The reviews in media of the film Oppenheimer have been largely positive—and perceptive and thoughtful. With a few exceptions, most reviewers “got” the message of the film.
Oppenheimer is not a film in the mold of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the 1964 movie by Stanley Kubrick, an in-your-face cinematic presentation of the madness of nuclear war. It is not as direct as On the Beach, the 1959 Stanley Kramer film based on the Nevil Shute novel about World War III’s nuclear Armageddon, in which a US submarine crew and residents of Melbourne, Australia, await creeping death from radioactive fallout. Nor is it as straightforward as The Day After, the 1983 ABC-TV film that showed an estimated 100 million people the very personal results of nuclear war.
‘To embrace the bomb’
The film is about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the US physicist who helped develop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Manohla Dargis writes in her New York Times review (7/19/23), Christopher Nolan, who both directed and wrote Oppenheimer, “doesn’t restage the attacks; there are no documentary images of the dead or panoramas of cities in ashes.” Rather, the horrific consequences of nuclear conflict are transmitted through the story of Oppenheimer himself, who was “transformed by his role in the creation of weapons of mass destruction and soon after raised the alarm about the dangers of nuclear war.”
Citing French director François Truffaut, who once wrote that “war films, even pacifist, even the best, willingly or not, glorify war and render it in some way attractive,” Dargis contends that this
gets at why Nolan refuses to show the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world-defining events that eventually killed an estimated 100,000 to upward of 200,000 souls.
You do, though, see Oppenheimer watch the first test bomb and, critically, you also hear the famous words that he said crossed his mind as the mushroom cloud rose: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
“As Nolan reminds you, the world quickly moved on from the horrors of the war to embrace the bomb,” Dargis writes. “Now we, too, have become death, the destroyers of worlds.”
The film’s focus not just on a bloody decision made the better part of a century ago, but on the threat of annihilation facing humanity today, is made clear at its outset. A caption spread across the screen with an observation from Greek mythology: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.”
Ann Hornaday in her Washington Post review (7/19/23) relates:
As a filmmaker at the height of his powers, Nolan has used those prodigious skills not simply to amaze or spectacularize, but to plunge the audience into a chapter of history that might feel ancient, as he reminds us, but happened just yesterday. By making that story so beautiful, so elegantly crafted and compulsively watchable, he has brought to life not just J. Robert Oppenheimer, but the still-crucial arguments he both started and tried to end.
Oppenheimer boldly posits that those arguments are still worth having, in a film of magnitude, profundity and dazzling artistry.
“Oppenheimer Is an Uncomfortably Timely Tale of Destruction,” was the headline of the review by David Klion in the New Republic (7/21/23). He declares:
Oppenheimer turns out to be uncomfortably timely. At no point since the end of the Cold War has nuclear war felt more plausible, as the daily clashes between a nuclear-armed Russia and a NATO-backed Ukraine remind us. Beyond literal nuclear warfare, we are faced with a range of existential dangers—pandemics, climate change and perhaps artificial intelligence—that will be managed, or mismanaged, by small teams of scientific experts working in secret with little democratic accountability. The ideologies, affiliations and personalities of those experts are likely to leave their stamp on history, and not in ways they themselves would necessarily wish. Oppenheimer’s dark prophecy may yet be fulfilled.
A plug for nuclear power?
Now, there were several inexplicable reviews of Oppenheimer.
In his review in New Scientist (8/9/23), a London-based publication with an international circulation of 125,000, Simon Ings writes that Oppenheimer “will help us embrace” nuclear power, which, he claims, “by any objective measure…is safe and getting safer.” Ing somehow believes the film “isn’t so much about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s development of the atomic bomb…as it is about the paranoid turn history took [about nuclear power] in the wake of his triumph.” How he deduced this from Oppenheimer is indecipherable.
Then there was the review by Richard Brody in the New Yorker (7/26/23) that begins:
Leaving the theater after seeing Oppenheimer, I was tempted to call it a movie-length Wikipedia article. But after a look online, I realized I was giving Wikipedia too little credit—or Christopher Nolan, the movie’s writer and director, too much.
The New Yorker gave his piece the headline “Oppenheimer Is Ultimately a History Channel Movie with Fancy Editing.” Considering the many highly emotional, engrossing scenes—including many personal ones involving Oppenheimer—this makes no sense. It is far from a movie version of a Wikipedia posting or a History Channel docudrama.
Brody almost seems to scold Nolan for hoping to provoke discussion:
Rather than illuminating him or his times, the scenes seem pitched to spark post-screening debate, to seek an importance beyond the experiences and ideas of the characters.
‘The bomb’s lingering residue’
Justin Chang’s review in the Los Angeles Times (7/19/23) would no doubt have irritated Brody by engaging in “post-screening debate.” Nolan, Chang writes, is
less interested in reenacting scenes of mass death and devastation, none of which are depicted here, than in sifting through the bomb’s lingering geopolitical and psychic residue.
The real Oppenheimer may have never expressed remorse over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the movie never lets its Oppenheimer forget them, especially in one shuddering, blood-chilling sequence that transforms a public moment of triumph into an indictment.
Nor can Oppenheimer forget the still greater destruction that may yet be unleashed, a prospect that his typically naive and high-minded insistence on “international cooperation” will do nothing to dispel. Nolan conveys that warning with somber gravity, if not, finally, the cathartic force that our current headlines, full of war and nuclear portent, would seem to demand. Not for the first time, the demonstrative cleverness of his storytelling can seem too precise, too hermetically sealed and engineered, for a sense of raw collective devastation to fully take hold.
Even Rupert Murdoch’s arch-conservative New York Post (7/19/23) had a rave review. Critic Johnny Oleksinski declares:
What keeps all three hours of the film so breathlessly tense is the title physicist’s internal tug of war: Can the valiant quest for scientific advancement—his great passion—lead to the total destruction of the planet?
A highly perilous time.”
To what extent did media either take advantage of or drop the ball on the opportunity the movie gave them to examine the pressing issue of nuclear war? My review of the reviews would conclude that most media didn’t drop the ball, only a few did—and that to me is quite a surprise.
We are at a highly perilous time in regard to nuclear war. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1/24/23) moved its “Doomsday Clock,” which it says represents the risk of “nuclear annihilation,” forward to 90 seconds to midnight—the closest it’s been since it was set up in 1947.
Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach and The Day After all came out decades ago.
Oppenheimer can provide—especially with the (astonishing for me, long a media critic) widely positive media reaction—the opening of a window that can help new generations of people learn about nuclear weapons, and move for an abolition that can prevent a nuclear apocalypse.