Entry 260 : Oppenheimer (2023) - An Experience

Hello, there.

I should preface this entry by saying that I have never written a movie review in my entire life and for good reason. I believe that movies (or films, if you're fancy) are the epitome of storytelling; the culmination of all the arts that stimulate every fiber of my being. No song, dance, painting, poem, book, or Instagram Reel could illicit a deep and existential reaction as significantly as a movie. A movie doesn't even have to be a billionaire-birthing box-office blockbuster for it to leave a divine mark on a person's life. It just has to speak to the person's soul. For that reason, I believe that opinions on movies should be formed by experiencing the movie ourselves. My past, my memories, my knowledge, my world view all play a massive part in forming my reaction and opinion of a movie, influencing my experience watching it.

It was this kind of otherworldly experience that inspired me to write this piece on Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer. Upon exiting the cinema, I found myself in a state of existential dread. I was conscious but not alive, breathing but not living. It was as if every explosion in the movie desecrated all remaining senses I possessed, leaving me a husk in a black tie and cardigan. As I wandered the halls of the shopping complex, trying to find my appetite along with any last semblance of awareness, the film kept replaying over and over and over and over and over again in my head, with Oppenheimer's cold gaze looming in the background of my thoughts; the very gaze that Cillian Murphy had so splendidly achieved. 

Spoilers ahead.

Now I am become Death. The destroyer of worlds.

I had come across these words before in the least expected place – of all places – which was in a Reddit comment section. Though used ironically, these words amused me in that it was so blatantly grammatically incorrect that it reminded me of the "all your base are belong to us" meme. I see now that my previous comparison was both naive and disrespectful. These words till this very moment ring constantly in my head. Never have words been so matter-of-fact. Who else but the father of the atom bomb be personified as Death?

This film was a three-hour presentation in letting the story drive itself. The layers of timelines of events seamlessly woven into each other, eventually meeting at the point of climax, was not necessarily new but provided a much appreciated respite from the main timeline that showed us the conception, development, and execution of the Manhattan Project. Every time we were alone with Cillian Murphy, there was nothing but anxiety and distress, beginning with his longing for home while in the UK, then when he was preparing for his lecture in Dutch, again when he discovered the unionizing scientists after being warned by the military, and, most awfully distressing, when he was to give a speech after the "successful" bombing of Hiroshima. The film was not fun in the slightest and whatever moment of levity was burdened by the cloud of the inevitable Little Boy. 

Algebra is like sheet music. It's not important if you can read the music, but if you can hear the music.

There is so much to say about the film but there are major points that I want to discuss; the first being the depiction of theoretical science and scientific discovery. Witnessing scientists in the spotlight was such a bizarre feeling. There wasn't any performative beaker and flask montage nor was there a laughable amount of bald men in white lab coats. What we saw was meetings, seminars, lectures, meetings, scribbles on loose sheets, meetings in the forest, meetings by the lake, meetings on a train, meetings in a meeting room, and meetings in a barn. This mundane, boring, and uneventful activity of thinking was portrayed as mundane, boring, and uneventful as it could. But I loved it so much. I loved it for how real it was, for how it reminded me of my own time as a graduate student, for how lackluster it truly is to be part of a research group. The film wasn't hellbent on rupturing our eardrums or bombarding our eyes with an unending flurry of bomb explosions. The film focused on science; its birth, upbringing, adolescence, maturity, death, and legacy.

How is his math?

I also saw the film as a self-fulfilling prophecy, with many parallels within itself and its themes. There are a few most notable instances of this, beginning with the moment when Edward Teller first appeared, holding in his hands a set of loose sheets of paper with his computations with regards to the chain reaction as a result of unending bombardment of neutrons on a nucleus. Concerned with the world-ending repercussions, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who time and again was shown to be less mathematically-gifted, sought help from the all-father himself, Albert Einstein at Princeton, New Jersey. They, along with the scientists in California, settled on a near zero probability of catastrophe. Later on, after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see Oppenheimer reunited with Einstein, where they recall the conversation from their previous encounter. Einstein professes that even though the potential incineration of the Earth's atmosphere did not happen as a chain reaction of their atom bomb, the world still experienced a devastating chain reaction from the consequences of its creation. Further, this meeting with Oppenheimer soured Einstein's once joyous morning by the lake, which caused him to pull a face with Lewis Strauss. This caused a chain reaction that led to the dismantling and destruction of Oppenheimer's contributions and reputation. The near zero chain reaction did in fact happen.

Another instance of parallelism was in the revelation of the plot against Oppenheimer by David Hill, which was initiated by Strauss in his revenge for his humiliation in front of Congress and for seemingly being flipped on to Einstein's naughty list, both at the hands of Oppenheimer. The plot is revealed after Richard Feynman finds that Strauss' tentative table-tilting tactic was already put in place, and that throughout the interview process, Strauss' plan had already been put into motion, which begun with the discrediting and denial of Oppenheimer's security clearance. He confesses that he provided William Borden with the cache of intel on Oppenheimer's life, which allowed Borden to indict Oppenheimer and initiate a board review of Oppenheimer's security clearance. As it wasn't a formal trial, they would not need the burden of proof nor disclosure of materials to the defence. When Hill stood witness to Strauss' interview, he revealed that Strauss was behind the Oppenheimer Affair. Strauss was left in a state of rage, now concerned for the end of his life's work. He tries to salvage the situation but given the fact that his hearing also wasn't a formal trial, Hill was not bound by the burden of proof; a fact pointed out by Feynman who was now cognizant of Strauss' selfish agenda. The karmic consequences of Strauss' scheme being reflected onto himself was undeniably cathartic.

The next instance of a self-fulfilling prophecy was the night Oppenheimer was first shown to have relations with Jean Tatlock, the communist party member with whom Oppenheimer is enamored. In his study, where they made their relations, Tatlock finds a book she couldn't read. It was in Sanskrit, a language Oppenheimer was teaching himself to read. She asks Oppenheimer to read the words, when he then says "now I am become Death; the destroyer of worlds,". This phrase was not only true for the fact that Oppenheimer was to spearhead the creation of the atom bomb, but also because he would be the reason for Tatlock's demise. Oppenheimer was a notorious womanizer, first shown when he and his future wife Kitty produced a child as a result of their affair. At the time, Kitty was still married to her previous husband and Oppenheimer was still in a relationship with Tatlock. Oppenheimer continued his womanizing by having an affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of his friend Richard Tolman. Also, Oppenheimer took the time to visit Tatlock and resume relations even after the birth of his child in the midst of developing the Manhattan Project. 

Unfortunately, this visit was to be his last. As his post-climax clarity enveloped him in a shroud of guilt, he vowed never to see Tatlock again. We then see Tatlock in shambles after seeking out the comfort of Oppenheimer only to be left again. Her world is destroyed, her story ends in a tragic suicide. This string of relations, betrayal, and suspected cohorts with the communist party, along with Oppenheimer's constant breach of protocol and support for unionization became solid ground for the denial of his security clearance during his hearing. Oppenheimer was impressive as not only the creator of the atom bomb but also as the architect of his own destruction; the destroyer of his world.

They remember him for Trinity; not Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The last piece of cinema I wanted to point out was the parallel between Strauss' words and what was shown in the film. Strauss in his fit of rage accused Oppenheimer of ingeniously clearing his name of the sins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by becoming the voice of reason in matters of the hydrogen bomb that was proposed by Strauss. He mentions that Oppenheimer effectively wiped his hands clean of the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was etched in history for birthing the atom bomb and successfully showcasing it at Trinity, the first nuclear test from the Manhattan Project. [Paraphrased] "They remember him for Trinity; not Hiroshima or Nagasaki...". In the film, we only see Oppenheimer's atom bomb detonated at Trinity but not at Hiroshima nor Nagasaki. I thought that this was marvellous filmmaking and storytelling.

Oppenheimer (2023) relies heavily on the audience's pre-existing knowledge of history and empathy for the victims of war. The weight carried by the film could only be felt by those who have a good inkling of the events of World War II, such as why communism was such a threat, the severity and cruelty of the evil Nazis, how science was weaponized in every which way (recall Turing and the ENIGMA machine), how scarring the atom bomb was to the Japanese, and how the impact is still felt till today. The humanity, or rather inhumanity, of the creation of a weapon of mass destruction came out of stark necessity, a sort of forced paranoia due to the times. Was it responsible or ethical to continue finding ways to ignite, stabilize, and detonate a nuclear bomb in the name of science? Were it not for the purpose of war, would they have found a way to do so? Two billion US dollars in 1945 is approximately equivalent to 34 billion US dollars today! The sheer magnitude of resources required to create such a weapon oddly enough matches its magnitude of destruction. In the film, we only see the reactions of the scientists being presented with the aftermath of the atom bomb but it was enough to illicit our own reactions from our prior knowledge of history. We see that the concept of heroes and villains are blurred when it comes to real life – are any of these people actually heroes? 

I am reminded of a profound piece of dialogue that suits this conundrum. "When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn't say what we lost,". Of course, these words came from the mind of a known abuser, but a broken clock is right twice. Uttered by Captain America in The Avengers (2012), a film coincidentally starred by Robert Downey Jr as well, these words provide us with the opposite perspective of so-called victory. One could argue that there are no real victors in war, only losers.

There is blood on my hands.

I love a movie that makes me think about it days and months later, only to find myself finding new perspectives of it each time. Oppenheimer (2023) was not a movie for fun entertainment and many will say that from a movie-making perspective, it was mediocre or less. That could be true for many and I admit that it wasn't one of Nolan's greats but I appreciate the fuck out of this movie for the mark it has made on me. Fact, fiction, or fortified fictional fact, the movie itself provided questions and contemplations that would entertain my unemployed mind for the foreseeable future.

I implore you to see it if only for the brilliant portrayal of Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer by Cillian Murphy. It is a film made for the love of filmmaking and storytelling, the celebration of theoretical science and scientific discovery, and the birth of Death.

Until the next movie review. Take care.