Movie Review: “Oppenheimer”

by Ashutosh Jogalekar (Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Reviewing biopics is tricky. On one hand, if you are someone informed about the facts, it’s easy to bring a scalpel and dissect every fact and character in minute detail, an exercise that will almost always lead to a critical and often negative view of a film. On the other hand, knowing that a movie is a medium of expression defined a certain way, one has to allow for creative license and some convenient omissions and embellishments that would be unforgivable in a documentary or historically accurate drama. Thus, the best way to review biopics in my opinion is a middle path, making allowance for artistic interpretations and changes of fact while still holding the movie maker up to high standards in terms of making sure that these changes don’t fundamentally distort the soul of the narrative.

I went into Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour extravaganza keeping this middle ground in mind. Having just written an eight-part series about Oppenheimer and been familiar with his life and work for a fairly long time, I approached the film with fairly high expectations. And I have to say that I was impressed. If one simple metric of a high-quality film is its ability to keep you glued to your seat for 3 hours, “Oppenheimer” delivers in spades. Much of this effect comes from Nolan’s judiciously assembled direction and from outstanding performances by key characters that keep the audience riveted. “Oppenheimer” is an Oliver Stone-like jigsaw puzzle, breathlessly switching between timelines, black and white scenes and pithy character lines interspersed with artistic imagery of crackling jolts of electricity, the shimmer of particles and waves and imagined operatic scenes of stars that signify the deep scientific reality behind our everyday world. Key aspects of the Trinity test like the assembly of the bomb and the details of the fireball are accurately rendered. But first and foremost, it is a drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer.

That fact is important because it provides a good opportunity for me to comment on some of the criticism that I have seen on the internet about the movie and get it out of the way. Part of the challenge of the film is that it tries to straddle the boundary between being a narrative about Oppenheimer’s life and work and being a narrative about the making of the atomic bomb. It succeeds exceedingly well in its first goal but only haltingly in the second. That opens it up for criticism that’s valid in its own right – for instance, many important scientific and political characters make fleeting appearances, the science behind the bomb is hardly ever touched on and most importantly, the complex moral and political decisions that went into dropping the bomb, not to mention the enormous suffering of the Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are effectively sidelined. This criticism is valid only if you expect the film to be about the making of the bomb. But as it stands, the film really uses that signal event as an exploration of the life of Oppenheimer from which it is inextricable; in that sense the criticism, while valid, becomes somewhat misguided since it is aimed at the wrong target.

In fact the film works exceedingly well when viewed purely as an Oppenheimer biopic. It works because in Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan finds the kind of character who he has proven to be a master of portraying in the past – a complicated, morally ambiguous, brilliant man who was lifted high by his accomplishments and brought down low by his hubris and flaws. And it especially works because Nolan picked Cillian Murphy to play the role.

With his frail frame and striking blue eyes, Murphy bears an uncanny resemblance to the physicist. While Oppenheimer was American, it actually helps that Murphy isn’t because it enables him to nail Oppenheimer’s faintly European accent well. He also captures other signature Oppenheimer qualities – the erudition, quicksilver mind and occasional neuroticism that seems simmering just below the surface, his complicated relationships and friendships, often with other complicated people, and the doubts and anxieties that plagued him. Nolan shows the young Oppenheimer literally shivering with nightmarish imaginings in bed, delivering a lecture in Dutch to a surprised Leiden audience and slowly gaining confidence and prominence as a young Berkeley professor. He shows him succeed as an inspiring teacher and supporter of left-wing causes. While watching the trailer I was worried that Nolan might turn Oppenheimer into a dead serious, paranoid, hand-wringing character, but Murphy’s Oppenheimer has enough of the smiles and ironic, deadpan humor to humanize the physicist. On the flip side, I think that Murphy still did not manage to capture two of the most important facets of Oppenheimer’s character – his casual cruelty that could cut down people to size and his charm which could be on full display while wooing scientists, politicians and generals. That charm was what made him mesmerizing, and while there are hints of it it’s not quite drawn out.

Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. in a scene from “Oppenheimer” (Image credit: People magazine)

If Murphy does a marvelous Oppenheimer, he stands in danger of being upended by Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s archenemy. Nolan centers the entire movie around two events – Oppenheimer’s security hearing and Strauss’s confirmation hearing as Secretary of Commerce. The first choice is obvious but the second is brilliantly inspired, especially because of the analogies Nolan draws between the two and because both together serve contrapuntally as an organizing principle for the rest of the movie.

It is ironic that Downey will probably go down in movie history for playing the character of “Iron Man”, because I think that this might be his finest performance ever. Downey’s face, especially in close up, is an amazing, swirling sea of emotions, subtle cues exuding from his eyes and mannerisms as he speaks condescendingly about Oppenheimer and tries to vindicate himself. As Oppenheimer’s nemesis you can see the man literally change over the three hour period of the film, going from being someone who simply treats his relationship with Oppenheimer as an unhappy meeting of opposites to someone who clearly turns out to be a vindictive, Svengali-like protagonist who – surrounded by a team of dedicated acolytes working in the shadows – does everything he can to forever end Oppenheimer’s influence in the U.S. government. Both Murphy and Downey deserve accolades for the film, but if you had to pick just one prize-winning performance I would vote for Downey.

The rest of the cast generally does an admirable job supporting these two characters. I would particularly single out Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, Jason Clarke as Roger Robb and David Krumholtz as Isidor Rabi. Blunt who is initially reduced to playing the dutiful wife has few things to say. But as Oppenheimer’s hearing heats up, you can see scorn and pity dripping from her face as she berates her husband and his lawyers for not acting tougher and not realizing that they are being set up. Jason Clarke is excellent as the relentless trial lawyer Roger Robb who repeatedly catches Oppenheimer in contradictions and – taking advantage of the show trial-like format of the hearing in which key documents were denied to Oppenheimer’s lawyers under the pretext of national security – reduces the otherwise eloquent physicist to stutters and halting apologies. Krumholtz gives an admirable performance as the tough-minded Rabi who was a true friend all through Oppenheimer’s triumphs and ordeals; the two men  in fact knew each other since Oppenheimer’s graduate school days in Germany in the late 1920s. Josh Hartnett is perfectly adequate as Ernest Lawrence, and the contrast between Lawrence’s all-American, upbeat personality and Oppenheimer’s intellectual aesthetic trappings is drawn out well. Another noteworthy performance is by Strauss’s aide played by Arden Ehrenreich; he gives a nuanced performance as a man who wants to do everything he can to help his boss but also knows what way the winds are blowing and is less than entirely convinced that his boss has acted in good faith.

Matt Damon is also good although he plays a straight, gruff, blustery General Groves, appropriately without subtlety. Benny Safdie is decent as Teller but his main accomplishment is to speak in a heavy, enunciated Hungarian accent. Kenneth Branagh is wasted as Niels Bohr which is especially unfortunate since it was Bohr’s thoughts at Los Alamos that triggered Oppenheimer’s about arms control; Branagh could have brought Bohr’s deep philosophy to life through his theater-honed eloquence. I especially thought that the talented Florence Pugh was wasted in her role as Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock – Nolan turns her into a strange, one-dimensional, damaged-looking seductress. In reality Tatlock was an intelligent, well-read, empathetic and sensitive woman who introduced Oppenheimer to a variety of left-wing social causes. There are two sex scenes with her and Oppenheimer whose avant garde nature doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the narrative; I also thought that these scenes were unnecessary and unproductive since they led to a R rating for the movie which would bar young people – the audience who would really benefit from watching it the most – from it. In one scene, Tatlock uses the Bhagavad Gita to seduce the Sanskrit-loving physicist. I don’t think this act works, not because it’s offensive but because I thought she should have really used Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal” which was one of Oppenheimer’s favorite literary works.

One of the great things about Nolan’s film is that while the Trinity test is portrayed well in all its terrifying effect (the shockwave appropriately follows the flash, although perhaps by too long an interval), the focus is always on the men and women and their personalities. But that’s part of where the problem lies and where the criticism of the movie comes from. There are talented actors like Matthew Modine (Vannevar Bush), Casey Affleck (who plays a sinister enough – in fact unnecessarily scary – Boris Pash, the security officer whose questioning of Oppenheimer came back to haunt him), Rami Malek (David Hill) and Gary Oldman (Truman) who are either given vanishingly little screen time or reduced to caricatures. I’m glad that the little-known Lilli Hornig gets good billing, but Leo Szilard (Máté Haumann) and Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari) who in real life played critical roles during the project are hardly featured, although Szilard at least has one important scene to star in. Perhaps the biggest omission in terms of actual contributors not just to the project but to Oppenheimer’s life is that of Robert Serber, Oppenheimer’s right-hand man and one of his closest confidants; Serber gets such fleeting moments in the film that I had to ask friends later where exactly he appears. Serber was with Oppie all the way, from his Berkeley years to his death. If nothing else, his orienting “Los Alamos Primer” lectures which initiated all the physicists into the project should have prominently featured.

But all this brings me to a more general discussion of some of the distortions, omissions and flaws in the movie which as a historian of science who has studied the period I should honestly write about. Most of these flaws are merely annoying – and some very slight since they involve changing one or two words that someone spoke – and don’t change the fundamental tone of the film, but a few in particular do raise questions.

First and foremost, I don’t know why Nolan has to actively repeat the story of the poisoned apple as fact. In a nutshell: while struggling as a student in experimental physics at Cambridge, Oppenheimer once told his friends that he had placed a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor, a handsome, accomplished experimental physicist and future Nobel Laureate named Patrick Blackett. His parents came rushing from New York and he was asked to see a psychiatrist to avoid probation. The fact is that during this time Oppenheimer was in the throes of deep psychological problems and jealousy. There is no direct evidence of the apple, and of the three men who reported it, one was informed by Oppenheimer himself and the other two thought he was hallucinating. Unfortunately the story became wildly well known because of Malcolm Gladwell – a writer who prefers clean, convenient, overarching narratives to messy, uncertain, inconvenient facts – who popularized it in his book “Outliers”. But Nolan not only has the apple become real but also has Niels Bohr almost eat it!

The other big egregious invention is a conversation Oppenheimer has with Einstein in which he asks the old physicist to check some calculations which indicate that an atomic bomb might ignite the earth’s atmosphere. That concern is repeated at least once in an exchange with General Groves. This conversation interestingly comes together in the end in a very clever way, but I think it’s misleading. Let’s ignore for the time being that Oppenheimer had this conversation not with Einstein but with Arthur Compton during the early days of the project (in an interview, Nolan said that he used Einstein because Einstein is more publicly recognizable. Fine.). Let’s also ignore that Einstein had no access to the project because he had been denied a security clearance due to his pacifist tendencies. The bigger problem is that it was never a serious concern. After Hans Bethe made some calculations indicating that the chances of a bomb triggering a chain reaction in the atmosphere were very remote, the physicists never really worried about it. They especially did not worry about it right before the Trinity test (even though Enrico Fermi was jokingly taking bets on it) as Nolan indicates. In fact their single-biggest worry was simply whether the bomb would work! But the way Nolan features it, including the way he does it cleverly in the end, it makes it seem that it was the most important concern about nuclear weapons at large.

Speaking of the Trinity test, the scene includes a real howler. As is well known, after the test the test director Ken Bainbridge came up to Oppenheimer and said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Oppenheimer said this was the best thing anyone said about the event. It’s also a line that is literally begging to be included in a movie and yet there is no mention of it at all. When Bainbridge doesn’t say it right after the test I kept on waiting for it – it might even have been a marvelous line to end the movie with – but it never appeared. Since Nolan included so many other movie-worthy lines, I find the omission of this made-for-media quip downright bizarre.

Finally, let’s consider some of the detractors’ criticisms that the film gives insufficient screen time to some of the most important questions concerning the Manhattan Project. One criticism that I haven’t heard much of and which I think is valid because it squarely involves Oppenheimer is regarding the physicist’s role in the Interim Committee’s May 31, 1945 meeting which includes the use of the bomb. In the movie scene, Oppenheimer doesn’t say much regarding the problems with just a demonstration of the bomb, a possibility Lawrence proposes and which was discussed at some length. In reality, his was one of the most convincing voices against a demonstration, and his powers of persuasion made people like Groves and Truman’s representative Jimmy Byrnes make their case for direct use easier. Consistent with these actions, the movie later shows Oppenheimer rejecting Leo Szilard’s petition to the president arguing for a demonstration. But I think that the film does not bring out what can only be called Oppenheimer’s hypocrisy well enough. Even allowing for the fact that he was in a complicated position as director and could not easily take a position that relative outsiders like Szilard could, he was effectively telling others (not just Szilard but Robert Wilson and other scientists) that they did not have the expertise in advising politicians while giving such advice himself.  In fact there is no doubt that Szilard was a more moral person than Oppenheimer and many others on the project – he is the central character in Richard Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” – so if anyone should have been given a more prominent role in the film, it should have been Szilard.

This brings us to a towering question regarding the movie’s message. One common complaint is that the film hardly dwells on the tremendous destruction and suffering experienced by the Japanese victims of the atomic bombings. There is in fact an effective scene in which Oppenheimer is celebrated in a packed auditorium by his colleagues after V-J Day. As he speaks, he sees the jubilant chest-thumping of the audience juxtaposed with harrowing images of the Japanese victims with their flesh peeling off and black ash raining down. But that’s pretty much all that is portrayed regarding the human toll of the bombing. If the movie had been just about Oppenheimer then this complaint would be less valid. But based on his interviews, it seems that Nolan wants to send out a message through it about the unintended effects of destructive technologies. He has drawn parallels between Oppenheimer and nuclear weapons on one hand and A.I. on the other and has said that A.I. will have an “Oppenheimer moment“. If that is the message he indeed wanted to send, one won’t find it in the movie. In that case there should have been much more attention given to Szilard and Bohr’s ideas of international cooperation and the actual effects of the bombing. As Oppenheimer himself is shown saying, people wouldn’t have feared the bomb if they hadn’t seen what it could do. So why not show it in the most horrific, realistic, sobering manner possible?

Ultimately, Oppenheimer is a visual spectacle and eminently worth watching, if for no other reason than to witness Murphy and Downey Jr. at the top of their forms. As strictly an Oppenheimer story it works remarkably well. But the attempt on the part of the film to straddle two different topics leads to important omissions. Important because ultimately, when it comes to nuclear weapons or A.I. or any other technology that escapes the designs of its human makers like Frankenstein’s monster, the technology will remain long after its human creators are gone. And this seems like a message that needs to be emphasized today more than anything else.