Oppenheimer: Not What I Expected

So, we just watched Oppenheimer today. I’d been resisting it, because despite[1] all the hype, I didn’t really see the point; I didn’t really see why I specifically needed to watch it[2]. However, S really wanted to watch it together, and it was now out on home video[3] so we sat down for a nice holiday Tuesday matinee[4].

First off, it was fantastic, really well done. If you haven’t seen it yet, please pause this read, do so, and then come back here.

[Spoilers beyond this point]

It’s interesting that I feel I have to talk about spoilers here, for a historical/biographical movie. But I do need to. Anytime there’s a biopic, there are choices about what is shown on-screen, and how each of those things are sequenced and portrayed. The flashback structure and eventual reveal at the end was really good for building and releasing the dramatic tension (the music was fantastic for this…especially the completely silent atomic bomb explosion, which was fantastically effective, along with dramatically representing some of the delay between seeing and hearing such an event caused by the difference between the speed of sound and light).

I’d always conceptualized the Manhattan Project through the eyes of Feynman, from his essay ‘Los Alamos from Below'[5]. I think it wasn’t until today that I really understood that he really meant it that way. I had always seen Oppenheimer as the leader/front man who had to exist so that the project could happen, but also as a quasi-mythical distant figure. I’d also conceptualized the ethical dilemmas about actually building a nuclear device as being shared and agonized over by each and every one of the scientists and engineers (and everyone) at Los Alamos.

The Oppenheimer story, being a biopic largely of one person, centralized a lot of that in one person (Oppenheimer). Interestingly, the movie tried really really hard (and I think succeeded) at leaving Oppenheimer a complex character, with multiple possible interpretations of many of the very real decisions he made along the way.

Cillian Murphy was fantastic, it seemed to me having some of the ‘dazed at the enormity of what we’re doing’ present at all points of the movie, which is appropriate for flashbacks, or perhaps for someone who had his head in the clouds of physics his entire life[6].

Having not seen much about the movie (aside from a clip or two, and hearing about how Cillian Murphy prepared for the role[7]), I wasn’t expecting what type of movie it was, or how pivotal a role Robert Downey Jr.’s character was to play (or that he was to be the villain). He had mentioned in an interview that Nolan had asked him to play against type[8] compared to many of his recent characters.

Florence Pugh was fantastic, although it’s hard to top her iconic performance as Yelena Belova. Matt Damon was an excellent potty-mouthed general, and Emily Blunt and the rest of the supporting cast were great.

I thought it was a really nice touch having Einstein and Bohr both mention that they were from the previous generation, and that this problem was not theirs, but fully belonged to Oppenheimer. S mentioned in particular that it was interesting to see a different, older/more bitter side of Einstein, rather than the ‘genius’.

I also appreciated for the nods to Copenhagen (the play), where Bohr mentions that he got significant information from Heisenberg, and a disturbing scene where Oppenheimer meets Heisenberg, and then immediately turns away and leaves, presumably because he (a Jewish boy from New York) senses that Heisenberg would be willing to work on a Bomb for Hitler[9].

There was also just enough of a Feynman cameo, with two shots of him playing the bongos. With his charisma and fame, anything more might have upstaged the rest of the movie.

Great movie. See it if you haven’t. Let me know what you think!

[1] Or perhaps because of it. I’m often somewhat contrarian about things like that.

[2] Interestingly, I perceived that I needed to see Barbie more than Oppenheimer, but that’s a story for another time.

[3] How anachronistic is the phrase ‘home video’ now?

[4] I find many/most movies emotionally draining/exhausting, and they often require significant processing time afterwards (and this was no exception), and it’s really nice to still have some sun out after the movie is over, which somehow helps with this.

[5] “Los Alamos from Below

[6] It might also be a side effect of playing Oppenheimer while trying to embody the extreme gauntness of the character

[7] Apparently, he lost a significant amount of weight, and kept apart from other cast members during filming, to keep himself in the role and to be prepared for the grueling shooting schedule.

[8] Original NYT interview.

[9] Not much was said in the movie, but it seemed that Nolan (or American Prometheus) had very specific opinions about the Copenhagen conversation.

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