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The bigger the star, the more violent its demise.




There’s a scene near the end of Oppenheimer where the theoretical physicist’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), subjected to the scrutiny of the verminous Roger Robb (Jason Clarke, cast to type) at a 1954 security hearing, collects herself and comes out fighting, “as I don’t like your phrase”. It’s an electric exchange, a jolt in the picture’s arm, and it makes you realise what you’ve been missing over the course of almost 3 hours in the weary, haggard, haunted company of Cillian Murphy’s J Robert Oppenheimer. His is a fine performance, but it offers significantly less combustion than the “creation” he oversaw.

Such is Christopher Nolan’s roadmap to the man, for better or worse. Thanks to Barbenheimer, at least in part, audiences haven’t been put off, but it makes Oppenheimer an overly bells-and-whistles experience at times, stacked with subjective sounds and visions, effects, close-ups and a fine but omnipresent, unsettling score from Ludwig Göransson (one that is perma-oppressive and portentous, drenching the picture, such that it loses some of its potency as a result). 

Nolan, ever-keen to be tricksy, attempts to sustain interest through juxtaposed timeframes: Oppenheimer in 1954 submits to interrogation over his lefty sympathies, with a view to retaining his threatened security clearance. His account of the Manhattan Project runs parallel with the recollections of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), former Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, at his 1959 Senate confirmation hearing as Secretary of Commerce. 

So there’s Oppie being grilled and, initially at least, Strauss being even-handed in his remembrances. Nolan’s “reveal” in the final hour is that it was Strauss who conspired to Oppenheimer’s cancellation so the latter would “never again speak in matters of national security” (“We’re not convicting, just denying”). His motivation is revenge, for the perceived slights of turning Einstein against him and ridiculing him with regard to exporting nuclear materials (radioactive isotopes). This structure, in its least subtle aspect, establishes Oppenheimer as the victim, unfairly maligned by those around him, such that the denial of Strauss’ senate seat is an act of belated justice. 

Perhaps Nolan felt he needed this kind of classical form – the tortured, misunderstood genius – to underscore and ingrain his tale. If so, it’s ironic that he subjects us to a largely passive figure, one Kitty tells “You need to stop playing the martyr”, and who is much less vibrant and colourful than Groves’ (Matt Damon) characterisation as a dilettante, womaniser and suspected communist, and an unstable, theatrical, egotistical and neurotic individual. Some of those, definitely, but we could have done with more of the theatrical and expressive (there’s nothing remotely as extreme as his student apple incident subsequently – where he, anecdotally, attempted to poison his tutor, James D’Arcy’s Patrick Blackett). 

So there’s that. But Nolan leaves it up to us, to a degree, to decide on Oppenheimer’s “culpability”, if you like, in terms of fathering the bomb. Purely in terms of results, Oppie successfully bridged the divide between his learned mantle of theoretician and the one he willing embraces, putting that theory into practice. But the emotional and moral repercussions were a minefield he was clearly insufficiently equipped to navigate.

He is unconvinced by left-wing politics, dismissing Das Kapital as “Turgid stuff” – his thoughts on Marx’s satanic poetry go unrecorded – and tells true believer and lover Jean Tatlock “I’m committed to thinking freely about how to improve our world. Why limit yourself to one dogma?” But how he weighs this desire for improvement against personal ambition is less certain; he’s happy to put a lid on any political indulgences to get aboard the project when Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett, impressively measured) informs him it’s a stumbling block. 

He isn’t immune to the misgivings of his fellow scientists, but he’s willing to suggest targets for an effective demonstration of the bomb’s power; his simplistic exoneration of responsibility – “Just because we’re building it, doesn’t mean we get to decide how it’s used” – does not, in practice, prove personally effective, as we see when he subjects himself to lectures on the devastating effects of the blasts on the Japanese population. From the announcement of the bombing mission’s success, it’s clear his involvement is weighing on him, with his false-note, gung-ho bravado (“Apparently, it went with a tremendous bang… But I’ll bet the Japanese didn’t like it… I just wish we had it in time to use against the Germans”). An inability to consider the repercussions of his actions nearly did for him with the poisoned apple; now they catch up with him, but in a more prolonged, debilitating manner.

The counterpoint, coming largely from Strauss, is that Oppenheimer was keen to protect his legacy, that he tried to “sabotage” development of Edward Teller’s (Benny Safdie) hydrogen bomb, not because, as he said, “it became clear to me we intended to use any weapon we had”, but because any further “advance” might impact his achievement: “Because it made him the most important man on the face of the Earth”. The invidiousness of Strauss rather directs the viewer against entertaining this, but its diligent of Nolan to throw it out there, and file it alongside Oppenheimer’s practical morality, his essential flexibility when it came to working on the bomb – “You drop a bomb, it falls on the just and the unjust” explains Isidor Isaac Rabi (David Krumholtz) of his decision not to work on the project – or to select target sites.

Influential in Oppenheimer forming a firm stance is his audience with Truman (Gary Oldman). It’s presented as a turning point, whereupon, his handwringing having gotten him nowhere, he instead uses his profile to influence policy (pushing for arms control rather than developing the H Bomb). The encounter is also, however, illustrative of the slips in judgement to which Nolan is occasionally prone, where a scene may emerge as bombastically as the score. “I feel that I have blood on my hands” pleads Oppie. Oldman’s overripe Truman is dismissive – they don’t care who built it, “They care who dropped it. I did” – and blunt about the physicist’s disposition (“Don’t let that cry baby back in here”). 

The scene’s too much, almost cartoonishly so. A similar problem befalls any episode where Oppie and Jean are having sex, whether he’s reciting the latterly (in)famous “destroyer of worlds” – so what, we are to infer that he once clumsily summoned the allusion during the procreative act before applying it more exactingly to the desecrating one? – or the trite subjectivity of Oppie and Jean having sex before the hearing. It suggests a thin creative palate on Nolan’s part, rather than a rich one (and that there’s good reason he should steer clear of sex scenes). 

Likewise, calling on Einstein (Tom Conti) as a model of wisdom, one able to offer Oppie oh-so-insightful pep talks, feels like the most obvious and unearned of devices (this would be Michael Caine in another Nolan movie, but more justifiable because Alfred – say – is fictional, albeit still vaguely excruciating). I can’t say I was particularly keen on the 1963 “vindication” coda either, where Nolan trots out his actors in lumpen prosthetics as Oppenheimer receives the Enrico Fermi Award. Fortunately, the allusion to a chain reaction that could destroy the world (Teller’s theory) having come true makes for a more appropriately meditative parting note (complete with vision of a nuked globe Earth).

Nolan had some wondering, rather obtusely, why there’s no bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there is a representation of the bomb’s destructive capability in Oppie’s lecture-room vision of a blast (the brunt received by Nolan’s daughter). It’s a not dissimilar choice to Bruce Robinson’s inclusion of the John Cusack character succumbing to radiation poisoning in Fat Man and Little Boy, that there needed to be some demonstration of lethality, even though none of those attending the Manhattan Project encountered it first-hand. The Roland Joffé picture is inferior to Nolan’s in most regards, although it does, crucially, best Nolan when it comes to the Trinity blast (Joffé has it reflected in Oppenheimer’s goggles). It’s also more on point in terms of the succession of failures leading up to successful implosion; here, it isn’t quite a fait accompli, but there’s little sense of trials and tribulations or a race against the clock (albeit the latter is also a failure in the Joffé film). It’s possible Nolan, aware of the unloved picture, still didn’t want to be seen to copy it.

Nolan leaves largely unchurned two areas Robinson attempted to explore (but which Joffé’s rewrites rather obscured). Whether or not Oppenheimer was privy to the information at any point, Robinson recounted how the Manhattan Project got going in March 1943, yet “By January 1943 they knew the Germans weren’t building an atomic bomb”. Robinson went on the aver that “the race for an atomic bomb… was bullshit. It was a piece of opportunism that has always been sold as an historical fact… the ‘race’ for The Bomb between the three nations was a lie (England, America, Germany), and it seemed to me a fascinating paradox that the most secret and most expensive project in the history of mankind – bigger than the pyramids – was premised on a lie”. 

Groves (tactfully played by Damon, and perhaps inevitably coming out as a more sympathetic figure than in Paul Newman’s incarnation), per Robinson, was highly pragmatic in his approach, such that he “and his ilk thought ‘Let’s herd all these guys in and tell them we’ve got to build a bomb because we’re in a desperate race with Hitler’”. These guys being “almost without exception Jews on the run from the Nazis”. He observed “Hitler called nuclear energy ‘Jewish physics’” and this is an aspect Nolan broaches, with Oppenheimer’s race and his concern over Hitler’s activities proving a spur to the project. Like Robinson, Nolan also stresses the post-act realisation that, rather than being about Japan, the bombings were quite possibly the “first act of the Cold War with Russia”.

The suggestion that Jean met an induced end is obliquely alluded to by Nolan, but it isn’t stated outright, whereas Robinson presented a case that she was definitively offed. He had it that Colonel John Lansdale (who doesn’t feature in Oppenheimer) went to Hoover over the Tatlock security risk, and Hoover had her killed.

Robinson considered Groves “highly intelligent, incredibly capable and very devious”. He thought Groves wanted Oppenheimer because he was a “great scientist but not an innovative scientist”. The distinction isn’t something Nolan really grapples with, except in as much as he diffuses Teller’s progress, and he’s evidently off the latter bent. Safdie, whom I often find annoying, delivers a strong character essay as Teller, of a man ambitious and willing to side with those who will allow him to achieve his goal (“You shook his fucking hand?” asks the outraged Kitty, after Teller has stabbed Oppie in the back). 

Oppenheimer is strewn with strong performances, although many of them amount to a recognisable face filling gaps where a character should be. Murphy has earned an Oscar nom, no doubt. Blunt gets that one scene to make up for a bit of a dipso; her offscreen look has made more waves, with suggestions she has gone botox crazy. Given comparisons were made to Madge, who is now personified as a bad double, one wonders if Blunt perhaps has a clone for movies and a double for the red carpet (or, she has, insanely, genuinely gone for the botox). Robert Downey Jr’s clone is getting raves for Strauss, and he’s very good, but more by dint of it being a restrained, actorly performance than anything truly mesmerising (I actually found Damon more impressive overall). 

Dane DeHaan makes Major General Nichols, out to get Oppie, convincingly loathsome. Krumholtz is a standout as the morally scrupulous Rabi, and Macon Blair makes the most of Lloyd Garrison defending Oppie, mostly exasperated at prosecuting tactics, during the last hour. Pugh’s role isn’t up to much (nor is her costumier’s), while Rami Malek, Matthew Modine and Alden Ehrenreich all deliver reliably (the latter playing one of the few invented characters). Sir Ken tries on a new accent for size as Niels Bohr. 

I didn’t find the post-Trinity test hour saw a lessening of the picture’s impact, as some have attested, but there’s a curious effect, with the constant back and forths, that the picture feels almost linear, with little in the way of peaks and troughs of dramatic highs or lows. With this and Dunkirk, I’m unconvinced the historical document is necessarily Nolan’s best foot forward, but it’s gratifying to know there are audiences for material that doesn’t talk down to them. I’d call Oppenheimer dense, rather than cerebral, though, given Nolan’s reticence of the science (scrawling meaningfully on a blackboard isn’t quite sufficient).

As I’ve noted in various other reviews and Q and As, I’d been entertaining the prospect of the nuke lie over the past few years, since it plausibly seemed like another feather to Dark Forces’ bow of manipulating our paradigm (and creating fear, fear being a key control mechanism). It’s mainly been consideration of Nolan’s film – Nolan being a White Hat – that led me to reconsider that position. But the fact of nukes – or former fact of them – doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t considerable murk surrounding this subject, and some of the arising conspiracy theories are as potentially redefining of the historical terrain as the idea of a nuke hoax itself.

The Ra Material proposes that both positive and negative ET groups sought to aid – well aid might not be the appropriate word with negative groups – the Earth, whereby “some scientists receive technical information telepathically that comes out then as useable gadgetry”. In this vein, “Information which Confederation sources had offered Einstein became perverted, and instruments of destruction began to be created, examples being the Manhattan Project and its product” (Q & A answers have suggested neither Einstein nor JFK, both boosted here as positive, pro-Oppenheimer figures, were on the side of the angels). 

Ra did, however, suggest scientists working on the bomb (in the Manhattan Project) “were overwhelmingly positive in their orientation while the scientists who followed their work were of mixed orientation including one extremely negative entity”? One wonders who this was; the indication is that he was alive when the channellings occurred during the early-80s, hence Ra refraining from identifying him. One is tempted to look to Edward Teller or Stanislaw Ulam, albeit both were at Los Alamos (unless, because they were part of the “Super” bomb group, they don’t count). On a more metaphysical note, Ra also suggested that he/it/they created conditions whereby those killed by nuclear-bomb explosions remain souled entities (since there was a danger that they would be “destroyed, not by radiation, but by the trauma of the energy release”).

A further flip is precisely what the nuke was in aid of. We’ve seen Robinson’s conclusion, about how the bombs dropped on Japan were really about warning the Russians. Another possibility is suggested by Captain Mark Richards, who told Kerry Cassidy that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were actually blown up because there was a huge Reptoid base beneath those cities (whether it needed nukes to obliterate it is another matter). Richards also said the later Bikini Atoll and other nuclear tests were against other-world intelligences and that the Nevada tests were about closing portals – nuking them was believed to be the only way to close one at the time – rather than ascertaining the effectiveness of the weapons.

All of which would be more likely – albeit not that much more likely – to surface in one of Nolan’s SF opuses. Oppenheimer’s proving a success few would probably have banked on. Maybe more than Sound of Freedom’s – I liked the quip that Oppenheimer’s success is only because physicists have been buying up all the tickets – but it’s nevertheless a hard sell on paper. I’ll admit I’m not totally sold on it. There’s a brittle quality to Nolan’s subject, beneath the glazed surface, but little exploration of his hidden depths. It’s a picture that extracts an emotional response when Oppenheimer’s being harangued but is otherwise largely consistent with the director’s detached countenance. If one posed the question “Does it say anything new about its subject?” the answer would be “Probably not”.  But is it just nice to see a smart, informed and literate picture that respects the viewer? Absolutely.

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