Oppenheimer was great. I really liked it. I don’t have a review as much as some notes that I took during the film that I’d like to share. But before diving into them, I should say that I got a certain impression of the film before I watched it based on all the reviews, the hot-takes, and the analyses, and it was almost entirely at odds with my final experience of it. How happy am I to have been wrong.
1. “Brilliance makes up for a lot.” – The idea that genius is an excuse to overlook other flaws, a famously problematic notion among scientists, as we’ve seen of late, recurs non-ironically throughout the film. But it’s also the sort of criticism that, while it’s important to take note of, doesn’t seem interesting vis-à-vis the film itself. The film shows Oppenheimer as he was, warts and all – and there’s value in that – living and working in a time that encouraged such thinking. The point was neither to redeem him nor make sure we ‘learn’ that such thinking is worthy of discouragement, in much the same way it doesn’t discuss who occupied the land where the Trinity test was conducted.
(This said, it did strike me as odd why the film chose not to show the images of the bomb’s consequences in Japan, as they were being displayed to an audience that included Oppenheimer. I can’t say I agree that us observing him as he reacted to those images was more important.)
2. Military and science – This is a tension that’s also been made clear in several historical accounts of the Manhattan Project, of the working culture among scientists clashing with how the military operates, and how, in the course of this contest, each side perceived profound flaws in the way the other achieved its objectives. One is, or claims to be, democratic (epitomised in the film by Oppenheimer persuading Teller to stay back at Los Alamos) while the other prizes brutal efficiency and a willingness to get its hands ‘dirty’ because of the clear apportionment of blame (irrespective of whether that’s really possible from the PoV of today).
3. “How could this man who saw so much be so blind?” – Strauss’s comment in the beginning sets up the kind of person Oppenheimer was very well. The real-world Oppenheimer was often disrespectful, flippant towards other people’s opinions or feelings. But in the film, this disposition is directed almost always at Strauss, so it’s possible to come away thinking that Oppenheimer just believed Strauss alone to be worthy of some disdain. But Strauss’s comment hints at Oppenheimer’s hubris very well, and so concisely.
4. “Scientists don’t respect your judgment” – Another comment of Strauss’s, which although we see by the end of the film was born largely out of an inflated self-importance, also spoke, I thought, to the tension between how the scientists and the soldiers operate and to the sense of unease among some in the military that comes of looking outside-in into the Manhattan Project, until of course the bomb was delivered.
5. A science and military complex – Vannevar Bush is ‘represented’ in the film. After the war ended, he was to famously advocate for the US investing in blue-sky research, that such research, while delivering no short-term gains, would in the longer one hold the country in good stead on a variety of advanced technologies. The complex still operating today is the military-industrial one, but science during the war became a glue holding them together. And it’s interesting to get such a well-dramatised view of the tensions through which these two enterprises were reconciled.
6. Tension ahead of Trinity – This is the principal reason I liked Oppenheimer. I’ve read a lot (relatively) about how the bomb came to be, but one thing all of those accounts lacked is such a faithful – or what I imagine is a faithful – description of the emotions at play as the bomb was built, tested, and reckoned with. When that man’s fingers tremble over the big red button that would detonate the weapon, I was trembling in my seat. The nervousness, the anger, the frustration, even the complementary nonchalance of Teller and Feynman. This is very difficult to get through scholarship.
7. Nolan’s comment – In several interviews before the film’s release, Nolan said he believed Oppenheimer was the “greatest person” to have ever lived. I assumed before watching the film that this was an insight into the sort of film Oppenheimer would be, with hero worship and its attendant rituals. But in the end, the comment was so irrelevant to the experience of the film.
8. What is a nuclear weapon? – To me, Oppenheimer‘s principal triumph is that, through the eyes of its eponymous protagonist, it conveys what it means for there to be such a thing as a nuclear weapon. It’s fundamentally the breaking of the strong nuclear force between two nucleons, but it’s also, to paraphrase something Strauss says in his angry tirade near the end, the irreversible act of letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle and everything that entails. It’s power and therefore a herald of cynical politics. It’s classified information and therefore a source of mis- or dis-trust. (“If you create the ultimate destructive power, it will also destroy those who are near and dear to you” – Nolan.) It’s knowledge of another country’s power and intent. It’s a demonstration of its scientists’ ability to channel their talents as well as their moral bearings. It’s the weapon to reshape all wars. So forth.
9. Shockwave in the gymnasium – This was such an excellent, poignant scene, when Oppenheimer is going through the motions, or what he thinks ought to be the motions, and the place goes quiet just as it did when the Trinity shot succeeded. Then, as he is walking out, the sound of his audience’s cheering hits him like a shockwave. Such a well-conceived metaphor for the bomb’s political nature, and a cementing of Oppenheimer’s epiphany that there’s really nothing he can do to control how it will be used.
10. Partial fictions – Strauss’s vendetta against Oppenheimer isn’t borne out in the historical record, including the fact that Strauss was the one to hand the FBI the all-important file (via Borden). This sadly constitutes the same sort of mistake that films of lower calibre do: claiming to be based on real-world events (or, as in this case, a book documenting real-world events) but then fictionalising some small detail. The effect is for a watcher to be left wondering what else didn’t exactly happen, which they won’t know about unless they specifically check. In Oppenheimer, this is true of parts of the Strauss storyline, the Oppenheimers’ parenting skills, how concerned the physicists really were of the bomb setting “the air on fire”, and, irony of ironies, it all begins with a literal poisoned fruit.
(A couple inconsistencies are in my opinion worth singling out, despite being quite minor: (i) when the Trinity shot succeeds, Oppenheimer is shown being accosted by George Kistiyakowsky demanding the $10 he bet Oppenheimer the previous night that the test would go through. Oppenheimer says “I’m good for $10” and hands him a bill, but in reality he didn’t have the money. But that’s not all. In that moment, Oppenheimer would later recall mulling those famous words from the Gita, only for Kenneth Bainbridge to have been plainer: “Oppie, now we’re all sons of bitches.” (ii) When Chevalier tells Oppenheimer that Eltenton can help pass information through to the Soviets, Kitty comes to the kitchen not wanting the two of them to be alone and is also the one to tell Chevalier that his proposal constitutes treason. In the film, Kitty enters the kitchen after this conversation has concluded. This is worth pointing out because, in the film itself, she’s always been the better judge of character than Oppenheimer.)
11. Compartmentalisation – The concept of compartmentalisation appears throughout the film in the context of maintaining the secrecy of the Manhattan Project. But as it happened, a certain loss of compartmentalisation had to transpire for the project’s physicists to actually want to build a bomb – something that happened, by some accounts, at a meeting on April 15, 1943, when Robert Serber clarified to those present at the Los Alamos site that they were to build a nuclear weapon. When the physicists set about their task with gusto, they surprised Enrico Fermi, who then told Oppenheimer: “I believe your people actually want to make a bomb.” A terribly profound comment.
Oppenheimer forced me to confront and question a little knot of apprehension that had taken root within my mind when it released. It was fed mostly by the fact that the film would expose to a very large number of people a world of information that had taken many others (myself included) a lot more time to find, learn, and parse. I was apprehensive that some nuance of this passage of history would get shredded by some inane right- or left-wing outrage, and be denied an opportunity to make some meaningful impression on the minds of its viewers.
I daresay that this is a legitimate concern at a time when writers and journalists have had to double-check how something might be construed on social media platforms, in specific parts of the country, even to a court somewhere. We may never be able to fully control how something that we produce will be consumed but there are parts of it that we can. In my own writing, I noticed last year a tendency to be defensive, to write in such a way that I explain myself thoroughly and accommodate all possible counter-arguments. The style is time-consuming and, more importantly, because how we write can affect how we think, it leads to defensive thinking as well.
I was also anxious of encountering the hypocrisy that I suspected would be put on display when, despite being able to find physics beautifully described in hundreds of articles and videos on the web, the “average audience” recoils from them but gravitates with glee to Oppenheimer, and perhaps after holds forth on Facebook as if it understood the ideas involved all along.
But then, in the film, Oppenheimer tells Leo Szilard that the scientists who made the bomb have no greater say than others about how to use it. I disagreed with the comment, but it struck me that we’d have to agree if we replaced “bomb” with “knowledge”. I’m glad that more people now know about the circumstances in which the first nuclear weapons were made because even if only a few are prepared to treat the film as a gateway, rather than as the definitive take or whatever, the world should be the better for it.
Featured image. A screenshot of a scene from Oppenheimer (2023). Source: YouTube