The cinematic event of the summer has finally arrived – “Barbenheimer”: the simultaneous release of two expected blockbusters, "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer." My editor and personal friend Buse Keskin has already reviewed the former. Here I will attempt to do the same for the latter. And overall, it has to be said that the film is most definitely good. But for me, it failed to live up to the hype and initial reviews that suggested something magnificent. As such it was somewhat disappointing. This has meant that while I regard the film as worth watching and will note some positive elements of this film in this review, the main focus of it will be on these disappointing elements as they may be of greater interest.
I will first deal with the positive elements that merit the film overall being regarded as good. As is usual with the work of its director Christopher Nolan, the film is a spectacular visual treat and the acting in it is top-notch. Cillian Murphy ably embodies the titular character of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the rest of the cast is fantastic. Particularly worthy of note is Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, whose controlled demeanor and its eventual shattering represents a tour-de-force by the actor, Florence Pugh as the troubled Jean Tatlock and the small but scene-stealing appearance of Gary Oldman as a particularly obnoxious Harry Truman.
The only character that I found persistently annoying for most of the film was Kitty Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer’s wife, played by Emily Blunt. She seemed to be nothing more than the long-suffering wife of genius, a cinematic trope that viewers have themselves too long had to suffer. Nevertheless, toward the end of the film, she really comes into her own and shows herself in fact to be a vital element in the film.
The film contains some unforgettable scenes. The one that particularly stands out for me is when Oppenheimer has been invited to a meeting with the Secretary of War who has drawn up a list of Japanese candidate cities for atomic bombing. He reduces the list from 12 to 11 by ruling out Kyoto, on the grounds that it should not face destruction due to its pre-eminent cultural importance to the Japanese. He then, however, augments his case by revealing a personal knowledge of this city as the place in which he honeymooned, entering as he does so into a pleasant reverie. That he is able to do so in the context of a weapon that is going to cause such untold death and misery, moreover to a country he actually knows firsthand, has a shocking air of unreality about it, and exhibits the degree of disconnect between those who run the war and those who suffer in it.
I also think that the way in which science is portrayed in the film is admirably done, considering that there are unlikely to be many members of its audience who understand much about 20th-century physics. Indeed, its explanation of black holes is so clear that a normal person can understand what they are and perhaps even take pleasure in knowing the name for these phenomena which was not historically to be coined until the year of Oppenheimer’s death. The difficulty and slow pace of enriching uranium is simply and well conveyed to the viewer by the dropping of marbles into a large jar and the regular use of this image enables the viewer to share in the nervous anticipation of the characters as the completion of the bomb gets ever nearer.
The film also demonstrates just how dominant Germans were in physics between the wars. It additionally shows that the role Jewish Germans played was preeminent, in that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews actually enables his American enemy to overtake Germany in the building of the atomic bomb despite its overwhelming lead in this race at the beginning. This calls to mind other cases where a state has ideologically exiled its minorities to its own loss and to the benefit of its enemies, such as at the end of the 15th century when Spain exiled many of its Jews into the Ottoman Empire, or, roughly two centuries later when France exiled many of its Huguenots into the Protestant countries of northern Europe. It makes one wonder if, had Hitler not been so obsessed with anti-Semitism, could he have actually won the war. However, this is not simply a meaningless question it is counterfactual. It also requires literally baseless speculation. For as the political thinker Hannah Arendt, herself a German-Jewish exile from Nazism, has noted, the raison d’etre of Nazism is anti-Semitism. So there could be no whole Hitlerian project without it.
For the disappointing elements, I will set aside the small irritants such as the overly heavy use of the musical score. Nolan also uses it this way in Interstellar, but while it may have worked there, here it was over the top and at times unnecessarily made the dialogue difficult to hear.
My major disappointment with the film is that it, to a certain degree, fails as a biopic. What I mean is that while it clearly shows much of Oppenheimer’s life and career and the character of Oppenheimer himself is rarely off-screen, it provides little entry into the inner man, and that is what I had particularly come to see in this film. For instance, we learn that Oppenheimer underwent psychoanalysis but this is simply a detail related in the film, whereas scenes with Oppenheimer actually on the psychoanalytical couch might have been highly revealing.
Indeed, I think it compares poorly with "The Imitation Game," another film concerned with genius in World War II. That film allows us to understand the real historical character of Alan Turing. For instance, in "The Imitation Game," Turing names his computer, and as the film comes toward the end we learn why. It is a great emotional reveal. In "Oppenheimer," we learn that Oppenheimer names his test bomb Trinity, but although there is an opportunity here for a similar link to the tragedy of Jean Tatlock and Oppenheimer’s feelings about it, it is not made use of.
It may be argued that we see Oppenheimer struggling with guilt later in the film. I accept that we appear to, but it is a complex issue that is not properly investigated. For when Oppenheimer claims that he has blood on his hands, it is unclear to what extent he really feels, or more importantly can feel, this. For it touches on an issue that has only grown in importance to our own day. Since the beginning of the 20th century, technological improvements, if that is the correct word, in highly explosive weaponry have allowed, even necessitated, those who fire it to move further and further from their targets thus creating a sense of disconnect between the perpetrator and their victims.
This perhaps allows them to commit acts that they otherwise would not be able to or which would cause an indelible scar on their psyches. It is perhaps not a surprise that the visceral poets of World War I were infantrymen who saw the fighting at close quarters rather than the gunners who remained somewhat behind the lines, and thus were to a certain degree insulated from it. Hence, Oppenheimer might technically feel guilt about the bomb, but it is unclear whether he is really profoundly affected by it or whether it represents a masochistic tic in him that would have found an alternate expression for the bomb. It is arguable that he is fundamentally little different from Truman who clearly appears unbothered by what he has done.
Oppenheimer, like other famous intellectuals of the time such as the mathematician John von Neumann, was not restricted in his interests to his own academic field but had a much wider intellectual interest. This is demonstrated in the film by Oppenheimer’s examination of the work of Pablo Picasso and his reading of the Modernist classic, T. S. Eliot’s "The Wasteland." However, how these works affect the character of Oppenheimer, which would have fascinated me, is left undeveloped.
His genius with language is revealed in the speed at which he is able to learn Dutch and also in his being able to read the "Bhagavad Gita" in Sanskrit. However, here I was most surprised that the reading of this holy scripture takes place during a sex scene. Considering that the desecration of holy books is tarnishing the image of the West right now, I would not have expected Nolan to have introduced Oppenheimer’s connection to the "Bhagavad Gita" in this completely unnecessary way. I have been subsequently unsurprised to see that it has offended Hindu sentiments.
I also found the link with Prometheus pretentious rather than revealing. The film opens with the message that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and suffers eternal punishment for it. The first half of the metaphor is abundantly clear and is brilliantly manifested later in the film when we see the huge fireball of the test bomb ascending to heaven. Nevertheless, the metaphor of punishment does not seem to work. Not only is the loss of a person’s security clearance, however dishonoring, hardly the metaphorical equivalent to the torture of having one’s liver diurnally consumed, it is also, as is made clear even from the film itself, a less severe injury than those that were inflicted upon others in the anti-Communist hysteria of the early Cold War years. Moreover, the film also tempers the dishonor inflicted upon Oppenheimer by revealing the support that he receives from his scientific colleagues.
As is typical with a Nolan film, this has a fairly long running time. Yet, much of this running time is devoted to a dual framing story in which we see the post-war Oppenheimer being unfairly persecuted in a closed hearing and the connection between this hearing and a later hearing in the Senate. I definitely had a problem with the outer frame. It creates a moral problem, which I will look at below. In narrative terms, the setting up of a historical bogeyman who will be unfamiliar to pretty much anyone watching the film and saving his reveal until almost the end means that for much of the film, it is unclear why we are focusing upon him. Moreover when what he has done is revealed, the necessary sense of animus has not been created in the audience – or at least I did not feel it – for the viewer to be overly angered by his deceit or overly pleased by his fall.
In moral terms, this framing creates an evil versus good narrative in that Oppenheimer’s nemesis is motivated solely by pride. There is no nuance to him. Hence, his being an evil character renders Oppenheimer on the other side as good, with the outcome of the Senate hearing being an effective sanctification of him. The intent seems to be to have the viewer regard Oppenheim as a martyr to injustice.
Yet, there is a hint in one of the committee scenes that suggests that this might not completely be the case, and had it been explored, it would have made the film far more nuanced and thus far better. It is that Oppenheimer is clearly motivated, at least in part, initially to build the bomb due to what is happening to his fellow Jews in the Nazi-controlled parts of Europe. Later in the film, we see Oppenheimer relatively easily persuaded by the supposed need to drop the bomb on Japan. However, in this committee scene, Oppenheimer claims a moral qualm to developing the H-bomb whose target could by that time only be the USSR. The committee probe as to why his conscience is troubled by this bomb whilst not for the less powerful A-bomb. It appears the reason that Oppenheimer may well feel so strongly on this issue is that he does not want the USSR, the new enemy of the U.S., to be attacked or threatened, and this is surely due to his leftist sympathies. This would not make him a traitor but might hint that the questioning of his security clearance is indeed legitimate.
The film is also comparable with "The Imitation Game" in that both demonstrate that the greatest minds of their time were enlisted into the war effort, with a degree of latitude being granted to these geniuses in order to enable them to continue with their work that would not be given to many others in wartime. From utilitarian considerations, this would seem to have been an astute move. For it was the case that an individual genius such as Oppenheimer or Turing working in secret in Los Alamos or Bletchley Park did have a huge impact upon the conflict being waged, and both are believed, even if less so in Oppenheimer’s case, to have shortened the length of the war.
However, both films also reveal that once the crisis for which they have been hired has passed, both suffer by being effectively discarded though the debt owed them by their respective countries should be unpayable. Whether this is a point for which we should sympathize with them requires a different consideration. Rather than the Hindu "Bhagavad Gita," there is a Taoist text about a farmer that helps in an evaluation of these men. It is a simple parable about time and judgment. It is about a farmer whose horse runs off, which is bad. It then returns with other horses, enriching the farmer, which is good. The farmer’s son is thrown from one of the new horses and injured which is bad. But then this injury prevents his son from being conscripted which is good. Thus, each turn of events changes the evaluation of the original event.
So, in the cases of Oppenheimer and Turing, the original act and its original evaluation – even if the contribution of Turing at the time was widely unknown – has to be positive. They played a crucial role in the final victory of their nations. Moreover, they also set in train a series of developments that have changed our world. Computers are now an essential aid in our lives and it is at least arguable that the existence of nuclear weapons prevented a third world war through the concept of MAD, or “mutually assured destruction.”
However, it may be that their inventions at some point in the future rebound to the severe detriment of humanity. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that it could come about through a combination of the two in the nightmare scenario that has been put forward in science fiction such as the "Terminator" franchise, in which AI, which owes its origin to Turing, may take control of and set off nuclear arsenals, which owe their origin to Oppenheimer. Should this occur, and then if there is anyone left to do it in a secure underground bunker, the evaluations of Turing and Oppenheimer will surely then be as the fathers of our destruction.
Now, however, in Nolan’s film and in the earlier "The Imitation Game," they are presented as undeserving martyrs, but the emotive case is made better in the latter.
Review: 3¾ out of 5.