Movie Review: Oppenheimer
by Rachel MacNair
Oppenheimer is a biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” According to its director’s custom, it has three different threads of stories that weave throughout. One tells the story of his early years and the development of the atomic bomb with care for historic accuracy, and the other two deal with the aftermath for Oppenheimer in the 1950s.
In a PBS NewsHour interview, director Christopher Nolan referred to this movie as engagement rather than entertainment, which certainly rings true to me. He also referred to it as understanding rather than judgment, and that struck a chord with me as explaining a lot about the movie I had just seen.
I remember thinking well into the movie that people were going to come out of it with the same opinion about nuclear weapons they had going into it. Pro-nuclear arguments were there, and they had to be; how else could we understand the historical reality being so well portrayed? Anti-nuclear arguments were there, but not as well developed as they would become. But again, it was portraying what people understood at the time.
Plenty of people could see this movie and remain pro-nuclear with some handwringing. Handwringing over massive violence is common and still allows it to continue.
What was missing popped out to my anti-nuclear eye. Most noticeably, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a major part of the plot, but were never portrayed. This movie was from the point of view of the makers of the bomb. They could hear the number of civilians killed and be disturbed, but from their perspective, that’s all. And their perspective is what this film is about.
We also have, as one detail, a fellow about to watch the first test who turned down the darkened glasses to watch it, assuring himself that the windshield of the car he sat in (with an open door) would protect him. This was historically accurate, but the movie left out how much the radiation of that test, and subsequent tests, hurt the observers by causing subsequent diseases. We’ve covered the racism of this; see also the list of posts below. But this was from the perspective of the people inventing the bomb, and they didn’t know any better. Audience members that didn’t already know better themselves wouldn’t have been informed by the movie.
I expect the average audience member caught the use of euphemism when Oppenheimer corrected someone from calling it a bomb to calling it a gadget. No commentary needed. But the fact that Oppenheimer named the atomic test “Trinity,” thus conscripting God into supporting his violence, as perpetrators of violence frequently do, could have used some commentary. But there was no comment at the time, and this was a portrayal of people at the time.
As a side note, the people most vulnerable to being killed by radiation are unborn children. It was when Juli Loesch, now Julianne Wiley, was explaining this to an audience that a woman asked her: if radiation killing children bothered her, what about the abortion curette? That set Juli on the path to founding Prolifers for Survival. PS’s final meeting was the founding meeting of the Seamless Garment Network, now renamed the Consistent Life Network. But again, the knowledge of what radiation does to children wasn’t covered by the movie, since it covered a time period when such things had not yet been figured out or were being steadfastly ignored.
In any event, my view of its pro- and anti-nuclear balance may be off because I’m so used to stronger anti-nuclear information that I don’t know what information hits people who aren’t so familiar with it. As a major example, one of the sub-plots was about the mathematical calculations that showed that just maybe the one test would ignite the atmosphere and therefore destroy the whole world. They decided that the mathematical probability was “near zero” and so went ahead with the test. A military general reacted the way most of us would react – what do you mean, “near” zero? How about zero? The thing is, I knew decades ago that this had happened. To me, it went along with how insane the whole process was. Someone who didn’t know about it may have it hit them much more strongly.
And then there was the final line of the movie. That line was about as anti-nuclear as the confines of one sentence could be, backed up by what had gone before.
I recommend adults and mature teenagers make a point of seeing this movie (it’s R-rated for good reason and not suitable for children). It’s part of the literature of the reality of nuclear weapons; it’s confined to one aspect, but then, most movies are. We all need to understand the reality rather than the normal Hollywood-style glorification of violence.
We have quite a few posts on nuclear weapons; see that section under the list of all our posts. For more of our posts on nuclear testing and production, see:
We also have several movie reviews listed in the list of all our posts. For some with similar themes, see:
Hollywood Movie Insights (The Giver, The Whistleblower, and The Ides of March)
Hollywood Movie Insights II (Never Look Away, The Report, and Dark Waters)