"Power stays in the shadows."
OPPENHEIMER is a shockwave of deep introspective proportions. It facilitates an importance on curiosity but when such curiosity is soaked in irreversible consequences, the burden of its purpose collides with moral obstruction. Science will always be an inquisitive adventure, and I deeply admire how Christopher Nolan found a cinematic way to artistically and historically demonstrate it's thought-provoking nature. But when you marry science with politics, it gets very hairy real fast. There's a quote delivered by Robert Downey Jr's character, the formidable and unforgiving Lewis Strauss, that terrifies me, because undoubtedly it is a dark truth. "Amateurs chase the sun and get burned. Power stays in the shadows."
How is this quote not a recurring theme throughout Oppenheimer's life? Now I'm not saying it behooves one to not be a curious human, but rather to air on the side of caution as one propels further into the unknown, where conflict will undoubtedly arise. Of course without conflict where would any of us be? It drives the story forward, and inevitably life.
My one critique is the film's pacing feels a bit jarring, and perhaps its deliberate given Christopher Nolan had to somehow cram a 721 page book into a 3 hour movie, in which I highly recommend reading American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. Nolan is mostly faithful with the dense source material, and handles it with modesty and precision. He's poignantly selective with the major events in Oppie's life. For instance, we're given a brief sample, and somewhat insightful look into Oppenheimer earlier days as he struggled with some mental health issues when he studied in Europe, but also he was a theoretical physicist and not so much a great experimental physicist. He was clumsy in the lab, but was absolutely astonishingly brilliant. Everyone is the moth, Oppenheimer is the flame. He garnered respect in a way that almost feels impossible these days, but of course not everyone was hypnotized by him. The beast in the jungle, also known as Lewis Strauss, would completely do everything within his power and connections to smash the light out of Oppie's life. It's revealed Strauss and Oppie did not get along, yet Strauss made it personal. Men who are humiliated are dangerous.
Early on in the film, Nolan, drops a little foreshadowing which is sneaky brilliant. Remember the "poison apple" scene? Think long and hard about what that represents. As a side note, I think Nolan took some creative liberties, to further dramatize the story but the way he utilizes it is genius!! In the book it is mentioned but can't be fully verified, as it's based on Francis Fergusson, a friend who recalls it was Oppie who told him about the incident two months after it occurred. Can it be verified? We can only really speculate as the story has been told in many different versions. However, the way Nolan uses it represents the atomic bomb(s) after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where Oppie did everything he could to persuade politically in nuclear disarmament. He can't take back the poison apple as he was able to do so with his tutor at Cambridge or rather Niels Bohr. Oppie was able to dismantle a moment of darkness, and unfortunately not so much in the aftermath of the atomic bomb(s). The apple is symbolic to which one cannot always undo an action and perhaps in the instance of the atomic bomb, Oppie truly believed it would be the thing to end all wars. There's naivety and deception when the powers at be take control with distorting truths and emphasizing paranoia in the veins of the persuadable majority.
Of course, Oppenheimer's personality oddly had a laser-like focus given his actions, as everyone who knew him or investigated him relentlessly tried to prove he was a Communist. Sure he associated with many communists (family and friends) and contributed financially to root causes that may have seemed linked to the party, but he never once paid dues to the party nor is there really any concrete evidence to suggest he was a member. It's always been speculation. It just looked fishy and spooky to some very nervous, impressionable, high ranking officials and this would forever be in the shadow of his work with the exception of added grief from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
From reading the book, it never seemed like he had anything to hide, he was very open with his thoughts, and yet this still spooked people. To be that open is a power within itself and yet the very irony to which parallels his work on the atomic bomb. He wanted there to be an openness internationally with the invention of these nuclear weapons, but of course the military was like, " Oh no we can't do that. We have to strategically plan and keep it for ourselves" Isn't it bothersome? And like, did it really work? Today there are 9 countries who have nuclear weapons and it will forever be an existential risk to humanity. It was only a matter of time before many parts of the world would discover this knowledge too. Duh! But given the time period people will do anything to keep control and power. Even to this day.
But to get back to the pacing and how frenetic it feels to imagine being in Oppenheimer's mind as he fathoms the universe, to grasp what quantum entanglement means and traverse the world of physics. Like staying in a tiny dorm throwing drinking glasses at the wall, observing how they break, fall, explode given the right amount of force from one's arm. (Great part to a dizzying montage) To be deep in thought countless hours, days, and years and to share those thoughts fusing into conversations which would bring so many minds together is a mesmerizing thing. Once you throw World War II into the mix, it changes everything forever. Building a bomb that could essentially annihilate the world is the heaviest of heavy burdens one could carry. To weaponize a technology which inevitably leads to what president Dwight Eisenhower said in his infamous military-industrial-complex speech, as if he could foresee a turbulent future warning us, "The potential for disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
OPPENHEIMER is packed with an enormous amount of history and the deeper you dig into it, there are so many layers that were overlooked and its soul crushing to learn about it now. Maybe that's why as Nolan said, " it feels like a horror movie." Horror drives a sense of dread and fear, yet in this instance it acts like a kind of betrayal. The more I unravel this film, I'm realizing perhaps my quick judgement of the frenetic pacing was incorrect. The pacing hits a high note in three places; the opening sequence, the anticipation and build up to the Trinity test, and finally when Strauss' "hearing" to revoke Oppie's security clearance builds to a devastating conclusion. Cinematically it works. It made me feel the tension, as these life altering moment's in Oppie's life are weighed in conjunction to this sense of disbelief and weariness. I mean the haunting look in his eyes after he tells Einstein what he believes he has done, and the foreboding look in Einstein's demeanor is chilling. I love the blocking and framing of that scene, especially how Strauss meanders in it believing whatever the two men discussed was about him. Oh the arrogance is laughable.
I commend Christopher Nolan for finding unique, clearly expressive ways to torment the characters. For instance when subjectively we see Oppie's expression watching a gymnasium full of people applauding and cheering in his success intertwined with flesh being burned from the skin of a woman. It's heavy and as the audience we understand why. We understand the aftermath of the bombs dropping. Or when Kitty Oppeneheimer (Emily Blunt) is hearing about her husband's transgression with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) which of course is humiliating so much the image of them having sex together is all she can see in that moment. It's very visceral and cruel but as a human we are very visually stimulated which is very much a symptom to daily life. I'm mesmerized by how it translates on screen, without having to introduce an entirely new scene but how it invades the present moment unforgivingly. I absolutely love that. As an old acting teacher once told me, "If you think about it, it will show on your face." And I have to agree.
OPPENHEIMER is a compelling historical drama that deserves every accolade. It's fleshy with mood, and ambitiously authentic, mind bending, immersive, artistically driven, a deserving character study that brings the era of cinema to a new fundamentally profound level. The emotional impact, the immeasurable performances, an incredible score by Ludwig Göransson, all shot on Kodak stock, which equates to about 11 miles in length, is a massively impressive accomplishment. Cillian Murphy transcends magically into the brilliant father of the atomic bomb, nailing the physicality, as well as the gaunt look of utter devastation, even down to his composure, and reserved nature is captivating. It's crazy, scary, how he naturally embodies this historical figure. The thing that also caught my attention was how Nolan tied in experimental visuals to capture what this vibrating energy could look like, to get inside his head and weave it throughout the editing process, with the shifting timelines at play, but also equipped to the aggressive attention in the emotional junctures that parallel the book. I suppose no one ever comprehend the reverberation of guilt, Oppie carried for the remainder of his life, but maybe, just maybe we can learn from it. If you haven't seen OPPENHEIMER yet, please go now!