Oppenheimer, the Film

No Answers for Creative Impulses of Great Scientists

By: - Sep 04, 2023

I saw Oppenheimer. Prepare your rotten tomatoes.

The movie is very loud, gray and one-dimensional.

Buñuel wrote about the minimal need for music in movies. The director Christopher Nolan ordered the opposite. He created an almost continuous track of monotonous "recitative" copying Philip Glass, yet not in Glass's spirit. Its main purpose is the creation of an atmosphere of ever-present and growing anxiety and frustration. This prevents the viewer from being able to relate to what is happening in his or her own way. This intrusive tuning system is like a train, designed to take us to the right station, never forgetting where we are going. And the station we go to is called Armageddon.

Before the test explosion of the first A-bomb in the desert of New Mexico there is a period of silence, ending with a flash.  It is perceived with neither horror nor delight, but as a banal "finally!"

The explosion itself, after all, is impressive with clouds of fire all the way up the wall of the iMax movie theater. And this is the only bright - in all senses! - episode of the movie.

The picture is shot in gray-brown tones with shades of gray predominant. This is also a metaphor. There is no joy, much less inspiration in the screen life of the characters. We watch a routine struggle of ambition with circumstances and, ambitionus drive amongst the physicists. No one seems to love anyone, no one seems to trust anyone. And it is difficult for everyone, and the hardest of all, of course, Oppenheimer. He has all the responsibility. At home, he lives with a hysterical wife and screaming children. That's also why the nuclear explosion is a great relief.

Let's move on to the characters and actors. In the picture there are three people who are "alive": Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), General Groves (Matt Damon) and President Truman, a tiny but memorable role, brightly played by Gary Oldman. 

What to say about Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy)?  His face is monotonous, like the soundtrack. Occasionally you can read a faint emotion on it, in his eyes - an insoluble dilemma, with which, it seems, he was born and with which he will die. We, the audience, must not forget for a second that the "nuclear dilemma" is insoluble and - most importantly! - disgusting. Every minute of the three-hour movie we must think about it, seeing Oppenheimer's mask-like face in front of us, his blue suffering eyes silent, and music that disturbs us.  

The other characters in the picture are characterized by varying degrees of phony. It is difficult to guess the scientists among the characters portrayed. They do not shine with intellect and nor engage in creativity.  Enrico Fermi we guess by the "Come stai?" Edward Teller looks like an official schemer. Where's Richard Feynman? I didn't even notice. But Einstein came out the most bogus: one would like to fix his wig.

From the very beginning and almost to the end, the physicists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project felt themselves to be the saviors of civilization, heroes, and not the potential criminals Nolan portrays. They ran head-to-head with Werner Heisenberg, who was considered by many to be the number one physicist of the time (excluding Einstein, who was already old and did not participate in the project). 

What if Hitler had gotten the A-bomb as early as '44? These guys - Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller and all their coworkers - were the hope of mankind. They knew it better than anyone else. They worked amicably, inspirationally, and, if various memories are to be believed, cheerfully. There was no moral dilemma before them. This dilemma arose somewhere in the winter-spring of '44-45, when it became clear that Heisenberg, leading the German physicists, was far from a successful bomb. Their rival had fallen away and the main motive had evaporated. And Japan had no atomic project. It was then that Einstein wrote his second letter to Roosevelt, read by his successor Truman, urging him to stop the Manhattan Project and keep the nuclear genie in the bottle. Truman said nothing, and the Project continued. There is not a shadow of this psychological dynamic in Nolan's movie.

Now about the decision "to bomb or not to bomb?" The mockingly short episode of the discussion absorbed and, in general, correctly reflected the spectrum of the main positions fought in the highest circles of the United States for at least half a year. It was extremely cynical. Especially the moment when the Minister of War (there was such a position then) lazily pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket and says: Here is a list of 20 Japanese cities defined as targets, but (smiling)...I will cross out Kyoto, "where my wife and I spent our honeymoon."  And crosses it off. Frostbite. I can only imagine how the Japanese audience feels. And what about Oppenheimer here, what's his "moral dilemma"? Why doesn't he argue, why doesn't he at least leave the room? Because. We see blue, suffering eyes. Do you have any more questions?

It's fair to say that the scientists' opinion on this matter has been virtually ignored. The military calculated that multiple landings and a massive ground operation to capture Tokyo would cost the U.S. Army at least 100,000 casualties. Otherwise, the Japanese would not capitulate. And, of course, to show everyone else who is now in charge in the world. Double benefit. The 2 billion dollars spent on the Manhattan Project is justified.

Whether the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a crime is a separate topic. Right now, it seems dangerous to say it wasn't a crime. And to say that "everything is not so clear-cut" is kind of nasty. War is a crime. All bombing of cities is a crime. However, if in the summer of 1945 you asked an American mother, whose son was fighting in the Pacific Ocean and could be killed at any moment, let her decide what is better and fairer: let her son come back alive, but let 100 thousand (or even millions) Japanese die, or should it be the other way around?  It's easy to be a humanitarian at someone else's expense. I've said that many times to the leftist liberals I know.

Okay, I'm getting emotional.

I didn't like the movie Oppenheimer either in concept or in realization. It didn't raise new questions or shed new light on old ones. But it will be debated. The Japanese will probably be outraged. The American military and some veterans of recent wars will remain dissatisfied. It will be interesting to read what the physicists have to say. 

The wave will come, but will it have depth? I'm not sure.