Movies: Oppenheimer

One would expect a Great Man Of History story, but Nolan's film is a repudiation of the idea.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-11-27 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

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I went into Oppenheimer expecting a Great Man Of History film, where the world turns because of a single brilliant if misunderstood soul. I came out realizing I had seen a repudiation of that concept. Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer does indeed deal with the life of the man whose efforts ushered in the nuclear age, but it sees him not as maker of history but victim of it. Then again, all the others in the film, profoundly statured as they are, fare little better. Whether scientists, statesmen, or military leaders, they make history, but are then swept away together in the currents.

Biopics are hard to get right, and biopics about men of ideas are the hardest. A Beautiful Mind took all that was genuinely interesting about John Nash and turned it into a collection of tics and flights of fancy. The Imitation Game reduced Alan Turing to an antisocial weirdo as only the first of many offenses against his character and work. In both cases the valuable work both men did defied dramatization. Oppenheimer gives us the man first, in big part because his work speaks so much for itself, and it gives us the man through the kind of ambitious, hungry narrative his story deserves.

The elder and younger Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer divides its subject's life into two major streams. First is J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy)'s young adulthood and rise to prominence as one who brought the perplexities of quantum theory from 1920s continental Europe to the United States, and then as the overseer of Los Alamos, New Mexico, the invented community where the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb came to be. All this despite the already-existing skeletons of affairs with women and Communist affiliations clattering in his closet. Second is the postwar period, as both Oppenheimer's conscience and hubris got the better of him, and he endured wretched humiliation in a futile attempt to renew his security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission.

Outwardly, the first of these two strands seems the natural choice for generating drama; far less so the second. Among the many surprises of the movie is how the second produces even more dramatic suspense than the first. We are never in doubt that Oppenheimer's efforts will result in a working "gadget". Our doubts and unease revolve around far different questions: Who front-loaded the efforts to turn Oppenheimer's security clearance review into an ugly kangaroo court? And how will fare "Oppie's" attempts to preserve his dignity, and not betray principles he fears he discovered only too late? Such questions seem procedural and dull from the outside, but the movie manifests them with the immediacy of a knife at the throat.

Other men of destiny in "Oppie"'s life: Strauss and Einstein.

"I know what it means for the Nazis to have a bomb," Oppenheimer seethes early in the film, as word about the atomic projects then under way have become the worst-kept secret in the scientific world. Even before General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) comes sniffing around to look for an administrator for the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer's hand has been forced: if we don't make it, they will. And he has a plan for how to make it before they do: build a place for the scientists to do their work in secret, let them live there, let them coordinate freely with like minds, bank on the Nazis shooing away their best and brightest out of stupid prejudice. He is just naive enough to think feeding the security apparatus hints about fellow travelers will be enough to keep them safe, or at least allow his team to work unhindered.

The movie builds a dual case for Oppenheimer as a loyal and good man, and as someone who would be terribly easy to compromise. He knows his people are being herded into camps, but when fear arises that setting off a single nuclear weapon could incinerate the atmosphere, he wonders if sharing this with the Nazis will dissuade the sane ones among them. He defends his scientists from impractical rules about information sharing, but balks when they try to unionize, because he knows he would join them in a moment if he could. And his relationship with AEC Chairman (and Presidential cabinet hopeful) Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), which underpins the film's secondary thread, seems solid at first as they share scientific curiosity and Jewish heritage. But it sours when Oppenheimer is called on to make Strauss look foolish for opposing tighter controls on isotope exports to Norway, and Strauss is dismayed at how the other man can be so willfully ignorant of Washington power-brokerage. Maybe he really does think genius goes that far.

Jean and Kitty, the women who feel little honor being near his genius.

These two strands of the film weave in and out of a scene that undergirds most of the film, a screening-cum-interrogation where Oppenheimer lays bare his life and motives for the AEC board. Leap as he might across time and space — from his studies in Europe to his teachings in America to his capacity as overseer in the desert — he's always yanked back into that stuffy little room where his integrity and his character are being dissected. Interleaved with that is Strauss's own ordeal, his confirmation hearings where he has his own character picked at for trusting a man who slept around and allowed union organizing to proceed on his watch. Sprinkled across are his difficult relationships with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and his mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), women who feel no particular honor at being close to someone of his stature. (As Mrs. Joyce once commented to an interviewer about her husband's genius, "Easy for you to say; you don't have to live with the bloody man.") And at a few crucial junctures in the film, Oppenheimer walks with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), the keeper of the pre-quantum revolution, now resigned to irrelevancy but perhaps not impotence. He still has a few things to teach the younger man, and they are not about science but morality.

Most biopics suffer from narrative compression; Oppenheimer is not free of this. Many scenes in the first half of the film provide a few exchanges of dialogue in a single scene as a way to convey months of events. Martin Scorsese is good at avoiding that trap; he makes a pivotal scene in someone's life feel like, well, a pivotal scene, not a freeze-dried version of six of them. But after the first hour or so, once the stakes have been well-established, this problem largely evaporates. Oppenheimer's complexities come through as a cumulative effect over the course of the film, not as the result of anything the movie has tried to compact into a scene here or there. We have a real idea of what kinds of fires he keeps in his belly, and where the contradictions in his spirit come from. Hence the nudity and sex that gave the movie its R rating, none of which is salacious and some of which is simply sad, or even gruesome.

Men of science and war: Ernest Lawrence and Leslie Groves.

Relatively little running time is taken up with things like how the bomb works, or the questions of quantum mechanics that fascinated Oppenheimer (including the behavior of black holes). They pepper the movie to give it savor, where the real substance comes from how Oppenheimer's pursuits of those things illustrate both his genius and his mercuriality. And likewise, while the creation of the bomb takes most of the middle third of the film, the Trinity test is not a structural climax — it's more of a point of no return, the beginning of Oppenheimer's turn away from the bomb as a guarantor of world peace. Maybe the only way to stop the Soviet Union from building H-bombs is to insist that we won't either, but he has banked far too heavily on the wrong kind of human goodwill for that to work. He seems to think that if he just believes intensely enough in such goodness in men, it will manifest in others as well.

It would have been a mistake, I think, to show too much of the bomb itself — the Trinity test, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Nolan gives us only a glimpse of an expanding nuclear fireball in the beginning, and the Trinity test itself is seen essentially in miniature — as a featureless wall of fire in closeup, and at a distance by the scientists in the bunker. A lesser movie would have tried to make it into a spectacle, but Nolan knows this is a mistake. By demythologizing the bomb, he puts the focus back where it belongs, on the people. And whenever else the bomb inserts itself into the story, it's by way of images that are remote and icy, not designed to be thrilling: missiles standing like a line of trees, or (most chillingly) the earth's atmosphere set aflame.

The Trinity test — and other trials of the spirit.

I have long found most of Christopher Nolan's work to be more interesting in theory than in execution. The Dark Knight trilogy gave him an excuse to make blockbuster movies that were a touch brainier and more ambitious than usual. But strangely, when given free rein to do his own thing, Nolan produced movies that seemed too overthought for their own good: the clever but empty Inception; the science fiction steno job Interstellar; the top-heavy Tenet. With Oppenheimer, though, the flashy cleverness has been traded for grim wisdom, and the effects that normally come off as gimmicks — the nonlinear editing, the layered reveals of crucial story points, the metronomic rhythms — land as well-chosen dramatic devices. Some of that may have stemmed from the movie's relatively lean production; Nolan shaved off a month of shooting time to put money back in the budget, and jumped into filming with only a few months' setup. They had to make the right choices as soon as possible, and the movie is an anthology of right choices.

Nolan ends the film with a signature flourish, the unveiling of a mystery that transforms our earlier understanding, but here it's not a punchline; it affords closure. One of the recurring mysteries of the film, shown near the beginning, involves a glum conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein, glimpsed at a distance by Strauss. What did they talk about that left both men so saddened? The very last scene closes that loop, and with the weight of tragedy. We realize the bomb is not just in danger of destroying the world they know now, but already destroyed the world they knew long before it was ever used.

The burning world.

The opening titles tell us Prometheus was tormented forever by the gods for stealing fire for the sake of mankind. The rest of the movie suggests it was mankind itself who punished him — and not even for his arrogance, but for his humility. The last thing we want is a hero who reminds us of our own guilty consciences. Too bad that's the kind of hero we could most use.

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Tags: Christopher Nolan Cillian Murphy J. Robert Oppenheimer Robert Downey Jr. movies review the nuclear age

Neck Deep In My Hoopla

Excuse my silence! I've been busy -- not NaNo, though, but it might as well be.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-11-19 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

My silence over the last several days is not a bad one. It means I've been making sustained strides in writing Charisma — no, not for NaNoWriMo, although at the rate I'm going it does sometimes feel like that. But it's absorbed so much of my time, energy, attention, and spoons that blogging has necessarily taken a back seat, a back burner, and a back bench all at the same time.

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Tags: Charisma real life writing

Word Crimes

Karl Popper stood out from other philosophers for me because he was avowedly not interested in arguments about the meanings of words.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-11-12 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

I've been on a Karl Popper kick lately, re-reading his body of work and also tackling fresh many volumes of his I hadn't cracked before (e.g., The World of Parmenides). Many strands of his thought are worth unpacking in blog posts, but the first one I want to tackle is how Popper stood out from other philosophers for me because he was avowedly not interested in arguments about the meanings of words.

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Tags: Karl Popper philosophy science

You May Now Stop Reading

I don't always know when to stop doing research for a project, or how to deal with coming across valuable research after the project is already closed.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-11-10 17:00:00-05:00 No comments

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," said William Blake, and I know it is true in at least one case. I don't always know when to stop doing research for a project, or how to deal elegantly with the feeling of coming across valuable research after the project is already closed.

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Tags: creativity creators research writers writing

Come Blow My Own Horn

What can I do to draw attention to my work, in the venues that matter, without being a jerk about it?

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-11-02 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

As life has gone on, one of the things I've found myself doing whenever I fail at something is to assume the mistake lies with me first, and not with others. If I can't get attention around my work, for instance, I must assume the fault lies with my inability to promote it, and not because other people have no taste. I have to ask myself: what can I do to draw attention to my work, in the venues that matter, without being a jerk about it?

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Tags: promotion self-publishing

No Point (Of View)

About ten years ago, I started to really ramp things up with my fiction-writing; coincidentally, about ten years ago, I all but stopped writing about movies and books and such on this blog, and never really got back into the swing of those things.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-10-29 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

About ten years ago, I started to really ramp things up with my fiction-writing; coincidentally, about ten years ago, I all but stopped writing about movies and books and such on this blog, and never really got back into the swing of those things.

The shift away from criticism wasn't just about time management, but about realizing somewhere along the way I had lost — or discovered I never really had — the one thing I now know I most needed to have to say anything useful or interesting about someone else's work. It was an attitude about the material, a point of view, other than that something was good and you should experience it, or something was not good and you should avoid it. I felt less with each passing year like any of the work I'd done before in that vein had validity. I wasn't saying anything constructive.

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Tags: criticism

My Five Steps To A Story

For the first time, I've formulated and written down the steps I take to create a story. Yours may differ.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-10-24 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

The other day my wife and I were talking about the elements that go into conceiving a story. She has a strategy that's more center-out where I'm more top-down. Talking about it with her allowed me to formulate a little map for how I go about developing a long-form story. Some version or other of this design has been floating around in my head for some time now, but this is the first time I've ever condensed it to bullet points. Here they are:

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Tags: creativity creators fiction storytelling writers writing

The Arguments Worth Having And Not

I have never felt like I missed out on something when I chose not to yell back at strangers.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-10-23 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

If you have comments open on your blog, on a long enough timeline the odds of someone posting something snide asymptotically approach 1. When I ran (it's currently in hibernation), I'd sometimes get snotty remarks. Eventually I figured out almost none of this stuff is worth replying to, even if the other guy has a grain of truth in what they say. Just because someone is right like a stopped clock doesn't mean you're obliged to engage. Take the insight and move on.

The people most worth arguing with — and I mean "argue" in the constructive sense — are people I already know to some degree, already trust to act in good faith, and already allow me the freedom to be wrong without it also being a moral failing. I have never felt like I missed out on something when I chose not to yell back at strangers.

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Tags: blogging debate sociology

To Sum Up

I have, for fun, run through all my current and future book ideas, and tried to write the shortest possible descriptions for each.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-10-22 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

I have, for fun, run through all the stuff I'm currently working on or have slated for future work, and tried to write the shortest possible descriptions of each of them. Here they are:

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Tags: blurbs future projects

Reinventing Wheels For No Fun (And No Profit Either)

"Let me make my own mistakes" becomes toxic when elevated to the status of a hill to die on.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-10-21 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

In one of the programming communities I hang out in, there's ongoing debate — probably irresolvable — about whether it's a good idea to encourage people to reinvent wheels as learning experiences. My own take is that it's about intentions. You have to make some sustained effort to use the process of reinvention to understand the underlying principles at work and why they were refined to the state of the art that currently exists. Otherwise you're just making tedium for yourself.

There is a certain mindset I have encountered many times, especially among people who have an autodidactic streak. It could be summed up in the phrase, "Let me make my own mistakes." By itself this phrase is not toxic, but it becomes so when elevated to the status of a hill one chooses to die on.

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Tags: creativity creators learning

See earlier posts from October 2023