Recommendation: Oppenheimer is Bombastic Perfection

Recommendation: Oppenheimer is Bombastic Perfection
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Recommendation: Oppenheimer is Bombastic Perfection. Bombastic. I know… right? Hahaha.

I watched Oppenheimer three nights in a row. Once was an accident. (Long story, hit me up on Discord and I’ll tell you about it). The second was with my family. And the third was with my Guy Movie Night group. (Highly recommend you find a bunch of guys (or gals, whatever) and go watch stuff blow up (or not, whatever). But let’s get to the action! What an amazing, tour de force of a movie. Just brilliant in every way… you walk out of the theater going… Nolan is always playing 4D chess while the rest of us are busy pissing around with checker pieces.

It goes without saying – that this entire write-up is going to be spoiler laden. It’s historical, and painstakingly on point… so, “spoilers” seems like a weird moniker here. But, as we generally don’t walk around with history books in our back pockets… these comments will all be spoilers. So be aware of that.

The Book Oppenheimer is Based On: American Prometheus

Last week, in preparation for the film, I read the book that Nolan based this movie on – American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s an amazing story and I enjoyed it very much. There was WAY more science and discover details there than in the movie. Regardless, I walked into the film completely in the know for what was about to get thrown at the audience. But I gotta say, I sorta felt kinda bad for the audience, for the first hour and a half. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The book might be a bit too heady for the average reader, but not for THiNC. readers. I really enjoyed the deep dive into Opje’s life (as he was originally nicknamed in Netherlands, after giving lectures in Dutch even though he had little experience with the language) and the wilderness experiences of his youth, mentally and psychologically. I also really appreciated the deeper dive into a couple of things that happened in the film, but were only a minor role. (For example, the apple poisoning incident… that is not how that went down… like, at all. In the film, I think he poisons an apple on Blackett’s desk, and then Niels Bohr picks it up, and Oppie saves him? But, in reality, he left the poisoned apple with “noxious chemicals” on Blackett’s desk, and he never really found out what became of the apple. And after admitting what he’d done, he was saved by his rich and influential parents, after he was ordered into psychiatric treatment in order to remain at the school. But I digress.)

All that to say, if you enjoyed the story of Oppie’s life via the movie, I would highly recommend you read the book – first of all, it’s told chronologically (mostly) and isn’t as hard to follow as the movie. Secondly, it delves much deeper into the science, what an amazing thinker that he was, and what he was capable of. In the movie, it sort of makes it seem like the only big thought he came up with was the idea of black holes. The man was a prolific paper writer, and had NUMEROUS amazing insights and ideas that leaped far ahead of the thinking of the time… regularly. All that to say – the book is a worthwhile read, and a nice companion piece afterwards. Personally, I think I tracked the opening of the movie way way better than my friend who was a bit unclear on the three timelines until it completely resolved.

Oppenheimer Cast is Unreal

Much hay has been made about the glorious acting, visuals, sound design, and lack of CGI with regard to Oppenheimer. And all of that is right on point. I think half of Hollywood was conscripted into the making of this movie. Let’s see if we can see how many of these actors have already graced THiNC. posts already:

Cillian Murphy – J. Robert Oppenheimer – Dunkirk, The Batmans, Red Lights, A Quiet Place 2, Free Fire, The Party, and Inception
Emily Blunt – Kitty Oppenheimer – Sicario, Sicario Day of the Soldado, A Quiet Place, A Quieter Place, and Edge of Tomorrow
Casey Affleck – Boris Pash – A Ghost Story, Manchester by the Sea, Interstellar
Matt Damon – Leslie Groves – The Last Duel, Downsizing, Unsane, Suburbicon, Interstellar, The Martian
Robert Downey Jr. – Lewis Strauss – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Jason Clark – Roger Robb – The Devil All the Time, and Knight of Cups
Alden Ehrenreich – Senate Aide – Solo
Kenneth Branagh – Niels Bohr – The King
Rami Malek – David Hill – Buster’s Mal Heart, and Mr. Robot
Macon Blair – Lloyd Garrison – Green Room, Blue Ruin, I Care A Lot, Gold, Logan Lucky, and I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Any More

Gah. I’m stopping there. The first 10 actors have close to 40 movie connections to THiNC.! That’s crazy. Macon slipped me over the edge. Man. Cute idea, but tons of work just going actor by actor and linking and linking and linking. haha. But it shows you just how crazy good this cast is. And how many really fantastic movies they have under their belts.

Oppenheimer Cinematography –

While in the past, Nolan has explored the vistas of space, and time, Oppenheimer focuses its lens on the inner hallways of power in D.C., and the eyes and face of a scientist that would ultimately unleash the inner power of the atom. It’s a different landscape than any of Nolan’s other films. Hoyte van Hoytema has been with Nolan as his cinematographer since Interstellar and he knows better than anyone the demands that a Nolan film create on the cast and crew, and just how different this film is from other Nolan films. “We had always shot things that were action-packed or at least were spectacles in weird worlds or wide vistas; they were in outer space. But, for the first time, this is looking inwards. It suddenly was people in small, smoky, nicotine-drenched rooms reciting political and scientific rhetoric… So the human face became our vista in a way, and the way we previously treated the landscape in wide shots, we were now going to do with intimacy.”

And it was this shift in subject matter that has caused a total rethinking in the technology used to capture the performances of Oppenheimer. The glitch, the larger problem with filming in 65mm film (IMAX is recorded in 65, then upscaled to 70mm) is that it totally swamps quieter dialog filled scenes with mechanical noises as they crunch, click, and whir the film through the gates. And this forced Hoytema to really reconsider how to solve this larger technological problem. So, ultimately, they’d shoot the various takes with a more standard camera in 65mm, but then once they thought they had it, they’d get one final take in IMAX. The attempt then was to mix and match audio from different not IMAX takes, in order to meld a perfect take in the preferred format. Or, best case, utilize the audio from the IMAX camera if possible.

But, more importantly, the team needed to create a 70mm black and white IMAX film stock – which was a first in cinematic history. Note: the black and white scenes were shot in black and white, the color scenes were just de-saturated… because, of course they did. But this caused problems in that black and white film is thinner than a color celluloid. Which also required Hoytema to re-architect the way the cameras physically worked. They had to change the pressure plates, and they also had to change the way the lab processed the footage. It was a mechanical and engineering feat.

The Two Timelines of Oppenheimer Fission and Fusion

The story is told in two threads. There is a black and white thread, and that stream is the investigation into Oppenheimer and his pro-communist views. The second stream, which is in color, is Oppenheimer’s younger years, and his drive to create a bomb utilizing the atom’s strong power.

In Nolan’s preferred jumbled timeline format we watch as two different lines of thought carry forward independently of one another, and then meet in a glorious conclusion. Our first timeline, 1. Fission, tells the backstory of Oppenheimer as he heads off to Europe to study the new physics. We watch him dabble in left-wing politics, and even Communism. We follow along as he begins his affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and his eventual marriage to Kitty (Emily Blunt). Then we watch as he’s appointed to the Manhattan Project by Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) as they chase after the dream of an atomic bomb.

And in timeline 2. Fusion, which is in black and white, we watch as a really bothered Lewis Strauss is attempting to get approved by the Senate for a position as commerce secretary. But for some weird reason, he’s hitting all manner of resistance in relation to Oppenheimer of all people. And it isn’t until timeline 1 and timeline 2 begin to align and meet at the end, that we can even start to make heads or tails out of what has happened in the film.

But before we continue – consider the labels. Fission splits the atom to get a big explosion. Fusion combines atoms in order to create an enormous explosion. The first timeline, fission is about creating the first atom bomb, and while it’s explosive, it holds nothing of the destructive power of what fusion can possibly deliver.

So What Did Happen in the Film Oppenheimer?

(Pro tip – if you’d like to know more about Oppenheimer, in chronological order, read the book American Prometheus, that is exactly how the story is laid out.) So, if we were to create a super high- level outline of what happened in Oppenheimer, but to instead lay it out chronologically, it would go something like this:

I. Oppenheimer’s Education & Rise
A. His early interest in science and education
B. Academic achievements and entry into the world of physics
C. His going to Europe to learn the new physics
D. Oppenheimer’s prodigious contributions to theoretical physics
E. His work on quantum mechanics and the development of quantum theory

II. His Personal and Political Life
A. Oppenheimer’s loose relationship with the Communist Party
B. His relationship with Jean Tatlock and their troubled passion
C. His relationship with Kitty and quick marriage
D. Oh, and by the way, all the various affairs and chaos he caused along the way

III. World War II and the Manhattan Project 1942-1947
A. The outbreak of World War II and the race for atomic weapons
B. Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan Project
C. Leading the Los Alamos Laboratory and overseeing the development of the atomic bomb
D. The successful atomic bomb (Trinity) test
E. The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

IV. Post-War Years, McCarthyism and Security Clearance Controversy – 1954
A. Oppenheimer’s growing tensions with government authorities during the McCarthy era
B. Accusations of Oppenheimer’s communist sympathies
C. The security clearance hearing and its impact on Oppenheimer’s career
D. The fallout from the hearing and its effects on Oppenheimer’s personal life

V. The Strauss Commerce Cabinet Senate Hearings – 1958
A. Eisenhower’s appointment as interim Commerce Secretary
B. The bitter Senate battle over Strauss’ approval
C. Come to find out, Strauss was behind Oppenheimer’s security clearance denial
D. Strauss is denied the Commerce Secretary position under Eisenhower

The Deeper Themes of Oppenheimer

Nolan’s decision to not end the film with the successful Trinity test allowed a much broader discussion of the Pandora’s box that was opened as we entered into totally new global new world order with the advent of fusion and fission based weapons. If he had ended with Trinity (or Hiroshima and Nagasaki) it would have glorified this really dark new day that had been unleashed on the world. It’s clear that Oppenheimer definitely was initially a proponent of dropping the bomb on Japan in order to herald a new day of peace around the world. As, with weapons of this size, it had to have brought about a new day of global peace… no?

But if you missed the Oppenheimer turning point – and it was easy to miss on your first time through – it was important in the overall theme of the movie. As you know, Oppenheimer was pro-bomb… pro-atomic-bomb anyway… but then, in the next five years after the successful Trinity test, he became an active dissenter to the Fusion research that was happening. WHY? He says it really clearly. Oppenheimer declares his reasons for beginning to oppose the H-bomb development when he realized that any weapon we created would be used. And while an atomic bomb was actually on the same scale as the firebombing that happened throughout WWII (Dresden anyone? Slaughterhouse Five anyone?) but a Hydrogen bomb wouldn’t even be close. Probably a 100, to a 1,000 times more powerful. Instead of a mile radius death radius, it’d be more like a 5 or 10 mile death radius. The scale of a Hydrogen bomb is just incomprehensible.

One area in which I enjoyed the book more was on Oppenheimer’s scientific pursuits and accomplishments prior to his work in the Manhattan Project. The man was prolific.

“Oppenheimer became credited with being a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics. He did important research in astrophysics, nuclear physics, spectroscopy and quantum field theory. He made important contributions to the theory of cosmic ray showers, and did work that eventually led toward descriptions of quantum tunneling. In the 1930s, he was the first to write papers suggesting the existence of what we today call black holes.”

But overall – in spite of the ways in which the movie over simplified the various complexities of Oppenheimer’s life (like with the apple, his affairs, his science, his psychological problems, etc.) it nailed the tensions of his Communist sympathies as well as the complexities of his changing opinions on nuclear weapons. And these were the two areas that Nolan was striving to get right in spite of the nebulousness of the topics in his life. The man wasn’t short shifted by the film on his humanitarian desires, or his jaded perspective on how Communism could be the solution to the world’s problems. (It might be important to note that when he began hearing of Communist Russia’s rounding up physicists and locking them up also coincided with his abandoning of his Communist sympathies. And he also began realizing that there would be no difference between Communism in America and Russia… both would corrupt similarly.)

Personal Thoughts on Oppenheimer

After watching the movie three nights in a row I should be tired of the movie. But I can’t stop thinking about the man, the story and the real history that caused us to pillory one of our greatest citizens. I continue reading about the history of the ending of World War II (for example, did you know that on the day we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, Russia also invaded the Japanese territories of Manchuria from the north? And some erroneously believe that it was this surprise invasion and not the bombs that ended World War II? I had never heard this theory before.) and the details surrounding our dropping of the bombs. I can’t stop. I have been reading deeply about the confirmation hearings of Strauss and the reasons for his eventual denial (49 to 48… by the Democrats, this was true. And it was true that a small part of this was Strauss’ obvious acrimony (it wasn’t a secret) for Oppenheimer, but more so it was a push back by the Democratic-led Senate against Eisenhower’s wickedly strong veto pen. (If you want a short-ish synopsis of the hearings you can find it here. TLDR; Strauss just kept fudging the truth, and it pissed everyone, including Truman off.)

And any movie that causes deeper investigation and a deeper desire for understanding, is a great movie in my opinion. I think my current ranking of Nolan movies would go something like this:

  1. The Prestige
  2. Inception
  3. Memento
  4. Oppenheimer

Which sort of makes me cringe, because Dark Knight isn’t up there… heck, there are a bunch of great Nolan movies not up there. But that a historical film can compete with some of my favorite THiNC. films of all time is pretty impressive. The movie literally avoided easy or trite answers on Oppenheimer’s Communist sympathies. It waded straight into the morass of the exultant excitement of Oppenheimer’s scientific achievements while at the same time grappling with the pain and suffering inflicted upon hundreds of thousands… Two things can simultaneously be true. And that is something that Hollywood isn’t good at doing these days… getting messy. And Oppenheimer was nothing if not a complete mess. He was a womanizer … he loved any woman who was enamored with him. He was a hardcore Communist ideologue that ignored a lot of evidence of Communist suffering and pain. He was a bit sloppy with his science, he avoided driving his ideas to their complete fulmination. And yet, he was the perfect man to pull all of the people together in order to make the atomic bomb happen.

All that to say, Oppenheimer was a massive tour de force that will long stick with audiences around the world. Next stop? Barbie. hahaha.

Edited by: CY