Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 23, 2023 8:05 pm 
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The man, the bomb, the war, the future of the world

The World War II project to develop the atomic bomb, dropped three weeks after its successful Los Alamos test on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was headed by Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant American theoretical physicist. The fallout from development and use of the atom bomb, metaphorical and literal, colored the rest of Oppenheimer's life. He was to feel responsible for a terrible weapon; his loyalty as an American was to be challenged. Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer is about the extraordinary Los Alamos, New Mexico project to build a bomb, and its consequences for its titular subject, and for the world.

Christopher Nolan has done it again, and better. His new work, some think his best yet, is an ambitious and powerful historical film about a crucial moment in the last century and the key man, and men and women, behind it. It's propulsive, exciting, and also a demanding, exhausting watch. It's an endurance test to sit up close in front of the 70mm projection, listening to the ear-blasting explosions, the tense experiments, and the wearying debates. I found it overlong, and its complicated and inexplicable editing, switching back and forth in time and from color to black and white and back again, confusing. I tend to agree with Erik Kain in Forbes who says it's a "haunting and muddled" film and that he was made to think a great deal, but feel not so much. He describes well the big white startling bang of the observed Trinity test, when they knew they had the bomb.

One would not accuse Oppenheimer of grandiosity, because it knows what it's doing. But it has that failing violent, high-energy, macho movies often have, of never stopping to take a breath, when doing so would increase the impact of the more breathless parts. I could never quite catch up, though I certainly enjoyed trying. There will be no more accomplished and impressive movie coming out this year, or one that makes you think more.

This is material of crucial contemporary relevance. Nine countries possess nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. In total, the global nuclear stockpile is close to 13,000 weapons. How many of those countries don't sound like good ones to have nuclear bombs? Try nine. What number of nuclear weapons is a safe number? Try none.

Note: while there are moments wen we see Oppie imagining his assembled colleagues and their families at Los Alamos, New Mexico collapsing and vomiting from radiation sickness, or their flesh curling and puckering from the deathly heat of the bomb (secret, terrible knowledge), the tens or hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens who had just really been liquidated, or boiled, or incinerated, this way, or died a few days or weeks later from the poison of it, we never see. That's because this film is about him, not them. But is that right? Even his guilt ("I feel I have blood on my hands") seems overblown when President Truman, a little man, puts him in his place by pointing out it was he, the President, who dropped those bombs, not Oppie. As he walks out, Truman calls Oppie a "crybaby." Oppie was partly being devotional, as a Jew who studied Sanskrit and was steeped in Hindu scripture, but partly just grandiose when he quoted Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." It wouldn't have suited Truman (he was a Baptist), but he was the one who should have said it.

The thing is that Oppenheimer was incredibly cool and charismatic. Austere and curiously blissed-out looking, with pale blue eyes, he wore his dark suits and ties like stylish monastic garb, brandishing cigarettes (cool then, remember?) and a pipe (so good to gesture to your equations with) and wearing a broad-brimmed pork pie hat, elegant on him. Life Magazine - where we learned what was going on back then, not from television or internet - showed him at Princeton's ultra-prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, which he headed. It was a place where brilliant men sat around being brilliant - jumping up occasionally to jot gnomic equations on the blackboard. Somehow Oppie was a loner who was a people person. He was liked. He could wrangle all those egocentric, eccentric scientists at Los Alamos as well as anyone could. He made the Manhattan Project work. That was his great success, the firing of the practice bomb called Trinity. Nolan's film presents this momentous event with maximum suspense and excitement.

Disregard of the incinerated Japanese citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a choice of focus predetermined by Nolan's film's source: the massive 2006 biography, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. So Nolan's film is a biopic, though it carries along with it a crucial chunk of twentieth century and subsequent American history. Yes, it was a great topic, although - the word "Prometheus" is a hint of this - one so large it's almost unfilmable. And potentially boring, because despite the terrific recreations of places and people (and we'll get to those a bit in a minute), there is a good deal of blatantly expository dialogue where characters are telling each other things they'd surely already know, but we need to be informed of. But it's interesting to know Oppenheimer was not just Jewish but rich, that his family had a ranch in New Mexico where he was happiest in his youth, so in a way, at Los Alamos he was home. Nolan makes the man's early life challenging and exciting. He pumped cyanide into an apple on the desk of a professor who was mean to him and just barely saved Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh!) from chomping into it. He knew this was wrong and, we're told, consulted a shrink over it.

The recreations of places impress, and never have that overemphatic quality when filmmakers strive too hard to evoke a period with wide lapels and shiny old cars from museums. They're worn so well, there may be an upsurge in the wearing of three-piece suits with ties from this film; but best of all, we mostly don't notice accoutrements, focusing on the people wearing or using them instead. And so many people. Nolan's use of well known actors has been called excessive. Who needed Rami Malek, one critic asked, for one small role? Maybe so. But this is the fun part of the film: checking off recognizable actors or admiring how well disguised they are.

Begin with Cillian Murphy, this Irish actor, from County Cork, with its adorable brogue, often playing creepy or a villain in early roles, gracefully, confidently morphing here into a posh and mega-ambitious and mega-smart Jewish quantum physicist, soon to become a sufferer and saint. A brilliant choice, whom one simply accepts, a casting one almost forgets. There is Matt Damon as Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, of the US Army Corps of Engineers, a graduate of MIT, who chose Oppenheimer and set up the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, it seems. He's a little known figure who looms large here. As Groves Damon fades in and out, sometimes Matt, sometimes Groves for us: but he is always a warm, appealing character, a standup guy.

More complex and more surprising is Robert Downey Jr. as Admiral Lewis Stauss, a triumph. The real life Strauss in 1959 looks more like Gary Oldman as he looks here morphed into President Truman. But in Downey form Strauss is lean and mercurial, later often angry. Strauss' relationship with Oppenheimer is complicated and key: I never understood it, They have a tiff over the affections of good old Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), another thing never clarified to one's satisfaction. The Strauss-Oppenheimer relationship (how many ways did they betray each other?) looms large in the film post-bomb, when Oppenheimer is more and more unhappy with what's happening with nuclear power. HIs leftist (but never communist) earlier sympathies - and things he's said more recently, some of them recorded - are used to strip away his security clearance, a process played out in a highly wrought, dramatic mini non-trial that plays like a trial even as we're constantly reminded it's not one.

Florence Pugh, an explosive actress (watch her in Lady Macbeth), is terrific as Jean Tatlock, a communist Oppie had an affair with, while married to someone else. That someone else is Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, and she's always great.

It was a fun surprise to see Josh Hartnett as Ernest Orlando Lawrence, Nobel-winning Berkeley physicist who the "rad lab" there is named after and who invented the cyclotron. Josh is good, as never before. This is what Nolan can do. If he can work such magic on Josh, what wonders may he not have worked with so many others? (To mention: Dane DeHaan, Mathew Modine, Jason Clarke, Benny Safdie, Casey Affleck, and so many more. One day film students may be doing theses on the cast of Oppenheimer.)

I can carp at the expository-ness, at the overlong-ness, at the wealth of details far better pondered over in Bird and Sherwin's book. But what other recent movie is this grand, and this interesting - and that people are rushing to see?

Oppenheimer 180 mins., premiered in Paris July 11, 2023, London July 13, and New York July 17. It is showing in theaters in many countries, and where available can be seen in 70mm. Screened for this review in 70mm at Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco, in a sold-out showing Sunday, July 23, at 10:30 a.m. Metacritic rating: 89%. (Now 88%, 8/08/23).

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