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Feels Like Someone's Missing: Oppenheimer Review

Some have already talked about the omissions in the new film Oppenheimer concerning the New Mexicans and native Indians of Los Alamos, the people who lived at one of three locations the government took over in order to build a town for J Robert Oppenheimer and the other scientists to make the atom bomb during the second world war. Since last Friday, more is being said about the lack of voices of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also, more is coming out about the omissions concerning Oppenheimer himself and the fact that he was not regretful of dropping the bomb and was not the kind of hero, as some, including director and co-writer Christopher Nolan would have us believe. While omissions are important on their own, they make for a larger case for why this film was not needed. Oppenheimer suffers from what should have been there both in a historical sense and from a character standpoint.

Cillian Murphy playing J Robert Oppenheimer walking through Los Alamos on his way to work on the atom bomb.

Oppenheimer tells the story of physicist J Robert Oppenheimer's journey that lead to him to directing teams of scientists to design and develop the atom bomb, becoming a national hero, and to eventually becoming an enemy to his own country. While being apart of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer is closely watched by his superiors, mainly American Energy Commission founder Lewis Strauss, (played by Robert Downey Jr in one of his best performances) due to their suspicion of him of being a communist. After the war, due to other things Oppenheimer participates in that the government deems threatening, their concerns mostly represented through Strauss, Oppenheimer is put in a position to have to defend his right to his security clearance which would allow him to keep working for the government.

In an interview after the release of the film, Nolan re-stated that J Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who has ever lived after saying so in other interviews leading up to the movie coming out.

When one looks at the omissions and changes to the actual story of Oppenheimer, it becomes more clear that Nolan cared more about promoting his idea of who Oppenheimer was rather than telling a story. Really, there is no interesting story here, which would explain how and why the audience is introduced to the physicist and dropped into film's story. We meet Oppenheimer thinking about his younger self staring at circles being made in a puddle on a rainy day, then having visions of nuclear explosions. The sequence ends when a cut brings in an extreme close up on an older Oppenheimer coming to, from his thoughts as he sits at a table being asked a question as a part of a deposition. This type of editing happens throughout the film. It’s Nolan’s way to bring the audience into Oppenheimer’s thoughts, emotions and visions and unlike the subtlety of usual writing in his films, directly state this person’s importance.

Oppenheimer in deposition. Kitty Oppenheimer played by Emily Blunt watches.

a young Oppenheimer, the curious, imperfect physics student.

The movie also goes back and forth between color and black and white. When the film is in color from the start, the story of Oppenheimer the person is being told, while the black and white follows an assistant to Strauss, who talks with Strauss trying to understand why Oppenheimer is being investigated. This is all from the assistant’s perspective but really it’s a way to indirectly bring in the actual events where Strauss was actually trying to keep revoke Oppenheimer's clearance, which would make classified documents inaccessible to the supposed hero of the war. The two points of view go on to serve as a way for the audience to understand Oppenheimer the person and see how Strauss was an adversary to Oppenheimer.

According to the aforementioned omissions and actual historical events, Nolan has picked and chosen what to put into the film and what to keep out. While Oppenheimer’s story is told going and back forth in time, effectively done by Nolan, the story itself is something some audiences already know or like me, know nothing about. The story is for the most part is literal historical events rendered a visual story with Nolan’s aesthetic of intentional writing and minimal but sophisticated set design, costuming and special effects, along with his skill for moving through time making complicated stories and concepts digestible. Watching the events unfold in Oppenheimer felt like Nolan making a cool biopic.

As the movie moves forward with Oppenheimer’s rise from student to physics professor in Berkeley, Nolan gives a bit of dimension to Oppenheimer by effectively showing the burden of genius with editing of the man’s reaction and feelings about things in the world he sees like rain sliding down a window and what he sees in his thoughts like things happening in the universe that can best be explained by science. The latter are either spinning lights, sparks, and at times explosions that make it believable that Oppenheimer just isn't a scientist but he actually is effect by his brilliance. His reactions, sometimes wonder, sometimes for some reason, discomfort, make him a bit humanistic. Oppenheimer’s awareness of his intelligence is also shown in conversation with other characters like when he purposely says something smart to a young woman Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) at a communist party party, and as a result hooks up with her, or when he meets his future wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) who he seduces away from her husband at a party, with an explanation of physics. The fact that he would seduce a woman while her husband is a few feet away from them let’s the audience know more about the man. He’s arrogant and care’s mostly about what he can gain from his intelligence. But I found myself asking why? It’s never shown why Oppenheimer is driven by arrogance, it’s also never shown for example, even why Kitty or Jean were women he not only was attracted to, but had long standing romances with or married. You also never see what he thinks of himself as a person. It's clear his arrogance will get him in trouble, but is that all he is? And this also lead me to think as someone who knew nothing about Oppenheimer, “Was this who he was or is this what Christopher Nolan wants me to believe?”

By the time Oppenheimer is working at Los Alamos with his scientists to make the bomb, and as he’s started to be supposed of being a spy by Strauss and his superior General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) we see at times where his self importance and his ideas he deems as important, lead him to make choices that are inconsiderate of people involved in a situation, including whether or not to use the bomb on Japan. He's depicted as maybe too self important for his own good, maybe naive, but he comes off uncaring. His motivation is the exploration of the science that could create nuclear weapons, not helping the U.S. or really anyone else. But why?

In the film there’s a scientist who tells Oppenheimer during the designing of the bomb that Japan was most likely going to surrender. Oppenheimer’s response was that people won’t know how much power is in their hands with an atomic weapon until they’ve used the bomb. Because of this directness, with a lack anywhere else so far in the film that shows any motivation for wanting to create nuclear weapons outside of the fact that he can, and since this argument still permeates the thoughts of Americans and the world—in other words, this is not something no one has never thought of—even the slightest bit of characterization like with his response, is in service to the events of the story, not the character's internal journey. Not even this scene does this.

As the film progresses and the bomb is used. None of what we are told about Oppenheimer or even Strauss, or the sparse characterization of Kitty, or Groves, or Jane, nor do any of these character’s journeys, or who they are as people, are effected by the usage of the atom bomb. Oppenheimer nor these other characters are not effected by the pressure Oppenheimer feels about making sure the bomb works properly. The people who’s land were taken, who were unjustly incarcerated, and who were bombed are not even shown to be effected by Oppenheimer. In fact, the effect of the bomb is only shown through Oppenheimer and how he vaguely feels about the act. Why with the tools of filmmaking make a character so inaccessible while trying to give the audience access? Why have us sit through almost three hours at this point in an interior journey, where seems to be even the unknown to its character and it’s communicator? I can only think about what became obvious to me at that point: this movie was made to exalt this man because Christopher Nolan said he should be exalted. That’s not a reason to make film and it leads to a very bad story.

What could have made the film not only better but more Christopher Nolan like, given his skill for creating emotional and relatable stories, even when he's making historical fiction, like in The Prestige or Dunkirk, is if Nolan actually had a desire to engage with history.

After the success of the bombing is announced, there is a celebration at Los Alamos and later on in same night, Oppenheimer gives a speech to the people who have come to live there, all white Americans save for the few Jewish scientists. Nolan employs special effects and editing to again bring us into Oppenheimer’s thoughts and feelings in the moment. He's overwhelmed and unsure of how he feels. He does see the crowd is praising him and wants him to make a speech. So, he gives them what they want. He disparages Japan and the Nazi’s and receives raving, nearing on demented praise from the crowd. Oppenheimer takes it in, on the surface basking in it. But then we see him look at a crowd member and he imagines her face to be tearing due to an explosion, then he looks down at his feet and sees a burned up body. He walks out of the small auditorium, the sound of the crowd and their expectation blaring around him almost not being able to take it. He is supposed to be unable to deal with the outcome of his arrogance but there's nothing in the film to lead us as to why? The images of his anxiety lead us nowhere into him, and to nowhere as the story continues.

Along with Nolan's lack of exploration of Oppenheimer, not at all does Nolan make him capable of imagining the horror he’s caused the Japanese. He does not allow Oppenheimer to imagine the natives who earlier in the film, he suggests to the government to basically strip of their land to create a space for a town to be built to support the Manhattan project. Nolan doesn’t use his editing to bring to the mind of Oppenheimer or to the mind of the viewer that while this was happening, Japanese citizens where experiencing life in incarceration made possible by the same American conservative government that could one minute need and accept Oppenheimer then eventually make him an enemy, in the same way the government did to Japanese Americans.

Afterwards the movie mainly stays in the years after the Manhattan project. The film goes from a tale of a brilliant scientist to victim of communist hysteria, but nothing changes in Oppenheimer. He’s the same person during the Manhattan project as he is while being investigated and nothing in the story points to there being any thing happening to change that. Oppenheimer becomes outspoken about the problem of the existence of nuclear weapons but this too is barely communicated in the few short scenes showing Oppenheimer growing into activism; and the only scene where he shows regret for the use of the atomic bomb, is when Oppenheimer says to Harry S Truman (Gary Oldman) that he feels like he has blood on his hands. Truman takes the weight off of Oppenheimer when he gladly takes responsibility for ordering the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What happens in Oppenheimer instead, by way of the film’s continuance for another 45 minutes after the bomb is used, along with the lack of change in Oppenheimer, by way of the film's later parts in color going to black and white and back and forth, is the real story—the campaign to make Oppenheimer important and when it is eventually found out that Strauss was trying to sabotage Oppenheimer, makes Strauss, more acurretely, power hungry politicians, the villain.

But those who know the story already know this. To those like me who didn’t know the story, Oppenheimer’s importance has the chance to be lost. Apart of what Oppenheimer never changes is how he lets things play out due to his awareness of his own intelligence, no matter who is effected. Oppenheimer wins the battle, and gets a movie made about him, but the story of the movie goes nowhere, and the importance of Oppenheimer now can be debated.

Nolan doesn’t do the work of making us care, which in a film that centers mainly on one character, making us care should begin and end with the character. Also if Nolan brought in certain history, say like Japanese American citizen’s experience of incarceration or the feelings of native Indians who were once again removed from their land, this could have deepened Nolan's vision of a distrusting and power hungry government to be the villain. It also could have, if Oppenheimer's goals were made clearer, presented some sort of challenge to Oppenheimer's ideals, or even to his morality, or his arrogance, that would have made for an expansiveness in this man's personal journey. These histories could have been in there. If he could imagine the universe, imagine his effect on Jean Tatlock, imagine a person's face being damaged, how come Nolan couldn't let him imagine the Japanese being effected by this man's guidance in the making of the atom bomb? The histories could have worked as something for J Robert Oppenheimer to consider, like maybe he shouldn't be so careless when it comes to other people's lives. This would have made for a more compelling film.

For me, there's no debate. I'll look beyond the way Nolan sees Oppenheimer: a one dimensional figure belonging to a one sided telling of history.



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