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Film Review: Oppenheimer
(Christopher Nolan, 2023)

Dave Jackson      

15 September 2023

Hailed as a masterpiece by many critics does this perspective point to some limitations in our cultural aspirations? Though my own standpoint may be skewed by my current cultural consumption. I’m reading The Naked Lunch after a binge of Jack Kerouac novels.

Oppenheimer is partly set at a similar time as the birth of the Beat Generation and Bebop, the forties and fifties. These revolutions in art are just as important as the scientific revolution of atomic physics although I suppose Marxists tend to give primacy to major socio-economic events such as war and Oppenheimer was in charge of the Manhattan Project, to develop a usable atom bomb.

The atom bomb is portrayed as a vast and fascinating scientific world-shattering project, which it was. How well does the film do its job at portraying the moral nightmare? Well, it chooses a Hollywood direction which can be corny.

A lot of the dialogue was delivered in that typical hammy Hollywood movie way which doesn’t give you much faith in the integrity of the production. Calling the dialogue of a film which is supposed to be about real events hammy means that one is a little more distrustful of how this biopic is supposed to relate to real life.

Despite this the film is a sensational cinematic experience. But the thing about sensational cinematic experiences is they are not what makes truly great films. That’s not to say Oppenheimer is on the level of Jurassic Park. That would be absurd. But is it as unreal?

Of course, in opposition to this it could be said that poetic licence is allowed in conveying a profound and truthful theme. The one that stands out is in a sex scene where Oppenheimer’s girlfriend reads the famous quote, he referred to years later, of the god Krishna in the Bhagavat Gita, “I am become death the destroyer of worlds,” making a connection between Oppenheimer’s all too human desires and the apocalypse. This is strange as Oppenheimer’s quote were not the actual lines from the Bhagavat Gita but was a kind of precis of its meaning.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967
Is Oppenheimer another, “spectacle”? If the above quote is true then of course. However, some artistic productions such as films draw attention to themselves as alternatives to the everyday spectacle which reenforces capitalism’s ruling ideas. All art attempts to be sensational or spectacular but the most valuable art as well as using tried and tested techniques of its craft to create the spectacular has to have something new and original to say. Is Oppenheimer just a part of the familiar spectacular landscape of Hollywood capitalism or does it rise above that level? In my estimation, not really.

Going back and saying what was right what was wrong in the handwringing hands of Robert Oppenheimer is fake serious and that’s because we can’t fix what has happened. The bomb is a reality, probably always would have been so which properly diminishes any attempt to make the history of the 20th century hang on one man.

Most people I have talked with about this film mentioned its length, 3 hours. A film that places this demand on the filmgoer must have something of value about it, even if that value is merely keeping you entertained. I think how this is done in this film is through skillful technique, but these techniques have all been seen before, though admittedly they are compellingly realised. In fact, it is films like this which create actual novelty through technique if the production team are doing their job right and in this case they must have been.

For myself, the message of the film is straightforward, but also powerful. It goes something like this. Modern science has immense power to affect our lives. That power can be used to dominate if it is used to create weapons that can destroy the world. Ultimately it is governments which will make the decisions on how to utilize these creations of science. Power is not in the hands of individuals, such as Oppenheimer and neither of course of the people being governed.

Oppenheimer did not seek the power of those who led the nations in World War II. He agreed to take on the job of organizing the project for those in power. Its reminiscent of the Nazis’ architect Albert Speer and the sympathy that history tends to confer on him.

From the director of the Batman Trilogy, it’s pretty easy to score a bullseye with this material. Oppenheimer is a glamorous figure because he was charming, intelligent, idealistic and ambitious. Nolan has also referred to him as an extremely ambiguous character.

When this interesting glamorous personality is put in charge of one of the most significant scientific projects in history something has been created that a film production should translate into a box office success. Oppenheimer, I think was quite an easy film to make and deliver on whilst one cannot deny the panache it’s pulled off with.

Oppenheimer has been the subject of several biographies and the film is based on a 2005 biography written by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherman over a period of twenty-five years which won several awards. The full title is American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Director Nolan described his aim with the film:

What I wanted to do was take the audience into the mind and the experience of a person who sat at the absolute centre of the largest shift in history. Like it or not J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived. He made the world we live in, for better, or for worse.
Irish actor Cillian Murphy who plays the role of Oppenheimer does a wonderful job at playing the hero of this film. The flawed hero who was a pawn of those in power.

Is this the Oppenheimer who some sources have said gave secrets to the Soviets? Why not?   Anyway, it would be hard to tar the personality of Oppenheimer. He is an interesting example of a figure who seems hard not to like. I think this explains the nature of the strange fascination with him as an individual in relation to gigantic moral questions.

The film also portrays him as mentally unbalanced. Sufficiently so that at one point he attempts to poison his university professor with a cyanide filled apple.  Oppenheimer seems to have had such a fierce passion to be a success which tipped over into an unbalanced desperation when things were not going well for him in his career. Not referred to in the film is the alienation Oppenheimer would have felt at a time there was a lot of antisemitism being whipped up in US universities.

The story of Oppenheimer had long been a 20th century symbol way before this film was made. The story goes that the world forgives him because no individual could be held responsible for forces which are so much bigger than one person. Those forces are sometimes described as, “the military, industrial complex.”

Once Oppenheimer’s reputation is destroyed as a result of communist witch-hunting (though he was of course never a communist party member) it was a shattering blow and he ages alarmingly which many attribute to his premature death.

Above all he wanted to be seen as a great American and the acclaim he got before his downfall would have helped soften his mental disturbance regarding the genocide of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We can see him as an example of that breed of left sympathizing liberal of the Roosevelt era and it was Roosevelt who commissioned the atom bomb project. In the fifties this sort of background could get you into serious trouble depending on who you had been friends with.

Famous film critic Roger Ebert said in his four-star review, “As a physical experience, Oppenheimer is something else entirely - it’s hard to say exactly what and that’s what’s so fascinating about it”

I think Ebert is right here. Oppenheimer had a marked physical effect on myself when I watched it. Of course, this doesn’t make it truer but it does tell its story in an extraordinarily powerful way which neither Ebert or myself can’t quite explain. However, I do think this noticeable effect is to do with the amazing unity of all the elements of the production which is mostly due to an impressive level of skill and experience in the art of commercial filmmaking.

I think the film pretends to seriousness about science, politics, war and morality and pushes it through with powerful cinematic conventions but ultimately one has to call it exploitative blinding the viewer with its potboiling power. The deepest flaws of this film are cinematic ones, which are the techniques by which it staggers the viewer. The confidence with which these techniques are carried out I think are a confidence in the power of commercial cinema. To accept this is an acceptance of the capitalist spectacle, an acceptance that commerciality has something inherently valuable. What makes commercial art valuable are the contradictions it expresses that makes us reflect on the capitalist system’s limitations, the system that will eventually finish our world off. This notable film does not rise above its celebration of its own techniques.

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