By: Alex Tilton
I think it’s been two years since I went to see a movie in the theater. Beyond COVID issues I just wasn’t very plugged in to the upcoming new releases. I mostly found out about movies when they got nominated for big awards at shows that I didn’t bother watching. But this one was hard to miss. It had my favorite actors, directors, and subjects. I didn’t need much convincing to get out and go. And it’s good that I did.
Oppenheimer is structured as a series of lengthy flashbacks being recalled by two men during important political hearings. Most of the flashbacks are Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer giving (and reacting to) testimony during a security clearance hearing that has been blatantly rigged against him as part of an ugly vendetta by a man named Lewis Strauss, who was the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. The rest are flashbacks of Strauss himself during his confirmation hearing for the position of Secretary of Commerce under President Dwight Eisenhower. Strauss set out to sabotage Oppenheimer and deny the renewal of his security clearance because Oppenheimer stood against him on several important issues and humiliated him during an important Senate hearing.
The movie is equal parts biography and history lesson, presented in three acts. Act 1 follows Oppenheimer’s early physics career and the creation of his quantum physics program in California. Act 2 begins with the release of a paper demonstrating the possibility of splitting the atom, which sets off the race to develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis do. It shows details about Oppenheimer’s political leanings and messy personal life which will both come back to haunt him later and culminate in the successful Trinity test. Act 3 follows Strauss’s successful efforts to destroy Oppenheimer by having his security clearance renewal denied at a blatantly rigged hearing, and how this comes back to destroy Strauss himself at his own Commerce Secretary confirmation hearings.
So that’s what the movie is about. But how was it? Excellent on every level. Honestly, there’s very little to complain about except for one thing. The intense musical score that overlayed almost the entire movie created some sensory overload that I could have done without. That’s my only issue.
But the film’s treatment of its main character is worth discussing. Attempts to portray a complicated person can go wrong in a lot of ways, and it says quite a lot about actor Cillian Murphy and director Christopher Nolan that nothing went wrong in this attempt. You can agree or disagree with what they did, but you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t masterfully done.
Oppenheimer is presented as a mostly very ordinary man without much ego, who nevertheless hungers to discover new things. By his own admission, there are other physicists who are better at math, and he is terrible at lab work. But he has a talent for theory and program coordination that makes him an obvious choice to run the show. He’s considered so important in this capacity that he gets his security clearance in spite of being married to a woman who was formerly a member of the communist party, and having flirted with socialism himself. Had he not been at the center of the Manhattan Project his flaws would have been completely uninteresting. But under the microscope of anti-communist paranoia, they become lethal in the hands of a political enemy.
Much time is also spent on Oppenheimer’s feelings of guilt. Reckoning with the aftermath of his weapon and its effect on living people takes a toll on him. This and his attempts to slow nuclear proliferation are used against him under the logic that a loyal American wouldn’t mourn the deaths of enemies or bat an eye at making their military stronger. Never mind the insanity of a nuclear arms race, your loyalties had better be proudly on display and you’d better say all the right things to all the right people.
A conversation that takes place at the beginning of the movie, but isn’t revealed till the end sums it all up: People will ask things of you. You’ll do your best to deliver it, and they’ll destroy you for it. After they’ve eventually forgiven you for giving them exactly what they asked for, they’ll finally let you be.
Image Sources: IMDb.com