I’m as conflicted with Christopher Nolan’s movie “Oppenheimer” as the protagonist is with his own internal conflict. The film raises a lot of important questions, and the visual story is fierce, but the telling is flawed.
Having lived in New Mexico over forty years, and in Kyoto for a year, (which, as mentioned in the film, was taken off the list of cities to bomb), I felt a personal pull with a lot of the historical touchpoints. General spoilers ahead, but you already know the story.
The beginning set my heart racing with Oppenheimer’s early years as a physicist, hearing and seeing the unseen world in gorgeous, physically-experiential visual pattern sensations. “Can you hear the music?” was a deep, mythical refrain that sets you up for the internal world of this complex person.
Part of the reason people come out of this move feeling drained might be less about the length, (180 minutes), or the subject matter, and more because there is such a push and yank of the storyline that you feel you have been on a jerky roller-coaster and half the excitement is whether the car will fall off the track. It was thrilling—not in a transformational way, but more of a cramming-for-a-midterm-all-nighter way.
Much of the fun was seeing important-scientist-after-important-scientist that I read in school show up on screen and become an integral part of the plots. Yes, plots. We all love a multiple-timeline movie, (aren’t we kind of expecting Memento?), but this one has two double split timelines and uses different colors for different POVs—not exactly different times—and different timelines within those POVs, (I think?), and much of the last act is in committee hearings, so…thrilling. It will land more like a badly executed triple Salchow unless you take in some documentaries as homework before you go, as some watchers recommended. But I got that intel too late.
The most meaningful but also most frustrating moment for me was when the film was able to give a surreal understanding of what Oppenheimer experienced when the first bomb was dropped. For that alone I would go see this film again. True, it does not show directly the suffering of the victims, but it does show the scientist “seeing” the burned bodies, the radiation poisoning, and the skin coming off a person’s face. I was moved by the suffering, but also excited that the film might make a huge turn into the breaking down of the white-male flag waving and go a different direction.
Because there were moments when there was jubilation on the screen but in the movie theater, you could hear a pin drop, and not just because we are all connected to Los Alamos, but because it’s almost 80 years later and we all know how the history played out and the stories of unnecessary suffering that continue today. (Please read John Hersey’s vivid narrative nonfiction account of six survivors that was printed in the New York Times in 1946: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima)
What was frustrating was the direction the rest of the film took from this point. I’m one of those people who got into the habit in film school of peeking at their watch when they recognize an act break. We had 45 minutes left and I was excited to go into Act 3 with the bomb dropping on screen a seeming success.
Instead of continuing the emotional journey of the scientist into the full understanding of what he is known to have felt personally responsible for—and would have included the Japanese victims into the story—the film went into a long digression. It became an overlapping, interesting but off-point storyline about political ambition and image-smearing. It was almost like writer-director Nolan was saying, No, don’t look over there, look over *here*—this paper-pushing testosterone-one-upping senate confirmation hearing is much more interesting than a guy re-thinking that the most patriotic act in WWII was morally wrong. Which was exactly what was happening in the real story—subterfuge *of* the story mirrored the subterfuge in the story.
So, the main emotional storyline that needed to resolve never came to pass. You might not recognize it, but you’ll feel that unresolved chord—Oppenheimer never stood up and fought for his reputation and what he knew to be right. Not in this film. Which is funny because it is the repeated demand his on-screen-alcoholic wife keeps making. But just take it for granted that the female characters in this film will not have the same intricate development as the male, no matter how much their dialogue points out the theme.
All that being said, go see it for beautiful New Mexico and the struggle of one man’s morality that affects us all.
Coming Soon: At the showing last night, they ran two trailers that were very important: “Killers of the Flower Moon” about a powerful Osage woman and the beginnings of the FBI, based on the book by David Grann; and “First We Bombed New Mexico,” a documentary by Emmy Award Winner Lois Lipman about the Downwinders from the Trinity site and environmental racism.
Watch “Oppenheimer” at Violet Crown in Santa Fe: https://santafe.violetcrown.com/movie/VC001193
©Melissa J White, 2023
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