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In defence of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

Reader Euan McGrath responds to article entitled "Whitewashing the Miscreant", in which DMovies' editor Victor Fraga argues Christopher Nolan's new film has dangerous, imperialistic undertones; he believes that the movie is honest and realistic

Thanks/blame for this article’s existence must go to DMovies founder and editor Victor Fraga, who offered me the opportunity/challenge to write a response to his ‘Oppenheimer’ write-up after we crossed swords about it on Twitter, the primary cause of our schism being the argument at the core of the piece, summed-up in his original tweet:

“It is downright insulting that someone should make a film about the alleged suffering of the creator of the atomic bomb, while blatantly and entirely neglecting the suffering of the victims”

Being a narrative film and not a documentary we cannot approach Oppenheimer as being the literal truth of an event, we should however take into account Christopher Nolan’s well-documented quest for realism in his films. This is a filmmaker who collaborated with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne for 2014’s Interstellar to ensure its mind-bending, time-altering events remained within the realms of scientific reality. With Oppenheimer, Nolan wrote the screenplay with authors Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, who had previously both written books on the atomic bomb and its use against Japan, later collaborating on the Oppenheimer biography that served as the basis for Nolan’s film (American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer). Spending 35 years researching the necessary details required of its scientifically complex, decade-spanning subject. None of this leads me to believe that Nolan is the kind of filmmaker who cuts corners when it comes to accuracy, so I should really be able to rely on his portrayal of Oppenheimer as being an accurate representation.

In one scene Oppenheimer blurts out “I have blood on my hands” whilst meeting with the president, the depth of his guilt growing ever-larger since the bomb’s use against Japan in 1945, these attacks being scenes we never explicitly see in the film. But the ghosts of Hiroshima & Nagasaki still haunt the film’s second half, with Oppenheimer experiencing nightmarish visions, including one standout moment during his ‘victory’ speech to the Manhattan Project members. In this scene a woman approaches Oppenheimer mid-speech, burnt skin hanging from her face and arms as she reaches out to him wraith-like, as if to drag him to the underworld. Another scene shows a group of scientists watching newsreel footage from Hiroshima as a narrator describes the aftermath of the attack, with charred bodies still littering the streets and the many still dying from the deadly radiation that followed the blast. The camera never shows us the imagery we hear described, instead moving past the scientist’s faces as they react to what they are witnessing. When the camera reaches Oppenheimer himself, he looks away from the newsreel, overwhelmed with the guilt of his actions, he cannot bear to witness the horrible reality shown in the footage. One of the key criticisms in Fraga’s piece was that because the film is so subjective in its focus on Oppenheimer himself, it can therefore not show the objective truth of these events. I might be able to entertain Fraga’s perspective, were it not backed up by his assertion that the film was:

“One of the most unabashed and toxic apologias of American Imperialism I have seen in my life, cunningly camouflaged as historical reflection; it seeks to to justify the unjustifiable by brushing over a crucial fact, and by robbing victims of their identity”

My main argument against this point being that taking on the subject of the Manhattan Project, its many scientists, their frantic race to create the atom bomb before the Nazis and the bomb’s eventual use against the Japanese, is more than enough to fill a movie’s running time. But Nolan as ever, is not short of ambition, so adds into the mix the life story of Oppenheimer himself, who he was, how he worked, how/who he loved, and the forces that fuelled him and his work, all leading to his eventual hobbling by the US government in his unceremonious final years. It sounds like a lot and it is, but even at three hours long, the film doesn’t feel bogged-down, with Nolan’s masterstroke his ability to structure a long and densely-detailed historical drama like a thriller. Not one where the thrills are without emotional stakes, but where the sheer weight of the events nails you to your seat, the world-altering scenarios and life-or-death decisions all being made by terrifyingly-fallible human beings. In one scene a scientist, during the make-or-break first atomic test in New Mexico, is given the unenviable task of keeping watch over a radiation monitor and ordered to initiate the test’s self-destruct mechanism should this dial go above a certain level, resulting in the destruction of not just years of work, but of America’s entire stockpile of radioactive materials.

This atomic test sequence leads to another aspect I clashed with Fraga on, namely his insistence that because the film showed that initial test explosion but not the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, it ignored the horrific reality of those attacks, instead choosing to present the atomic bomb as something glorious or ‘cool’ (Fraga’s own words). My argument being that the test sequence marks the culmination of years of hard work by the scientists, many of whom are European Jewish refugees, to create a weapon to defeat Hitler and ultimately end the war. In this test sequence the Manhattan Project scientists see first-hand the incredible destructive power they have collectively unleashed, an opening of Pandora’s Box made astonishing reality. The film is so firmly subjective in its handling of events that were it to suddenly cut to Hiroshima mid atomic blast in an attempt to quantify these events, it would be so against what we had experienced of the film thus far. I could imagine a more conventional telling of this story, cutting to Japan to show the attacks in an orgy of expensive but hollow CGI, but that type of generic storytelling is just not Nolan’s style. He’s such a specific filmmaker and despite his film covering the lives of many fascinating real life characters and momentous world events, it remains a story about Robert Oppenheimer. And expecting a film so focused on the telling of such a rich and complex story to also feature the myriad other possible perspectives involved in its events, is not just ridiculous in terms of basic filmmaking logistics, but also in its assumptions of what audiences require to achieve a relevant understanding of such events, or indeed what filmmaker’s duties may be with regard to this.

Fraga also stated in his writing that America’s use of the bomb had nothing to do with Japan’s surrender in August 1945 as they were ready to do so before the bomb’s use, but the evidence surrounding the matter is complicated and requires much analysis. Was Japan’s surrender 100% down to the atomic bomb? If pushed for a yes/no answer I’d have to say ‘no’. With Stalin preparing an invasion from the north and the Japanese government in turmoil with members of the military assassinating politicians who spoke up in support of peace talks. Combine these factors with the general state of Japan at that time, its infrastructure and cities decimated by constant bombing, huge death tolls (both military and civilian) all leading to economic ruin and widespread starvation, with all remaining resources going to the war effort etc. We must however also acknowledge that without a definitive surrender by Japan, there was always a very real chance of ground invasion by American forces, with repeated assurances by Japanese leaders throughout the war of their no surrender stance. The Americans having already fought a gruelling war in the Pacific against the Japanese, experiencing their barbaric treatment of civilian populations in battles on the islands approaching Japan and understanding all-too-well the horrific potential for casualties on all sides were the invasion to become reality.

Another scene in the film has a group of Manhattan Project scientists holding a meeting about their reluctance to proceed with the bombing of Japan. Having created the bomb to be used against the Nazis, but with Hitler now dead, what was to be gained from using it now against Japan. Oppenheimer then gives an impassioned speech to assure them of its importance that the bomb is still used, his argument being it is not just a tool to win wars, but one that could end all wars. With only the actual use of this weapon showing the world the obliterating power they had created there, meaning that no one would be able to attempt what Hitler just had, ever again. We now know of course that Oppenheimer was subsequently proven wrong about this, but that does not change the context of the choices made within that very specific historic moment. What we can say now perhaps is that Oppenheimer’s biggest mistake was not in his creation of the atomic bomb, but in his belief that the American military would do the right thing with it and that his government would act in the best interests of humanity, instead of what actually occurred, as powerfully depicted in the film’s chilling final moments.

Perhaps Fraga’s most brazen claim is that Western civilisation is so warped in its appreciation of Oppenheimer (the film and the man) that plans could already be underway for an Oppenheimer-related theme park attraction:

“I could almost see an Oppenheimer Disney ride soon, magnificent with pyrotechnics and sound engineering, the pinnacle of bad taste, but not a sign of what it was like to be on the ground of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time. It seems that the American company may already be moving in that direction.”

Fraga’s speculation on this topic was further fuelled by an article from some unofficial theme park fan-site, who reported that in wanting to jump on the Barbenheimer bandwagon, Disney employees had added two faux mediaeval scrolls to a lesser-seen area of one of their parks, featuring the words “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”. (For the sake of context and anyone not already aware, the Barbenheimer phenomenon started when Warner Brothers sent a message to recently-departed golden-boy Nolan by planting the release date of their upcoming Barbie (Greta Gerwig, 2023) movie on the same weekend as Oppenheimer’s. The resulting media fallout quickly evolved from the two films being seen as pitted against one-another to becoming an essential cinematic double-bill. With what had started out as a grassroots trend becoming ever-more studio-supported as it grew in scale and scope as Warner Bros and Universal realised what could be gained by leaning-in to the ever-growing Barbie-Oppenheimer mania. The outcome of all this being huge box office for both movies, with Oppenheimer making back eight times its original budget, a previously unimaginable achievement for a three hour, R-rated, historical drama and an one in no-small-part thanks to the turning-up of cinema-goers who would previously never considered a film like Oppenheimer, were it not for the accompanying Barbenheimer hype train.

The relevance of this being that with the world still very much in thrall to Barbenheimer mania, of course some people would end up treating these two very different movies as somehow equally meme-worthy. Does Fraga really believe that this silly but harmless article somehow validates his accusation of America’s rotten soul? And of Disney/Warners/Universal’s worship of Oppenheimer (and Barbie too presumably?) as idols of the blood-soaked, imperialist industrial complex? He might not be a million miles from the truth! But it’s precisely those all important details that differentiate Fraga’s vision from reality that I’m ultimately interested in. I like my films and film criticism full of what I guess I myself strive for in life; to take on big topics, immerse myself in the details, try not to get overwhelmed by everything – and, regardless of whether things end up subjective or objective in the end… what matters most is that they’re well-intentioned, grounded in reality and full of all-important context.

By Euan McGrath - 29-08-2023

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Whitewashing the miscreant


Victor Fraga - 17-08-2023

Oppenheimer is one of the most unabashed and toxic apologias of American Imperialism I have seen in my life, cunningly camouflaged as historical reflection; it seeks to to justify the unjustifiable by brushing over historicity, and by robbing victims of their identity [Read More...]

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