"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Oppenheimer

First thing I want to say is that I’ve been calling this movie “Oppy” while having no idea that it’s what everyone calls him in the movie. I guess it’s just the natural, instinctive nickname that comes to mind for J. Robert Oppenheimer, even before “J.R.”

Second thing I want to say is that I was so wrong about the phenomenon of OPPENHEIMER! I had been confused as to why people were talking about it as a sure-thing blockbuster smash, but here I am finally having seen it after 3 weeks of sold out shows at the Imax. I had to give in and buy the tickets a week in advance, and the show did sell out in the same theater that never filled up for DEAD RECKONING, JOHN WICK 4, CREED III, DIAL OF DESTINY, etc. There’s lots of hype about it being shot for Imax format, and this is is the only full Imax format screen in the state, so that’s important context. But still – a 3-hour R-rated drama about a scientist selling out every show every day for weeks? Just because Christopher Nolan directed it? Hooray for the auteur theory!

This could be a positive development for the future of “grown up” movies made for the big screen (and on big budgets), and also for the survival of directorial vision in the studio system, where they’re trying so hard to make directors less important than brands. Unless you believe way more than I do in the lure of the Oppy i.p. then this is a pretty clear cut case of audiences going purely because they trust the director. And remember, Hollywood’s top corporate villain of the moment, Discovery-Max-Content-Properties-Express (formerly Warner Bros.) CEO David “The Deleter” Zaslav came in and chastised his company for sticking by their decades long relationship with Clint Eastwood by giving CRY MACHO a theatrical release. His predecessors had just chased off Nolan by streaming TENET – his eighth movie with them – before he wanted them to. He went shopping for a studio that would let him do what he wanted, Universal let him make this, and it’s an unequivocal fucking smash. A win for the good guys.

I was less surprised by the actual movie OPPENHEIMER. I figured it would be just like Clint’s J. EDGAR or JERSEY BOYS – movies I would skip if made by Joe Schmo, that I see and enjoy because of Clint. As expected it’s a quite captivating drama with high level, bombastic filmatism that was absolutely worth waiting to experience on the giant screen and bone-rattling sound system. Also, it’s one of these “I got obsessed with this subject that may not sound that exciting to you but I’m gonna try to convince you of why it’s so god damned fascinating” type of projects, and on that count, for me, it’s successful… for a while.

Cillian Murphy (RED EYE) is obviously great as Oppy, the awkward, distant genius physicist who created the atom bomb (Boooooo! Just my 2 cents). We first meet him later, in a small room answering hostile questions about his life because he once had a casual interest in communist adjacent issues. And there’s another time period, in black and white, when Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., U.S. MARSHALS) is facing a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Commerce and getting questions about his association with Oppy during his time as commissioner for the Atomic Energy Commission. He didn’t agree with Oppy politically, he says, but respected him and recruited him as director of the Institute For Advanced Study in Princeton, where one of the teachers was Albert Einstein (himself) (no, just kidding, it’s Tom Conti [STREETDANCE 2]).

You know how Nolan is about jumping around in time – he’s for it. The main story, for a while anyway, is the rise of J.R. Oppy, troubled, wild eyed and wild haired weirdo science student haunted by nightmarish visions of molecular, uh… science particles or whatever, almost murdering his teacher (funny story), becoming a rock star professor due to groundbreaking new concepts, donating to the Spanish Civil War, somehow charming multiple ladies, and being appointed by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, THE GREAT WALL) to head the Los Alamos National Laboratory, bringing together a super team of the best scientific minds to take the next step from atom splitting to building a bomb that will murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people and/or end all wars (but probly just the former). In their defense, they know all the quantum physics nerds around the world saw the atom split and started thinking the same thing, so they figure it’s better for them to do it to stop the Nazis than for the Nazis to do it first.

My dad was a chemical engineer, like Dolph, but I did not inherit a brain for science. It is fair to say that at no point did I have the most remote clue what the fuck these geniuses were talking about throughout the movie. But it’s pretty easy to go with the flow. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” as Clémence Poésy said in TENET. It works as a tense team-of-experts problem solving movie, like APOLLO 13 except we know they’re gonna kill a whole lot of people instead of save a few. It’s an absolute cavalcade of recognizable faces, many of them without much dialogue, since Nolan didn’t want to use any composite characters, he wanted somebody playing everybody that was really in the room, whether or not it was gonna be explained to the audience. It’s really smart because I may not follow who exactly the characters are, but I can remember okay, that’s David Dastmalchian (THE SUICIDE SQUAD), that’s Jack Quaid (SCREAM [2022]), he was the guy that said such-and-such in that other scene. Otherwise they would definitely blur together.

David Krumholtz (BATTLE FOR TERRA) has one of the best supporting roles as Isidor Isaac Rabi, who operates as the closest thing to a best friend or comic relief sidekick for space case Oppy, even though he’s a Nobel Prize Winner whose groundbreaking research on magnetic resonance will lead to the invention of the MRI. Josh Hartnett (BUNRAKU) is also a standout as close colleague Ernest Lawrence (Nobel winner for the invention of the cyclotron). I’ve been a proponent of Hartnett from HALLOWEEN H20 to 30 DAYS OF NIGHT to Boy Sweat Dave in WRATH OF MAN, but even I was surprised how well he works as this charismatic professor. He kinda looks like Richard Gere at times. As portrayed here he’s a nice guy and loyal friend but middle of the road politically. When Oppy presses him about fighting for racial integration he says he wants to vote for it, but not talk about it.

I was also excited to see Dane DeHaan pop up as Major General Kenneth Nichols. DeHaan blew up so suddenly after CHRONICLE, but was an odd fit as leading man even in movies I liked like A CURE FOR WELLNESS and VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. Here he’s back in his seething weasel groove. Good for him. Other good for hims: Alden Ehrenreich (COCAINE BEAR) as an aide to Strauss, Alex Wolff (PIG) as another Nobel winner, Macon Blair (MURDER PARTY, BLUE RUIN, GREEN ROOM, HOLD THE DARK, director of the TOXIC AVENGER remake) as Oppy’s lawyer, Scott Grimes (CRITTERS) as another lawyer, Matthias Schweighöfer (safecracker from ARMY OF THE DEAD) as Werner Heisenberg. Academy Award winner Rami Malek (BATTLESHIP) is in what turns out to be an important role and unfortunately every time he bugs his eyes out I’m reminded of how much I do not care for his performances. Some other people feel he’s good in this, though, as tends to happen.

There are 7 or 8 other well known male actors in here, but you’re probly already skimming, so I’ll skip to the women. Nolan has often been accused of having weak female characters (despite always working with female producer Emma Thomas and now editor Jennifer Lame [HEREDITARY]). Unfortunately he didn’t find a way to change that in this male dominated story. The two important women in the movie are Oppy’s girlfriend/mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, THE COMMUTER) and wife Kitty (Emily Blunt, THE WOLFMAN). As always Pugh is a standout, making a huge impression in a few scenes about a turbulent relationship. Blunt has the larger role but I think her best scenes are weakened by us seeing so little of the basis of their relationship and so much of her being crushingly disappointed in it (seemingly leading to cartoonish always-carrying-a-bottle alcoholism). I think the performance is good but the role could be better.

Interestingly (to me, at least), Blunt voiced the wife in the English dub of Hayao Miyazaki’s THE WIND RISES, which has some interesting parallels as a story about a genius working and compromising to create something for the military, and feeling guilt about its deadly application in WWII. There her character gets tuberculosis instead of alcoholism.

Oh shit… did I just father the atom bomb?

The most cracking part of the story is the build up to the Trinity test. Nolan wraps us in the excitement of getting closer to their goal while dreading it because… it’s the fucking atom bomb. When it’s done they detonate it, it’s awe inspiring, it doesn’t set the atmosphere on fire and destroy the entire planet as had been considered a possibility (and yet they still pushed the button). Then they cheer and celebrate like they won the Super Bowl, but we know what they actually won, and most of them have figured it out too, whether or not they admit it yet. Hitler’s already dead, Japan may be near surrendering, but they’re gonna go through with using it anyway. They try offering suggestions: Maybe just tell them we have it so they’ll back down. Or use it in a remote area. Or at least warn civilians to leave. The military brushes these ideas off and Oppy tries to tell his colleagues that it’s out of his hands without sounding like it’s a cop out.

In one of the movie’s most chilling scenes, Secretary of War Henry Stimson (James Remar, MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION) discusses the plan to drop not one but two atom bombs on Japan, and notes that he crossed Kyoto off the list of potential targets partly because he and his wife had their honeymoon there and it was lovely. I don’t pretend to read the minds of my fellow filmgoers, but the way people chuckled at that like it was light-hearted comic relief made the scene all the more stomach-churning. (By the way, it should go without saying that people who think this movie is pro-nuke or nuke-agnostic, though their hearts may be in the right place, are bad at watching movies. If anything it’s a little insulting in how much it feels it has to lead our hand on that issue.)

I’m not proud to say that the movie somewhat lost me in the post-bombing portion. It becomes a story about Oppy being torn apart in public for his past political beliefs, Kitty telling him/us that he doesn’t need to but it’s some kind of self-flagellation over his guilt for his crimes against humanity, and (more puzzlingly to me) about how Strauss set him up and will later pay for it. I’m all for not-obvious approaches to telling stories, but while viewing OPPENHEIMER I really couldn’t wrap my head around why the rivalry becomes the climax of this telling. It plays like THE USUAL SUSPECTS when Strauss’ true motives are revealed, and like a stick-it-to-the-man triumph when a certain character turns on him and derails his confirmation for what he did to Oppy. It’s all interesting but left me scratching my head as to why that would be Nolan’s emphasis.

One suggestion I’ve heard is that (like THE WIND RISES) there’s a parallel to studio filmmaking here. When General Groves basically tells Oppy okay, you made the bomb, go home now, we’ll take it from here, he may feel sort of how Nolan felt when he was done with TENET and they didn’t do what he wanted with it. The pressure of the Manhattan Project could be compared to the responsibility he felt to help the theatrical experience survive COVID and greedy, shortsighted CEOs. The “can’t put it back in the box” feeling of creating the bomb could (very mildly) be compared to Nolan helping to launch today’s super hero movie dominated film landscape. Etcetera. These are all interesting ideas to me and no doubt some of them informed the movie, whether consciously or not. But I’m gonna need a climax that’s at least as important on the literal level as on the metaphorical one, and I don’t think that type of inside baseball would ever be Nolan’s primary interest.

In fact, I’ve seen Nolan saying he was excited to not use a metaphor, as he did in TENET, instead putting you into the shoes of the guy who actually did struggle with creating a potentially world-ending technology. Amazingly, Nolan was inspired to make the movie because TENET compared the fictional invention of “inverted bullets” to Oppenheimer, so Robert Pattinson bought him a collection of Oppenheimer speeches as a wrap gift.

I asked on Twitter for Nolan interviews or personal theories about the emphasis on Strauss, and I got some helpful replies. Rob Girvan pointed me to this very interesting video of Nolan and Murphy visiting a video store in Paris, where Nolan says that the rivalry in AMADEUS was an influence (and mentions CHARIOTS OF FIRE). But otherwise I think he’ll leave it for the viewer to interpret (or give up and ask people on Twitter to interpret).

Christopher Dole wrote that “the film comes down to the notion of chain reactions that reverberate long after the initial explosion… It’s a movie about an arrogant theory guy (who’s explicitly ‘bad at math’/practical stuff) who keeps setting off bombs without understanding how this stuff will be put into practice, and how those bombs/chain reactions reverberate across time.”

Yeah, that’s very true. Like, he ignores warnings about his political associations will hurt his career, he doesn’t think how his affair with Jean will affect both her and Kitty, etc.

Brian William Pachinger told me that it’s all about building to the final scene, in which Oppenheimer and Einstein, “two geniuses who understand the weight of what has been unleashed,” are contrasted with “a bureaucrat worried about a slight.”

I like that reading. Brilliant people whose creations are at the mercy of petty jerks. And since the creations affect all of humanity us regular dummies are at their mercy too. Strauss lost his political career, but there are limitless free refills of politicians way worse than him. I wonder, then, if the movie’s celebration over the downfall of Strauss was throwing a bone to the audience looking for something to feel good about, or if it was meant to be as hollow as the applause after the Trinity test, and the deafening bleacher-pounding at the pep rally where Oppy played along and pumped up the crowd while haunted of visions of their skin melting off? Didn’t feel like the latter to me, but I’ll take it that way anyway.

Fuuuuuck, dude. Pretty sure I just am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. :(

This is obviously Nolan in Big Important Mode. I think he’s earned that right and he’s good at it. It’s a must-see for filmmaking craft alone, even if I’m a philistine who’s always gonna be more excited for his movies about Batman and science fictional shit. I also gotta say I’m suspicious of people who panned TENET because its backwards logic was challenging to follow but are now acting like they kept up with the quantum physics talk, non-linear storytelling, massive cast and convoluted political machinations here. In either case it will all become more clear with repeat viewings, but I gotta face that this is not the one I’m gonna feel like sitting down to rewatch very many more times, if ever.

But many people will, and I’m happy for them. Let’s appreciate it now before the reverberations of its popularity take hold and we’re all sick to death of these lazy fuckin scientist biopics Hollywood can’t stop cramming down our throats.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 16th, 2023 at 3:46 pm and is filed under Reviews, Drama. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Oppenheimer”

  1. A great and balanced review, Vern! And a nice track-shift from the relentless hype train that’s become part of this whole “Barbenheimer” phenomenon. Oh, it is undoubtedly a good fucking thing that not one but TWO movies are getting people into the theatres in droves that are not part of a decade old franchise and I will get around to watching them eventually, I just feel that a 3 hour biopic and a comedy/satire about the world’s highest selling doll would play out better within the comfy confines of my living room.

  2. I really wanted to like this more than I did. There was so much about it that was bang fucking on, but then also so much that felt confusing and misguided. I was baffled by the emphasis on Strauss and his travails at the end – if he had somehow been present as a foil to Oppenheimer throughout, maybe it would have felt meaningful, but as it was I couldn’t help getting the impression that Nolan somehow thought Strauss getting his comeuppance at a public hearing in the 50s was somehow equally heavy and important as the fucking Manhattan Project!

    And I’m sorry, the way the movie first works in the “Now I am become death” speech is beyond ridiculous. I mean, I haven’t read the source material so maybe that’s how it happened in real life? But that was dumb.

    I am mostly a huge Nolan fan but every once in a while his movies hit these off notes that make me wonder if he actually knows what the human world is like. The one that sticks in my head is the scene in DARK KNIGHT RISES where all the cops in Gotham go running into the sewer… only to be stuck there for weeks and weeks with no way to get out… well actually there are other moments in that film in particular that hit me that way.

    Ultimately I walked out of OPPENHEIMER glad I saw it and fairly certain that there’s a killer 2-hour movie in there: Cut all the music (the nonstop dramatic music really wore me down), and cut straight from the scene of Oppenheimer freaking out when he’s giving the speech after the bomb has been dropped on Japan to the final moment with Einstein by the pond.

    Next time I meet Christopher Nolan and he asks me for my opinion on how he should have edited the film, I’ll be ready…

    Stuff I really, really liked: Pretty much everything at Los Alamos. Pretty much all the performances. Casey Affleck with an all-time one-scene indelible character, a calmly smiling brilliant psycho scarier than the sheriff in THE KILLER INSIDE ME.

    And I was SHOCKED that I really liked the performance by the guy who played Albert Einstein, and I really liked the role Nolan has Einstein play in the story, the revered elder who the physicists deeply respect even while they see him as behind the times… and who has been a scientist in the public eye long enough to know the way shit goes down in politics. Going into it I felt 100% sure I was going to hate anything with Einstein, and I was wrong.

    Ultimately, this felt like way less than the sum of its parts, even though a lot of the parts on their own were pretty great.

  3. Let’s be honest, this is the first time in history that a movie became a smash hit because of an internet meme. I don’t think that most of the viewers sat there in pink T-shirts, constantly giggling “Tee hee, Barbenheimer”, but I do believe that the way it was jokingly put up against BARBIE absolutely helped it to find a bigger audience that it otherwise would have. It wouldn’t be too surprising if in the future the studios purposely release a bunch of important Oscarbait movies on the same day as other studio’s anticipated family blockbusters and have advertising agencies infiltrate Reddit & Co with Barbenheimer-esque memes.

  4. I had a similar reaction. After the successful development of the bomb, the remaining material about Oppenheimer trying to hold onto his security clearance seemed pretty low stakes. That third hour is a different story than most of the first two hours—different problem, different themes, a sudden villain turn, etc. I also thought that some of Jason Clarke’s badgering questions in the closed hearing scenes bordered on ridiculous. In one breath he’s calling Oppenheimer a commy pussy because he had recommended alternatives to dropping the bombs on civilian targets, but a few minutes later there’s a heated exchange where he’s apparently condemning Oppenheimer for all the people who died in the bombings. That wouldn’t fly. Bad lawyering.

    Another weakness was that the moment of reversal in the third-hour story felt unearned to me. Vern’s review mentions that there’s a certain character who suddenly finds the courage to speak up for Oppenheimer during a critical point in the Lewis Strauss hearings, and that moment basically serves as the third act “win” over the bad guy. But the character who saves the day with this testimony, and his relationship with Oppenheimer is way, way underdeveloped. Despite the fact that he’s played by a very well known actor, this character appeared only fleetingly earlier in the movie and barely had any lines. Easy for me to say, I guess, but it seems like a more well-rounded script or more well-rounded edit would have set that character up more.

    But, it’s a great looking movie and the acting is outstanding across the board. I enjoyed it. It’s a B+ for me, I think.

  5. Well Jules, although we mostly agree I will defend two things. First of all, according to Slate, the alleged ridiculousness of the hearing scenes is true to life:

    “His interrogators are portrayed as so brazenly hostile, you may wonder if the scenes are accurate—and they are. They’re taken, almost verbatim, from the hearing’s transcripts, which were published many years ago.”

    https://slate.com/culture/2023/07/oppenheimer-movie-historical-accuracy-communist-manhattan-project.html

    And as for the out-of-nowhere twist at the other hearing, I think the speech plays out pretty corny (whether or not it’s taken from transcripts, I don’t know) but I like that it’s a character we didn’t hear much from, but just saw around all the time. Because we know the actor we remember that he was around and witnessed everything. Strauss just didn’t know he would speak up. For me that part worked.

  6. I so want to be fair to this. I’m sure it has many of the fine features this review mentions, but I still hated it.

    Full disclosure: I didn’t come to the story cold. I first learned about it in my teens from the 1980s BBC series starring Sam Waterston, then read the book on which that was based, then read Robert Jungk’s definitive Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, and have over the years read more books and seen various movies covering aspects of the story. But I seem to’ve skipped American Prometheus, the book Nolan was working from and which, I assume, makes more of the Lewis Strauss elements than had previously registered with me.

    So, I’ve tried to remind myself that this film isn’t called How to Build an Atomic Bomb, nor is it called I Married a Communist, it’s called OPPENHEIMER. Nolan isn’t really interested in those other stories. If you didn’t understand the physics, it surely doesn’t matter, but don’t blame yourself as the movie really doesn’t make any effort to give explanations or even much context – we spend more time on the University of Chicago’s football field than we do with Fermi and his first nuclear reactor, which sat under it. And all the drama of Hans Bethe going over Edward Teller’s calculations to confirm or disprove that the bomb might set fire to the earth – the most high pressure piece of homework checking in history – is dissipated in a few lame jokes and it being used as the framework for Oppenheimer’s conversation with Einstein, and hence his supposed slight of Lewis Strauss. Just maybe, even if we don’t understand, we can indeed feel it. But that’s more than can be said for the politics of the time. There’s nothing here to explain why anyone would be interested in or flirt with communism. As far as I could tell from the movie it was just a way to meet women, brittle, one-dimensional Nolan women to be sure, but hey!

    So the story we get is Man does something he thinks is bad, feels bad about it and allows himself to be punished (mildly rebuked) for something else other people, but not him, think is bad. And that’s why the story needs Lewis Strauss, to explain all that to the audience and provide ironic contrast in his pettiness and vindictiveness.

    But so much else is just clumsy and bad. Someone mentions particles, we cut away to swirls of Brownian motion, someone mention stars, we cut way to the night sky, Groves and Oppy discuss the birth rate at Los Alamos, Mrs Oppy walks by heavily pregnant. We might occasionally take issue with “show don’t tell”, but it’s got to be better than tell then show and then club the audience over the head with it, especially when there are so many ellipses elsewhere.

    Really I’m just angry with myself for falling for the hype and allowing myself to imagine that Nolan could do this story justice. Nolan is at his best when his films are emptiest; I think INCEPTION with its string of flashy set pieces remains his best film, although TENET, especially in the interactions of Washington and Pattinson, has its moments. Someone give the man the Bond movie he so desperately wants, but only on the condition he tells it in a linear fashion!

  7. I was just going to ask, if I’ve seen the TV series OPPENHEIMER, the movie FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY and read the book HIROSHIMA, do I need to watch this? And Ernest answered the question.

  8. My feeling on OPPENHEIMER is that ultimately it’s gonna end up being remembered and talked about and though of in much the same way as two other much discussed (in the moment) recent big deal ‘serious’ movies: FIRST MAN & THE IRISHMAN – lots and lots of words and then just a few years later – crickets.

  9. I’m with Borg9 though when it comes to Nolan’s films – I think his best movie is TENET, because it’s his emptiest intellectually ( I know it’s fully of all kinds of wonky ‘physics’ to explain the time shifts, but ask yourself if that actually means anything to the movie.)

  10. Glad to be of service, Pegsman. But honestly, even if you’d only seen the BBC film of Michael Frayn’s play COPENHAGEN, you’d have a better grasp of the state of mid 20th century nuclear physics, the making of an A bomb, the politics of the era, and human nature than you’d get from OPPENHEIMER. And you’d’ve been entertained. All that in less than half the time it takes to endure OPPENHEIMER!

  11. Initially, I was going to skip this. While I was initially on Team Nolan, once he entered his never-ending ‘three hour trailer’ phase (The Prestige, onward), I was traded. But, Paul Schrader (of all people) convinced me to suck it up. He’s not a cat that’s exactly super generous while his praise, yet he seemed to really, really like Oppenheimer. So, it got me intrigued.

    I mean, I’ve been forewarned that all current Nolan-isms (incessant score, most ‘scenes’ consisting of two or three lines, no shot longer than four seconds, jumping around the story’s timeline at will. Y’know, a movie trailer) are very much present. But, who knows? Perhaps this is the movie they end up enhancing the story rather than distracting from it.

  12. RE the “Oppenheimer” movie

    This movie omits the unnecessary and evil bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also of its testing ground in New Mexico and the Marshall Islands as if there were no innocent victims and grave harm done (https://www.themarysue.com/oppenheimer-has-people-speaking-out-about-a-pretty-glaring-omission) which shows the lack of conscience of its creator/filmmaker/director. And that this immoral director presents a whitewash of history, it’s a fake history account. Memory holing of real atrocities is immorality, a serious crime per any reasonable humane standard. But it is in line with what it is: a propaganda movie of the genocidal US empire, made by its criminal Hollywood ‘dream factory’/propaganda apparatus.

    This inexcusable despicable conduct by the film’s acclaimed director parallels the fact that dozens of Nobelists worked on the creation of the atomic bomb proves that guilt and conscience never played a notable part in them.

    Oppenheimer’s guilt and conscience, too, was of no real significance as his actions in establishing the atomic bomb demonstrated.

    It shows the real fundamental condition and nature of “civilized” humans — they are inhumanely mad …. https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html

    “[…] I realized that the entire nuclear power program was based on a fraud—namely, that there was a “safe” amount of radiation, a permissible dose that wouldn’t hurt anybody.” — John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., 1918-2007, Medical Physicist

  13. I cannot tell a lie: I BARBENHEIMed. Saw OPPY in IMAX, but not a cool 70mm or even a laser one, just a regular one. Had to sit in the fourth row, which was too close, and my neck ached when leaving the theater. I bet the 70mm is very cool, but I don’t think the “LieMAX” was worth it. I would like to see it again from further away.

    I really liked the editing and score here– those two elements propel us through what could be a very dry 3-hour biopic about people talking in board rooms, but together they give the film energy and drive.

    I also thought going in that “Oppy” was just an internet joke and was delighted that all the characters in the movie call him that.

    As for the Strauss plot: I read it as a parallel to Oppenheimer’s storyline, in that both think they are Great, Important Men around whom the world revolves, only to discover that is not the case. The government/Truman easily cast Oppenheimer aside and couldn’t care less about his thoughts or feelings on using or not using the bomb. Strauss is driven by a petty grievance over something that never even happened. It’s the Mad Men meme of “I don’t think about you at all.” But I like the other readings, too. Strauss does everything in the movie because of one misconstrued moment in time. James Remar crosses Kyoto off the list because his wife liked it. Scientists are working to create a destructive force more powerful than God and wrestling over the morality of it; meanwhile bureaucrats are making huge, life- or history-altering choices based on the tiniest notion. It’s about ripples– raindrops, atoms, the tiniest of misconstrued circumstances– and how they radiate outward.

    I also liked that Oppy keeps referring to himself as a theoretical physicist, and that’s what the bomb is to him: a theory. Even after they’ve built it, he never expects it to be used. But of course, it is, and it destroys him. He considered science to be amoral, and learns too late that it cannot, must not be so. He tried to stay in the middle, always equivocating or rationalizing, and learns that a side must be picked. Which I think is fitting for today’s political reality.

  14. I would disagree with CJ about the meme…because you have to ignore the reason Nolan keeps getting big budgets to make movies like this. He delievers. His movies should never be as sucessful as they are, but he keeps doing it. Kind of like James Cameron…every time I figure THIS time he’s really dug himself into a bomb, he makes another billion.

  15. I apologize for using “Initially” in two consecutive sentences. I know it’s the internet, and nobody proofreads, but I still get pangs of guilt for not proofreading.

  16. Really good reading, Bill. He didn’t go all in on the politics he believed in, it wrecked his career anyway. He tried to have a relationship but not a relationship with Jean, that sure didn’t work out. He tried to be an ethical bomb maker, it wasn’t possible.

  17. Jules, not to pile on, but I think this is the point of Nolan’s nonlinear storytelling. After the bomb is created, we don’t just jump into a whole new bunch of characters and conflicts–Oppy’s grilling and Strauss’s confirmation hearing have been going on since the opening minutes. The whole thing is a character study of Oppenheimer and the Strauss storyline tells us what happened to him after Los Alamos without shifting gears too hard. It’s just Nolan dramatizing what could be very dry material: plugging in a villain, putting it all in the context of a conflict, ending in a comeuppance for the bad guy. For all his intellectualism, the guy has a strong streak of Hollywood showmanship in him.

  18. Kaplan, yeah but for the first couple of hours the interview scenes are more or less a framing device to tell us the main story of how Oppenheimer came to make the bomb. They’re flashback bumpers. I’m not saying it’s a dealbreaker for me, but there comes a point in this movie around the two hour mark or so that the main event is over—the unparalleled moral crisis of to-invent-or-not-to-invent is resolved—and then the dramatic focus pivots to a far less existential problem of whether a guy should have been allowed to keep his security clearance or not years after he was out of government anyway. I’m not saying I hated the third hour. The acting was still good and all that, I just thought the pieces fit together a little weirdly in terms of run time balance what exactly we’re invested in.

    Imagine if in Titanic, after Rose finishes telling her lengthy love story in flashback, we then spent another 50 minutes of run time in the present focusing on Bill Paxton and crew looking for and finding the jewel in the ship wreckage. You could close out the movie that way, but it would definitely feel like a pivot into a new plot focus with a very different set of priorities and dramatic stakes, even though we knew all along that Bill Paxton was looking for that jewel. That’s the best analogy I can think of to explain the reaction I had to the wind down of Oppenheimer. I didn’t hate it, but it felt like the movie was ending on a really long footnote about a side story before finally returning BRIEFLY to the “main text” about What Science Has Wrought, etc., which was Oppenheimer’s own final verdict on the bomb, which he delivers to Einstein by the pond (a scene that was chilling and a perfect ending).

  19. These photo captions are chefs kiss.

  20. “I also gotta say I’m suspicious of people who panned TENET because its backwards logic was challenging to follow but are now acting like they kept up with the quantum physics talk, non-linear storytelling, massive cast and convoluted political machinations here.”

    I notice this kind of thing a lot, not just in your writing. It feels so weird to me. So the specific exact same people went from having this opinion on Tenet to now acting like they have this other opinion on Oppie?

    This kind of generalisation has to be a twitter bubble related perspective thing, right? You don’t really mean the same people, just general timeline prevalence the algorithm sends your way. Or is this lumping together just a generally accepted stylistic device that I, as a non-native speaker, react too sensitive to?

    These are honest questions I have, because so many podcasts and writers I used to enjoy spend soooo much time arguing with some dumb people on twitter. Just makes me wonder what people wrote and talked about before there was twitter.

  21. Just makes me wonder what people wrote and talked about before there was twitter.

    You’re in luck, as you have about 60 years of actual film criticism/discourse to catch up on.

  22. clark – Well, “too hard to follow” was the conventional wisdom on TENET but I haven’t seen a single solitary person say it about OPPENHEIMER. So yes, I believe there are many people who dismissed TENET as too confusing but would never admit that OPPENHEIMER is as hard or harder to follow, because of a genre double standard where a historical drama is worthy of putting in work but a cool sci-fi action movie is not. But I think your question is fair and worth me thinking about more. Thank you.

  23. I think the difference with OPPENHEIMER would be that, for all of Nolan’s patented non-linear fuckery on the narrative timeline, at the end of the day it’s still a biopic with ample material to read up and bring yourself up to speed on the Man, the Times, The Events and The Science behind it all. Like DUNKIRK. And I suspect, for me, it’ll be on par with INCEPTION & INTERSTELLAR where multiple re-watches will have the movie making sense (almost).

    I STILL don’t get TENET, after like 5 re-watches and even viewing half a dozen YT videos which attempt to explain it.

    I console myself that this is where Nolan disappeared up his own ass, when the sobering reality is my brain isn’t functioning at his level.

  24. jojo – 60 yrs?

    Vern – thanks for responding. Obviously I can’t say your perception of things is wrong or shouldn’t be your perception, just like I don’t want to tell you what and who to concern yourself with in your writing. Sorry if it came across that way. I very much appreciate that you follow the beat of your own drum in what you write about and how you write about it, and I also appreciate and admire the personal journey you’ve been on since you started writing. You’re one of the good ones on the internet.
    I guess it was just my twitter FOMO talking, never been on that site.

  25. Jules: I would say that the difference is that Titanic isn’t called “The Heart of the Ocean” (or whatever the diamond was called) while Oppenheimer was about Oppenheimer, and so his character arc after the bomb was dropped was of relevance in a way that “but what happened to the diamond?” isn’t. Sure, maybe you could cover that in a five minute epilogue (“Gee, Oppy, sure was too bad about your security clearance getting revoked. But don’t worry, I have a feeling that Strauss guy is gonna get what’s coming to him!”), but then you can reduce any movie to a few paragraphs in a Wikipedia page.

    I’ll admit, tho, that this is totally subjective and there are plenty of Michael Bay movies (and Netflix shows) where I’ve thought “does this need to be a whole forty-five minutes? It’s not THAT interesting.” But for me, Nolan made Oppy’s too-little-too-late attempt to be the voice of morality interesting enough to be worth the time.

  26. Yep, I have the same fundamental beef that Vern and others have echoed.

    The film has a few false peaks / climaxes (the detonation, Oppy starting to grapple with the reality of his creation during the jingoistic rally / at the hearing) but the REAL climax is.. the revelation that Strauss was the villain behind the clearance hearing??

    As the film rightuflly gloats, Strauss is an unimportant footnote compared to what Ein and Oppy actually talked about by the pond. Yet Oppy all but looks into the camera and begs “Will anybody ever tell the truth about what happened here??” referring not to any of the earth shattering events the film has covered and moral dilemmas it has raised, but to this Strauss dude who is basically only noteworthy for having a grudge against a vastly more important historical figure, a grudge which blew up in his face and ended his career.

    The best scene in the film for me, by far, was that rally. Holy shit, I thought that was going to be the turning point that guided the remainder of the film. The detonation itself is pretty antiseptic and restrained compared to the horror and bombast of his hallucinations while giving that speech.

    I’ll cop to the fact that this is all due to me approaching the film as a bleeding heart lefty, who was really hoping that Nolan would embrace the revelation of becoming Vishnu or whatever with the same sustained operatic emphasis as how love was the fifth element in INTERSTELLAR, and make it the moral center of the film. Instead we got a third act that was TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 but without even the Sorkin sizzle.

    Btw there’s the same “my husband is an obsessive genius so I guess I’ll just hit this bottle” trope in THE PRESTIGE, so we gotta dock a few extra points this time around.

    I liked the movie a lot more than my comments indicate but yeah, really wanted more from it. 70mm was a real treat!

  27. Borg9- “But so much else is just clumsy and bad. Someone mentions particles, we cut away to swirls of Brownian motion, someone mention stars, we cut way to the night sky, Groves and Oppy discuss the birth rate at Los Alamos, Mrs Oppy walks by heavily pregnant.”

    Also “press the button when I tell you” followed by a shot of The Button, with a dude about to press it.

    jojo- “three hour trailer” is a perfect articulation of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That said, I loved when PTA did it for the middle act of MAGNOLIA

  28. jojo – 60 yrs?

    Give or take
    I mean, pre-fifites, there’s Agee and… a whole lot of “Gable proves he’s still boffo at the box office!”
    The past couple decades… I’ll go out on a limb and say ‘The Collected Criticism of A. O. Scott’ isn’t going to be required reading in future film studies programs. But I could be wrong.

  29. Saw this twice. I have more recently come around to particularly CITIZEN KANE and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. To me this is on that level of filmmaking, for the things it speaks to about the human condition and the pull greed and violence has over it. It’s such an inversion of the bombast of Nolan’s earlier work, making everyone (including the audience. The scene in the auditorium plays rather interesting if you think of this more in the way it speaks directly to the state of the industry as much as it does the ghastliness of American exceptionalism) more accountable in a way that counters some of the hamfisted cliches that even show up here but are so fleeting under the artistry and sheer sensitivity shown at times, they come off more clever then they perhaps should.

  30. Finally caught up with the movie and this discussion – I think there’s two thirds of a good (maybe great, but not to my taste) movie in there.

    Most of the Strauss stuff comes directly from the book this is based on – in fact, I think that’s one of the film’s main issues: a very faithful adaptation of a non-fiction novel is never going to make a good fit for a commercial film (unless it’s got an incredibly concise throughline, I guess). Nolan tried to put in thematic threads to tie stuff together (as people have stated above in a much better way than I ever could) but his writing is not nearly up to the task.

    My other main problem with it was that they added those post-Oppenheimer Strauss bits, complete with a focus on the petty origins of the beef (my memory of the book was that their problems hinged on the H-bomb discussion and the other thing was just fodder for his dislike of him), Ehrenreich as a completely made-up (I checked) character to act as the voice of conscience, multiple monologues underlying his oh-so-hissable pettiness, and a crowd-pleasing comeuppance that includes a mention of JFK just because it’ll get people stoked. Fact-based, mostly, but laced with so much hollywood bullshit, so extraneous and drawn out and on-the-fucking-nose. And without the excuse that it’s in the book (which focused solely on Oppenheimer himself).

    That’s what turned me against a movie I was, on the whole, enjoying.

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