In 2025, the world will note the passing of 80 years since the detonation of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
That decision remains one of the most controversial in world history. President Harry Truman understood the consequences it would have on the people in Hiroshima, but he also knew Japan’s militaristic leaders would fight to the bitter end. In July, the War Department had advised that Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, could result in perhaps 5- to 10-million dead just among the Japanese people. Massive American casualties were also certain.
The President gave Tokyo “fair warning,” as he put it, from the Potsdam Conference (July 17-August 2, 1945), in a “Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese government, [and] warning of ‘prompt and utter destruction’” if it refused, which it did.
As he did in his magnificent 2017 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan begins his new film, Oppenheimer, with numbered captions that introduce the viewer to the fluid nature of the film’s narrative, which flashes forward and back, to several key events in physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life: his education (Harvard, Cambridge, Göttingen); his work as head of the Manhattan Project (that designed and built America’s first nuclear weapons); his testimony in a post-war star-chamber proceeding to determine his post-war security status; and testimony before a Senate confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss, President Eisenhower’s choice for Secretary of Commerce. Oppenheimer and Strauss were early good friends and later bitter enemies.
Irish actor Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer as an introspective genius able to visualize the world’s elemental building blocks in their most colorful manifestations, especially the wave-particle duality at the heart of quantum physics. Mr. Nolan gives us the usual scenes of Oppenheimer (and others) scribbling formulae on blackboards, but Nolan wisely doesn’t dwell on quantum theory. Vividly colorful, almost psychedelic, sequences depict Oppenheimer’s analytical imaginations of time and space.
But what matters most is the decision to build nuclear weapons and that aforementioned decision to use them.
Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, puts emphasis to the point of tediousness on the connection between Oppenheimer’s colleagues and the Communist Party of the U.S.A. – before and during the McCarthy Era. It might have been sufficient and efficient simply to dwell on the Klaus Fuchs case. Fuchs (played by Christopher Denham), was hired by Oppenheimer to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and turned out to be a Soviet spy.
Oppenheimer himself was never a member of the Party, but he was sympathetic to Marxism. Several of his recruits for the Manhattan Project were communist sympathizers. All were geniuses determined to defeat Hitler’s Germany.
A number of Nobel Prize winners, some laureates already and some later, worked with Oppenheimer, and he recruited many of America’s finest scientists, so many, in fact, that Mr. Nolan gives most no more than a nod. The film’s Wikipedia page indicates their collective eminence: all but few of the real people portrayed have Wikipedia pages devoted to them.
Everybody seems to be in this movie, and not just those famous scientists. It’s true too of the actors – at least 50 in the main cast, and Mr. Nolan has drawn out marvelous performances from all.
Of special note are Mr. Murphy and Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty. Blunt’s performance is alternately fire and ice. Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss is mesmerizing: charming and friendly; scheming and vicious. The film also features great work by Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Clarke, Alden Ehrenreich, and many others. Tom Conti is as wryly brilliant as he needs to be as Einstein.
Given its large, all-star cast, Oppenheimer is reminiscent of such war epics as The Longest Day and The Great Escape – only (and fittingly) more cerebral.
Obviously, the developing and testing of the first A-bomb was a real-life drama: a race against time in which the desire to end WWII drove brilliant people to make profound sacrifices in terms of time, comfort, finances, and. . .morality. I’m not referring to Robert Oppenheimer’s adultery, graphically depicted in the film, but to the debate, still ongoing, about weapons of mass destruction – of what is just in war.
The upshot of Oppenheimer isn’t as in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, about nukes devastating Earth. It’s the first A-bomb test, dubbed Trinity, on July 16, 1945. That name was chosen by Oppenheimer because he loved John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God ”. (See today’s TCT Notable.)
Unlike others who shielded their eyes from the Trinity blast, Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid) sat in an automobile, his vision protected only by the windshield.
Among the final scenes in Oppenheimer is the physicist’s meeting with President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman). As the film has progressed through its three hours, just-war questions have been raised, of course. Truman settles the matter – at least as far as he is concerned. The President says to Oppenheimer, “You won’t be blamed, I will.” He has no patience for Oppenheimer’s handwringing about “blood on my hands” because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Truman all but throws him out of the Oval Office. As the physicist is shown the door, Give-‘em-Hell Harry says, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.” Mr. Truman could be crudely consequentialist.
Almost everything in Oppenheimer happened as Nolan presents it, and most of it is riveting. But does that excuse the film’s length?
Mr. Nolan’s Dunkirk is 106 minutes long, and his most-previous film, Tenet, is 150 minutes. That Oppenheimer is 180 minutes may indicate that as auteur, Christopher Nolan is losing concern for his audience, if not also for economy in his craft. There are movies that are justifiably long (Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff), but most (like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate) fail through overindulgence. Oppenheimer is not a failure; it’s simply not as good as more judicious editing might have made it. At least Kaufman and Cimino gave us intermissions.
Besides, a man of a certain age can’t sit for three hours in a theater without excusing himself for a restroom break.
Oppenheimer is rated R. Without nude scenes, which add nothing to the narrative, the film would likely be PG-13.