A Review Of “Oppenheimer”

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer

As someone who doesn’t know much about science, had never heard the name Oppenheimer before, and has nightmares about nukes frequently, Oppenheimer might not really seem like a movie I would watch. Honestly, I’m not sure I would’ve watched it if it wasn’t for the whole “Barbenheimer” event, and the fact that it’s a Christopher Nolan movie helped a little, as well.

I have developed a new habit recently of trying to avoid seeing or hearing anything about movies before I go see them, trailers included. So I went into Oppenheimer not knowing anything about it except it was roughly about nukes. Sounded interesting enough, I suppose.

Now is the time for the SPOILER WARNING! Alright, let’s get into it.

Oppenheimer ended up being pretty different than I thought it would be. I expected a war movie, a decent amount of action, and the nuclear bombs being dropped as sort of the climax. What I got instead was a political film that showcased the life of the man behind the bomb. In fact, the bombs being utilized wasn’t even shown, but the effect of them on the political climate of the world and on Oppenheimer’s conscience most certainly was.

It was hard to follow at times, especially the first forty-five minutes or so. The beginning was artsy in a way that I found hard to grasp, but became more straightforward as the movie progressed. I’m not the best at following political jargon, and I don’t know anything about physics, so I felt a little lost at times. Another big problem for me understanding what exactly was going on was the fact that the movie switches between being in color and being in black and white. I had a hard time understanding why they chose to do it this way.

The movie did a decent job of making the average person understand more or less what the problems with the science were, and when they made progress on the science. You could understand their sense of achievement or their frustrations, even if you didn’t exactly understand the words that came along with it. Things went right, or things went wrong, that much was clear, at least. And when they did attempt to explain things like fission or fusion, it didn’t feel completely overwhelming, the information felt digestible.

The non-linear storytelling was kind of hard to follow, as they jumped around Oppenheimer’s life frequently, cutting from past to present and then to other parts of the past. It was a big jumble. I’m also not the biggest fan of non-linear storytelling in general, because I get lost pretty easily. They also replayed certain scenes, I guess to put emphasis on them, but still kind of confusing.

For the majority of the movie, I flipped between “I don’t really get what’s happening” to “oh, okay I think I get it now”. Rinse and repeat. I was lost, I felt like I figured it out, and then I was lost again. Not like, painfully lost, but at least a little annoyingly so.

One interesting thing about this movie is that they don’t necessarily paint Oppenheimer in a positive or negative light. He is a man with flaws and issues in his personal life. He feels very human. The movie does nothing to showcase him as a hero or as a villain, just as a person that did something that made him extremely famous. Whether that fame is good or bad is to be decided.

Much is the same with the discussion of the bomb regarding the war. As it is in real life, the big question of “should the power to destroy the world be in our hands” is prevalent throughout. At what point does a scientific venture become something that could doom us all?

Aside from the content of the film, it’s a star-studded cast, with great performances from Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Rami Malik, Jack Quaid, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, and Robert Downey Jr. With a cast like that, you can be rest assured this movie does not pass the Bechdel test! Jokes aside, everyone played their characters quite well.

It’s a very interesting movie, but it definitely wasn’t my typical pick for films. I don’t regret spending the money nor the three hours on it, but I also don’t have a huge interest in re-watching it any time soon. There are some movies that don’t really feel as long as they are (such as The Revenant), but I think I really felt all 180 minutes of this one (I also felt all four hours of the Justice League Snyder Cut).

This movie was less about the bombs themselves, and more about the people that built them, the government and military’s hand in it all, and the repercussions of unleashing such a power into the world. It’s about the ability we have to annihilate others, and how we feel when that power could be in someone else’s hands.

Overall, I thought it was good. It’s definitely worth a watch, if you’ve got three hours.

Have you seen Oppenheimer? Did you do a double feature with Barbie? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


23 Comments on “A Review Of “Oppenheimer””

  1. I have read a lot about the relevant history, including the memoirs of several participands.
    I found the film very impressive. My biggest factual issue with the film is that in its focus on Lewis Strauss working to destroy Oppenheimer’s career it mostly omits Edward Teller’s equally important role in destroying Oppenheimer.

    A personal note: my late father, who later became a Professor of History, learned that the US had used a nuclear bomb on board his ship in the Pacific. He was then and remained ever after, deeply ambivalent about Truman’s decision to use two nuclear bombs, which may well have saved his life.

    After seeing the movie I re-read my father’s letter to my grandmother, written the day Hiroshima was bombed. Dad believed the bomb had probably saved his life, but in that letter he wrote:
    “Most of these people were burned to death by the atomic radiations of the bomb. I believe that nothing in the world can justify the use of such a bomb. It cannot be kept a secret indefinitely.”

  2. I am sorry but I just can’t make myself see Oppenheimer. What our government did to him and how he was treated hurts my heart. I still believe a large thermal nuclear weapon could ignite the atmosphere. I think he regretted his work to his dying day. If not him then who?

  3. I saw it and also felt the length. But, I also felt the story it was telling was so huge that even trying to condense it to Oppenheimer was probably not going to fit the frame of a single film. One of those stories that might have been easier to tell in a special event miniseries.

    I was glad I had read Rhodes’ book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, many years ago. Having done so, there was a lot of context I still remembered after 20, 30 or more years. An important film. I’m glad Nolan made this film, his involvement is what convinced me to see it.

  4. I haven’t seen it yet, Athena. I’m not sure I will. I grew up in the 60s when some of these events were still happening. And I was pretty well traumatized by having to watch the actual film of the actual Trinity test, in school. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

    All I knew, back then, was that Oppenheimer had been picked as the guy who could deliver a superweapon, not just because of his physics chops but because he had a lot of influence in the scientific community, and was supposed to be a good administrator.

    And he delivered, alright. Except that once the superweapon was a concrete object in existence, rather than a hypothesis being pursued in the name of The Science, he had serious second thoughts, exacerbated by the nature of the political and ideological bullshit accumulating at the top. (The importation of actual Nazis into the project after the surrender of Germany didn’t help that any…)

    So he tried to make a case for anything but actually using the superweapon on real, unsuspecting civilian human beings in their homes and businesses. He consulted with other scientists of conscience and they made cases for other ways to use The Science, but made no headway against the political and military establishment that wanted a large, spectacular event that would bring the war in the Pacific to a near-instantaneous halt.

    Then there was a short lull… some people from the (Manhattan) Project got back to living their lives, Oppenheimer tried but had a hard time moving on to other areas of science. And then came the Soviet atomic test in 1949, and the Rosenbergs’ trial for espionage.

    Who benefited from ginning up Americans’ fear of an atomic USSR? Politicians, scientists, industrialists who wanted to reap massive profits from producing bigger and more lethal superweapons, delivery systems, and other military hardware.

    Oppenheimer’s was still a potent voice. But the Red scare was heating up, and the McCarthy hearings were scything hundreds of talented, intelligent people out of their professional lives. And he was on the edge, and finally he more or less fell in.

    They couldn’t totally repudiate him without the blowback tainting the military and government decision-makers who had originally backed him, so they chose a death of a thousand cuts strategy, revoking clearances, removing him from committees and letterheads, not returning calls. They made sure that educational and scientific institutions knew hiring him would kiss government contracts good-bye.

    And he had cancer. His health was failing, slowly and painfully. And all the while he was living with the horror of having made the decisions and overseen the work and promoted the science that made it possible for humanity to destroy itself and the planet’s habitability. It wasn’t just an ego-related existential crisis about his legacy. It wasn’t just his anger at having been put beyond the pale.

    Every person, as we get older, at some point starts to think about “What difference will my life have made? What changed here in this world because I lived? Did I do the best I could with what I had? Did I make things better, or worse? Were my decisions all selfish and in-the-moment, or did I take time to think about the larger good and a better future?”

    Oppenheimer’s experience of that self-conversation could not have been a happy one, as his body slowly failed from the cancer.

    I am not sure I want to watch it, even a Hollywood version of it.

  5. If you liked this movie, I recommend you watch the PBS 7-part mini-series of the same name staring Sam Waterston. I watched it back in 1980 and loved every minute of it. The story is very linear, if I recall, so you don’t have to worry about flashbacks and other non-linear devices confusing the story.

    Christopher Nolan loves non-linear story telling. Memento was confusing but I figured it out by the end of the movie. Makes the story more interesting, that’s for sure. If the non-linear nature of Oppenheimer confused you then stay away from Nolan’s movie Tenet. My brain hurt at the end of that movie and it took reading a bunch of articles explaining the movie and a second viewing of the film to finally get it.

  6. I saw the movie and really enjoyed it. I loved all the layers presented. The technical challenge of creating this new weapon. The fear that the Germans would beat them, then what world would we have? The moral questions that arose from its possible use and afterwards. And of course just people in all their pettiness which lead to Oppenheimer having his loyalty questioned and being attacked. And of course, just Oppenheimer himself. Brilliant, but also torn between women, not knowing how to deal with people, etc…

    I loved it, because it was so real. Not a simple story of good vs bad and getting to the wonder weapon first.

  7. I saw it and was very bored. Great IMAX sound affects and the cinematography were excellent, just bored and the movie was way too long. Prefered watching a documentary about the subject.

  8. I read American Prometheus which this movie was based on. I tend to not see movies based on books that I’ve read because I am always disappointed. I will probably see it when it comes to streaming. I recommend reading the book because it was really good.

  9. Your comment about not regretting watching it but not wanting to see it again reminds me of my reaction to Schindler’s List when I saw it in the theater (Aside: somewhere around the time you were born I guess. Wow, I’m old.). I immediately knew that one, I needed to own this film–which at the time meant a honkin’ two-VHS box set–and two, I probably didn’t ever want to watch it again. Which was a weird cognitive dissonance.

  10. If you have the time, you might want to read “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. It does a good job of explaining the science, the stakes, and the people involved.

    As to the Bechdel test… There’s a bit in “Making” where the single women in Los Alamos were running a side gig providing “services” to the single men (for money…) and a physicist who is put in charge of getting the inevitable disease outbreak under control describes going into physics as being like becoming a priest and the incident resulting in his becoming much better educated.

  11. My education was in an era where dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was absolutely the right thing to do because there could be no doubt that it saved American lives. But I had read Heinlein’s ‘Blowups Happen’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The Moon’ so I had the vague idea that we had set off those bombs with no idea whether we were going to destroy all life on earth or not.

    @Logophage When I think of absolutely great movies I couldn’t watch again, I always think of Saving Private Ryan. But I can definitely see Schindler’s List in that category.

  12. Not much interest in seeing it, as it happens two friends who did found others to go with. The B&W mixed in with color reminds me of a school shooter move from 1968, called if, that was partly B&W. The director, Lindsay Anderson, kept assuring people it was just because they were over budget and couldn’t afford color film for all of it, but many were sure there was some deeper significance.

  13. I’m more familiar with the subject matter, haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet. But I also live two hours from the Trinity Site here in New Mexico and have been there twice. It’s open once or twice a year to organized tours – you have to be part of the tour as the site is still on a military reservation.

    Part of the tower that held the device survived!

    One of my aunts was living in Silver City, NM when the detonation happened. Said it rattled windows way out there, a couple of hundred miles. Everyone was told it was a munitions train that blew up.

  14. I won’t see it in the theater – too long. I’ll need an intermission. But I am curious to see the varied cast. Will recognizing so many actors pull me out of the story? I also read the Rhodes book (excellent), but did not see the PBS series. Maybe having some knowledge of the people and science will prevent confusion. I admit that I hate when I feel like the director is TRYING to confuse me. To what end?

  15. Sometimes it helps to learn a bit about a movie ahead of time. Color is Oppenheimer’s perspective. Black and white is a (supposedly) objective perspective. That might have eliminated a lot of the temporal and jumping around confusion.

    In Memento, one of the Great Movies (in my opinion), scenes in color went backwards in time and scenes in black and white went forward. Without knowing that, the movie is really too confusing to appreciate.

  16. I appreciate your viewpoint. We definitely have differing opinions, but you are always clear with your reviews.

    I will see it (I want to), but will wait for it to be streaming so I can pause it. Multiple times.

    The cast looks brilliant and I’m looking forward to their work showing on the screen.

  17. I watched it this past weekend – we went to Oppenheimer and then Barbie. And my thoughts on Oppenheimer can be summed up as…it sure was loud. Overall, I thought it was very slow moving and pretentious – treating Oppenheimer as a stereotypically tortured genius. The main plot of the development of the weapon was more interesting that the side plot (the one in black and white) about losing security clearance.

  18. I’ve long been familiar with the science and history of the Manhattan Project, and as such, I have no interest in seeing a movie version. Not even one by Nolan. (Similarly, I have never had any interest in the films based on Nash, Turing, Hawking, Ramanujan, and so on.)

    I highly recommend looking at the various film geek YouTube videos out there about what’s involved behind the scenes with IMAX and this movie. It’s simply astonishing!

  19. Two films that intercut between color and black-and-white: the incredibly famous and fantastic The Wizard of Oz and the incredible but not-so-famous Pleasantville.

    Technically, Oz was filmed in sepia, not B&W. That made it possible to do the incredible Dorothy opens the door, reveals technicolor Oz, and steps outside in one tracking shot: the farmhouse and stunt-double Dorothy are brown-toned, but actually filmed in color. A complete 1939 audience freak-out!

    (And yes, Schindler’s List had some color.)

  20. It astounds me to learn that some thought the move was boring, but people are different I guess. Yes, it was confusing with the back and forth. I lost count of how many different stories were being told in parallel, and I was a bit confused by the switch between colour and black-and-white too. But I know enough physics to appreciate some of the technical difficulties of building the bomb. And as we got further into the movie, the different timelines began to make sense. I was pretty much spellbound the whole time, and hardly noticed time passing.

    A small detail I noticed, being a mathematician by trade, was Einstein’s companion when Oppenheimer went to ask him about the atmospheric ignition question. Einstein used to have long walks with Kurt Gödel, well known among mathematicians for his incompleteness theorems basically stating that there will always be undecidable questions in mathematics. This short sequence speaks volumes of the attention to detail in this movie.

    The best part to me was the punchline, where we learned at the very end what Oppenheimer and Einstein had been saying in the opening scene.

  21. Athena–thanks for your most interesting and personal review. I’d already intended to see Oppenheimer (hasn’t come to our small town yet, even though in a couple of months it’ll host a famous annual film festival), but I’ll certainly go see it when it finally gets here.

    That said, and Athena–this isn’t about you at all!– I’m horrified that this country has an educational system that can leave a 20-something with at least a high school education including American and world history (and, in your case, the first year of liberal arts in college) in a position to say “…doesn’t know much about science, had never heard the name Oppenheimer before.” Again–please understand that this isn’t about you. But, as George Santyana famously said in “The Life of Reason” (1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  22. Peter: I was similarly horrified, but then I look back, as a 36-year-old college graduate, on my own educational history, and feel there were indeed great swathes of American and world history that were omitted about which I would have liked to know more, or to which I wasn’t necessarily paying attention.

    I haven’t seen Oppenheimer yet, but plan to one day.

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