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Oppenheimer (film), written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Universal Pictures, 2023, 3:09 hrs.

Despite the hype, my expectations for the Oppenheimer movie were low. But even with low expectations, I was disappointed. The official movie trailer was uninspiring and led me to expect rather cheesy special effects—it turns out the trailer showed the best of the not-so-special effects in the movie. It would have been easy enough, for instance, to work with historical footage of the actual Trinity test from July 1945 when depicting the test in the movie. Instead, after a blindingly bright flash—so far so good—the screen fills with images of flames of the sort produced by a chemical fire.

One need not be a physics expert or to have seen video of nuclear tests to know that the blast of a fission bomb looks nothing like being parachuted into a forest fire. Most of the other special effects were just plain weird and overdone; they tended to distract and detract from the film rather than communicate anything intelligible. I saw the IMAX version of the movie, and long before any of the scenes of explosions I wished I’d brought earplugs. Too much of the film just seemed like gratuitous noise and strange, incongruous visuals.

I’ve yet to read American Prometheus (2005), the biography of Oppenheimer on which the movie is supposedly based. I say “supposedly” because it is difficult to imagine a book being as choppy, achronological, and kaleidoscopically confused as the movie. Still, I knew a good bit about Oppenheimer’s life story before watching the film. I knew about his flirtations with communism and long association with communists, his role leading scientists in the Manhattan Project, his subsequent clashes with Edward Teller and others over the making of the hydrogen bomb or “superbomb,” and the later revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, removing him from any influence on future US weapons work or policy. Most of what I knew came from reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987), and his subsequent Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1996).

But that was years ago. More recently, I got a refresher when reading Jim Baggott’s 2010 book The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb: 1939–1949. Yet even with the highpoints of Oppenheimer’s story fresh in mind, it wasn’t always easy to follow what was going on in the movie, and one suspects several scenes were confusing or lost entirely on viewers who hadn’t previously read about “Oppie.”

Notwithstanding those critiques, the movie wasn’t without merit. Nolan clearly got the history of the Manhattan Project mostly right, and the military and senior policymakers were portrayed seriously and relatively fairly, without the all-too-common Hollywood disparagement of high-ranking officials. The acting was quite good, especially the dramatic scenes toward the end of the film, bouncing back and forth between the fates of Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who once headed the Atomic Energy Commission when Oppenheimer was one of its leading scientific advisors. The actor Matt Damon reportedly put on 30 pounds to bulk up for his role as Major General Leslie Groves, the hard-charging director of the Manhattan Project, but remained about 50 pounds shy of a convincing physique to match the general’s. Damon’s character came across as gruff but loyal to Oppenheimer, and even likable—a softer image than most descriptions of Groves.

I wasn’t very familiar with Strauss and had to do some homework after the movie. The movie’s treatment of Strauss hews closely to Esquire’s version of the man.1 That image of Strauss is rather darker and more conspiratorial than other biographical sketches.2 A more recent piece in Esquire suggests that Downey knew quite a bit about Strauss and challenged film director Christopher Nolan’s revisionist, negative portrayal.3 Again, the drama and acting toward the end of the movie are first rate, even if Nolan’s license with the facts seems suspect.

At bottom, the movie is a jumble—a complicated story told poorly, more impressionistic cinematographic stunts than intelligible storytelling. It jarringly jumps back and forth across decades, sometimes in black-and-white, sometimes in color. The only constancy is Oppenheimer’s complex character and his moral trepidations over nuclear weapons—themes that could certainly have been better explored much more coherently and in under three hours. Given the hype, positive reviews, and box office success, the movie will almost certainly win awards. Just be careful about buying what the movie is purportedly selling—the true story of Robert J. Oppenheimer, finally being told, at long last.

Without a coherent narrative or storyline, it’s difficult to refute or point out factual flaws in the movie. By hiding its message in an impressionistic, full-on sensory assault, the movie conveys feelings about Oppenheimer, nuclear weapons, and Strauss while remaining mostly immune to critical analysis. Viewers are likely to emerge from Oppenheimer somewhat shellshocked and with a feeling of now knowing some things that have a questionable basis in historical fact. And, while distracted by the sound and fury of the film, they’ll have been unknowingly force-fed messages deserving of more careful consideration than the movie allows. For me, Oppenheimer bombed, but it wasn’t “the bomb.”

Mark A. Bucknam, PhD

1 Laura Martin, “What’s The Real Story Of Lewis Strauss in ‘Oppenheimer’?,” Esquire, July 21, 2023, https://www.esquire.com/.

2 See, for example, Spencer Howard, “Lewis Strauss and Robert Oppenheimer,” Hoover Heads (blog), National Archives, July 24, 2023, https://hoover.blogs.archives.gov/; and Erik Gregersen, “Lewis Strauss,” Britannica, last updated July 21, 2023,  https://www.britannica.com/.

3 Josh Rosenberg, “Oppenheimer Reconsiders Lewis Strauss's Role In History,” Esquire, July 26, 2023, https://www.esquire.com/.

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