to stick in my mind after my viewing. The film opens with text about the mythological character of Prometheus (remember that the original book gave Oppenheimer the title of American Prometheus) who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man only to end up being punished by the gods for the "noble" act. The film positions the "new physics" of men like Robert Oppenheimer,  and others, as the equivalent of Prometheus' fire. On one hand, these incredible men and women have peered into the mysteries of the world once thought to be known only to God and discovered that those mysteries have predictable and, crucially, controllable qualities that give humanity immense power for good (Nolan's visual depiction of Oppenheimer's mental comprehension/visions of the impending power and doom in atomic energy are really beautiful on the big screen). On the other hand, these incredible men and women have given a humanity that was already trying to kill each other an even more powerful to do it. Nolan cleverly names this theme through a crucial conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein a few times throughout the film - giving the audience a very helpful context to view the numerous interrogation sequences (the security clearance, the AEC meeting, the senate hearings, etc).

So, we should just see Oppenheimer as a scientific hero who was tragically used by governments and politicians - he's a kind of quiet hero right? Eh, the film goes out of its way to tell us that such judgments are not always so easy to make. The second major theme that struck me shows up in one of Oppenheimer's first sequences where Robert is explaining quantum mechanics to students (and to the audience) by remarking upon how light is both a particle and a wave at the same time, even though that seems impossible. This idea from science, that each end of a seeming contradiction can both be true at the same time permeates the entirety of the film's presentation of the journey in building the atomic bomb, the fallout, and the person of Oppenheimer himself. I think the central contradiction is that Oppenheimer is both a villain and a hero - both at the same time. Were the Allies right in not only racing to build the bomb before Nazi Germany, but in dropping it on the Japanese? Again, taking the fullness of the sequences in the film, the reply is that a simple "yes" or "no" doesn't work, but the answer seems to be both here. Like in quantum mechanics, we are sometimes presented with a situation where there is no clear delineation. There are a number of other questions like this in the film: can we be both allies and enemies with the Russians at the same time? Can Robert not regret building the bomb, but also not want them to be used? Can the security hunt for "commies" be both valid and overblown at the same time? Can Oppenheimer be both a security risk and loyal at the same time? Can Robert be an amazing scientist, a good person, and still be a bad husband? Heck, you could get even more meta (which I think the film indulges): Can a challenging intellectual and artistic film also be an engaging blockbuster film?

Helping to soak Oppenheimer with this "contradiction" theme, Nolan has decided to tell the story not only by bouncing around through time (when was the last time Nolan told a linear story?), but also bouncing around with multiple perspectives. This is sometimes denoted by a changing aspect ration and color scheme as well. Nolan has chosen to present the story of Oppenheimer like a three hour montage that is always moving forward with incredible momentum (thanks to a propulsive and ever-present musical score). In a way, it felt a lot like watching Oliver Stone's 1991 conspiracy theory epic JFK - the two films would make a fascinating double showing. Stone's JFK is like this three hour opus fever dream attempt at getting to objective truth (JFK's assassin) through a single subjective viewpoint (not Costner's, but Stone's through Costner). The end result is this incredible assembly of historical recreation, investigation, interrogations, testimony, and court rooms filled with an all-star ensemble cast, edited with kinetic momentum, scored fabulously, and it all works to one big end - casting doubt on the established history of the JFK assassination. It's not great actual history, but it's fascinating as a film that's trying to convey history. In contrast, Nolan is using much of the same presentation playbook here (historical recreations, investigations, interrogations, testimony, senate rooms, all-star ensemble, score, editing) but is looking to get to some kind of objective truth through by pitting multiple subjective viewpoints against each other. With the same fervor and passion that JFK doubts the established history, Oppenheimer both asserts and doubts established history. It pulls the ultimate "quantum mechanics" on us by saying that "yes, this is essentially how it happened and you are right to think it turned out ultimately good for us" and also provide us with enough different viewpoints, retellings, and other historical details to question and say, "Hmm, maybe I should rethink how I saw some people, I bet there was more to it than that - maybe it could have gone differently or other choices could have been made." In this sense, I think it's closer to the historical truth than we are all used to.

So Oppenheimer's both a hero and villain and/or it's to complex to say. We should just leave it at that? Again, this is where Nolan's film uses a theme of the subject matter at hand to tell us that things are a bit more complicated than that. The key to an atomic bomb, as the movie tells us, is producing a chain reaction that is able to split an atom and set off even more chain reactions that produce the destructive power we see when the bomb is tested in the Trinity testing sequence. In the development of the bomb however many of the scientists worry that in setting off the bomb they could possibly ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth. In other words, they are worried that they cannot stop the chain reaction once it has begun. Historical events like the discovery of atomic energy, are like a chain reaction that may have no end. We may struggle to control it (as the film makes very clear), but how do you control something that continues to produce effects that produce effects? Thematically, Nolan has deployed this theme throughout the story, characters, and even visuals of the film. The most obvious example is that once Oppenheimer has built the bomb, he cannot control how its used, its out of his hands. Similarly, our success with the bomb forces others, notably the Russians, to secure their own bomb. If the Russians have a bomb, then we need a bigger one, an H-Bomb. Where does the chain reaction end? It's a haunting thought - one that should still haunt us to this day.

The chain reaction theme is also obvious when characters specifically reference how they are building on the the scientists who have come before them, in this case Einstein is called out. However, Einstein himself is a link in a chain that leads back to others like Isaac Newton. It's such a powerful thing when we learn what this truth implies - we are all part of this chain and we cannot get a fuller grasp on one link of it without understanding what it is linked to as well. I love how this principle plays out in examining Oppenheimer's relationship with communism and his leftist friends - how his family, his work, his friends, and other circumstances gave him links to communism that on paper look very direct (especially to a certain prosecutor looking to give someone security clearance in the wake of communist spies being outed), but that the film shows as more complex and varied. Visually, this chain reaction theme is shown not only in the surreal visions and images Oppenheimer has, but also in little things like how rain drops interact with a pond.

Historically speaking, this theme gives us a wonderful principle that every good historian understands - we should be careful to simply sit back and judge historical people and events as good/bad, neither or both as it's almost always more complex than that and not always the most helpful historical task - though I think we do need to evaluate at the end of the day as best we can. Instead, it can often be much more fruitful task to devote more time attempting to understand the chain of events that led our ancestors to think and do what they did and how their actions are passed on and connected to those that came after. One cannot understand Oppenheimer's scientific step without understanding new physics, Einstein, and World War II. You cannot understand his links to communism without understanding his link to Jean Tatlock (literally). One cannot understand Oppenheimer's refusal to show regret for making the bomb while also campaigning against further development without (as the movie seems to argue) understanding a multitude of contexts (politics, family, personal achievements, doubts, ambition, moral qualms, colleagues, pride, etc). This is why the Trinity test of the atom bomb is not the climax of the film (there's still roughly an hour to go after we witness it), but another key moment of Oppenheimer's life instead. Nolan is the consummate historian filmmaker here, refusing to give us the event itself as our blockbuster end with the context and character stuff as filler to an all thrills specifical effect main event ending. There's plenty of that kind of history storytelling out there so I appreciate Nolan going for something different and more challenging, even though it will not be appealing to a large swath of people. 

During the pandemic I read a three-volume history of the world that stopped right after the Renaissance period. Combined, it totaled thousands of pages and identified the rise, fall, and developments of major centers of power/people/trade in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance eras. It was an avalanche of details on warriors, tribes, kings, popes, bishops, empires, revolutions, battles, mergers, and treaties. Despite this overwhelming amount of detail, that can feel superfluous at the outset, when I committed to trying to understand those details from the beginning and how they are intimately connected to each other in a long chain, I approached historical moments that had previously been simplified for me with new and fresh perspective. I know it can often be easier to just read the wiki summary of an event and there's actually no problem in some films being a "summary" version,, or even a passionate one-sided version of the event. There's room for all kinds. However, much needed in that spectrum are films that strive to give us the complexity and context as well. As I said in my reflection on the three-volume history, "... summary obscures important context, breaking off vital chains every event is tied in with. The more I committed to trying to understand not just a broad history of the world, but a deeper one, the more you feel the weight of how decisions made in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance world are still chained to us today." What Nolan has done in Oppenheimer is present a film that hits a rare trifecta (a Trinity of his own if you will): an engaging film, an artistically rich film, and a historical film that presents the complexities and contexts (not all, but many important ones) of its subject matter. What more could you ask for?