‘Oppenheimer’ Is A Disappointment
There is an intellectual, emotional void at the heart of the story
Biopics are now a Hollywood staple, attracting audiences who prefer to get their history lessons through snapshots of well-known people. It works only if the events chosen to reflect the personality, life and times of the hero or heroine throw light on the impact they have left on the world.
Biopics are often based on biographies of famous lives, or on key incidents which define them. The screenplay is built around the selected episodes, but it is the director who sets the perspective for the audience.
Christopher Nolan is experienced and successful. His reputation has been established with movies such as ‘The Dark Knight, Interstellar’ and ‘Tenet’. Yet, his foray into biopics with the much-touted ‘Oppenheimer’ left me oddly dissatisfied.
Despite the hype built up around the movie, there is an intellectual and emotional void at the heart of the story. Which is probably why the film fails to illuminate the life of the person, who is celebrated today as the “father of the atom bomb”.
We entered the theatre consumed with curiosity about the invention that has forced mankind to confront the spectre of its own annihilation. The publicity campaign for the movie also played up Oppenheimer’s role in converting a rapidly growing branch of physics into a destructive weapon, exactly when a global conflict was creating conditions propitious for its immediate use.
The filmmaker had a clear opportunity to show both the intellectual challenge posed by the atomic bomb for the team of scientists as well as their emotional dilemma over its murderous potential. Sadly, after more than three hours of gruelling screen time, Nolan seems to have failed on both counts.
More than 75 years have passed after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and we are familiar with the theory. We know all about the radioactive material from which it is assembled, how detonation can be controlled, how to ignite a chain reaction and how to limit some of the damage from nuclear fallout.
As a friend complained, Nolan passes lightly over the magic of atomic fission and fusion. There is much in the film about the scientists behind the bomb and too little about the science itself.
Most of the famous names from around the world associated with nuclear physics are mentioned in the film or make their appearance, even as warring countries race towards the creation of this terrible weapon. Oppenheimer himself acquired expertise at the feet of the masters, learning from those who had advanced far ahead with research in Germany and Britain.
An encounter with Einstein after the dropping of the bomb is shown in the movie, but this (we eventually discover) is fraught with sinister implications that have more to do with academic rivalry and bickering rather than science. Nolan seems to have distanced himself from the physics to avoid appearing to be too nerdish for the average moviegoer.
He need not have worried: more esoteric subjects have been stylishly presented in better biopics. The film is also strangely hollow in its emotional content.
After all these years, the jury is still out on the big question concerning the bomb-were the horrors wreaked on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually necessary to end Japanese aggression in World War Two? We are familiar with the arguments made on both sides, despite the American preference for collective amnesia.
Nolan’s movie is big on the teamwork that created a township to conduct the first nuclear tests in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and the collective euphoria of success when tasks are completed on time.
But this hardly answers the questions that crowd our minds today. Should the atom have been split to cause such harm? Which of the scientists had qualms and agonised over the consequences?
We do listen to comments and occasional debates about moral issues among the physicists and technicians running the project. But, by and large, the tendency is to bend their heads willingly to the yoke presented by Lt. General Groves Jr., (played by an unglamorous, paunchy Matt Damon), and yield to nationalist sentiments.
Certainly, there are no pacifists like Bertrand Russell or protestors among this lot. Nor much of a reaction from the lead man, Oppenheimer. Perhaps, this was indeed the prevailing scientific reaction to the jingoism of the generals.
Yet, decades after Hiroshima, Nolan refuses to face up to the implications of that cataclysm, not just for Japan but for mankind itself. In a visual medium like the cinema, it was unforgivable to conceal pictures of the scarred bodies in the two Japanese cities, while making a movie about the atomic bomb.
Was Nolan merely surrendering to American scruples? This was not always the case. Voices have always been raised questioning the complicity of the United States in unleashing the nuclear monster on the world.
In the immediate wake of the bombings themselves, Nobel prize winner Pearl Buck speculated about the moral conflicts of those who had invented and dropped the bomb in her novel Command the Morning. Nolan’s cowardice on this score is distressing.
The failure of the biopic to satisfy our expectations stems from the original mistake of the filmmaker, his choice of episodes and of the perspective from which we are asked to view the bomb and its creator.
The scientific and personal milestones of Oppenheimer’s life are projected through the framework of two major enquiries conducted by external government agencies, which suggest that we must judge the father of the bomb merely against the backdrop of American nationalism.
Over three long hours, the camera lens moves clumsily back and forth between these hearings, distinguishing one from the other by alternating between black-and-white and colour. The intention is merely to probe Oppenheimer’s communist connections and determine whether he should be given security clearance to work in the Atomic Energy Commission during the McCarthy era.
The movie lingers on the plot engineered by a close colleague Edward Teller, played rather well by Robert Downey Jr., to discredit Oppenheimer in retaliation for having supposedly humiliated him in a conversation with Einstein. The camera then jumps forward to the Senate hearing for confirmation of the same colleague as Commerce Secretary, during which his earlier machinations to disgrace Oppenheimer are exposed.
Key events of Oppenheimer’s life, his university days, education abroad and early work leading to his selection as the director of the Manhattan project as well as his personal tragedies and the successful culmination of the nuclear test are evoked through the same lens.
Today’s filmgoers, not even Americans, will limit their understanding of Oppenheimer’s work to the sole question of how he was persecuted for imaginary communist sympathies or judge him for unwittingly sharing information with Russian spies.
These concerns pale into insignificance in the light of Oppenheimer’s role in bringing us all to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Nolan’s biopic about the “American Prometheus”, whose focus is skewed because of the filmmaker’s cowardice or poor judgement, will not pass muster.