Paul Smith

I saw “Oppenheimer” this weekend at the Music Box in Chicago, in its theater capable of projecting 70mm film. The movie is a huge achievement, a complex piece of art that nonetheless tells an efficient story in spite of a 3 hour running time. Here are a few thoughts on the visual storytelling that was presented on screen.

The central question “Oppenheimer” asks is, to whom or what is J. Robert Oppenheimer bound? Director Christopher Nolan spares us a hoary answer like “the truth!”, but early on we are told it is to theory and mathematics, wherever they may lead. They first lead Oppenheimer out of the lab and into the arms of pre-war continental quantum physicists, who are forging a nascent field of inquiry that our hero immediately grasps and excels at. He becomes friends with physicist Isidor Rabi while in Germany, bonding over their shared New York Jewish backgrounds. We see Rabi nurture Oppenheimer several times, offering food from his pocket and quiet counsel, evincing an almost maternal protective quality. Oppenheimer, back in the States, forms allegiances with students and organizers of various labor movements, including the Communist Party, but weakly, always as or via a proxy (using the party as a channel to fund republicans of the Spanish Civil War; as a means to start his relationship with Jean Tatlock). Several scenes hint at deeper connections, but cut away before he does anything incriminating (“but that would be treason …”). Of course his “true” allegiance or lack of to the Communist Party and to the Soviet Union hangs over the balance of the post-test movie, which seems content to leave it unanswered, or perhaps, answered sufficiently by his other deeds, which several characters make voice of.

What of Oppenheimer’s non-professional bonds? He’s prepared to boil off his child like so many neutrons in a fission reaction, driving the colicky baby to a friend’s house in hopes of being relieved of parental duties. In spite of his affairs and scarce evidence of marital happiness, his relationship with his wife Kitty is shown to endure (“we’re adults, we’ve been through fire together”, their own form of fusion), surviving at least to his public image rehabilitation late in life. Frank Oppenheimer, kept to the periphery early on, becomes essential to the triumph at Los Alamos, reuniting the brothers on the same mesa where they forged a connection to the land, a feel for the weather of the desert. He pursues Jean Tatlock with flowers and is repelled; she later makes her own pursuit, reminding him of his off-hand oath, “you said you’d always answer” — a promise he’s now incapable of keeping, acted on by multiple forces much stronger than she.

Oppenheimer becomes an attractive force himself to build Los Alamos, cajoling scientists and convincing the US military, overcoming each group’s respective reservations, the former about the endeavor itself, the latter about him. He’s the nucleus of the most important thing that’s ever happened, to quote Gen. Groves, but we see him often distracted, gazing into the middle distance, drifting off to Chicago or San Francisco, giving misleading testimony to the army’s quietly menacing interrogator. Still, it’s Oppenheimer keeping the energetic particles of scientists around him from flying off or creating ruinous inter-personal explosions. They eke out just enough collaboration and luck to blow up the gadget before Potsdam — immediately, the military dissolves their bond to the man who secured their supremacy (“we got it from here”). We see Oppenheimer unmoored, isolated, radiating out his misgivings and the horror of his revelations.

In a pivotal scene, Oppenheimer dismisses a report of a nuclear chain reaction, stating that theory proves it can’t be so. When his neighbor colleague reproduces the experiment, he immediately forms a new theoretical understanding from it — the bond to pure theory is broken, and a new one connecting theory and practice is made. It takes him no time again to accelerate to the logical end of the implications, and this time, theory must wait for practice to catch up. When the new experiment is finished, first at Trinity and then at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s no longer about what the physics demonstrates, but what it means for the notion of humanity and civilization: his revulsion at the reception of the bomb among his peers and the public is shown itself as a terrible blinding fire, one that now lives within him.

Stray observations

  • “Oppenheimer” centers language throughout, and positions Oppenheimer as a language savant in technical ways, but deficient in others. He learns enough Dutch to teach physics in Europe. He reads Marx in the original German. He quotes Sanskrit to his lover. He’s also a translator, bringing the foreign language of quantum mechanics to the United States, and bridging the gap between academics and the military. He fails to learn the language of Washington, and his character is assassinated as a result. Kitty is bedeviled, who can’t understand how a man can be so proficient in one domain and so passive when it comes to himself and his family.
  • There’s a rich symbolic history to the apple, and one figures prominently in early scenes. First as an impulsive attempt on his professor’s life. We see Oppenheimer stab the apple, which is a pre-quantum apple, Newton’s apple; the needle with which he injects the cyanide is a dagger in Newtonian physics, which Einstein, whom we encounter multiple times including in despair in the final scene, inflicted the first mortal wound, but which quantum mechanics and the bomb finally killed. And then as the poison fruit of knowledge carried by Niels Bohr, who introduces him to quantum mechanics, which leads to our expulsion from Eden when the atomic weapon is used.
  • The circular badges that the scientists wore at Los Alamos, which had labels like “K-16” and “C-43”, which I’m sure were for some organizational purpose the film doesn't explain (as far as I remember), made me think of them like personified isotopes from the periodic table of the elements.
  • The act III Strauss plot was less successful to me than the rest of the film. The revelation that he was humiliated and vindictive and then used the apparatus of official power to seek his revenge didn’t land for me in the way I think was intended, perhaps because, while certainly despicable, it’s not shocking nor particularly novel, even discounting our recent experiences with vengeful politicians. Setting that aside, from a storytelling point of view, as an extended denouement after the wallop of the Trinity event, it has to work extra hard to sustain a clear narrative focus, and I felt the film suffered overall for it.
  • Kudos to Jennifer Lame, who edited the film, for making scene after scene of extensive dialogue so compelling and propulsive. And to Hoyte van Hoytema, the director of photography — it’s tonally gorgeous and lightly under-saturated in a way that serves the somber mood. What more can be said about 70mm film? It just glows. It’s very much worth seeing in a theater.