Richard Shimooka: Oppenheimer fails as history but triumphs as film

Oppenheimer should be seen as a biopic and a work of art, not history
A still image from the film Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy. Credit: Universal Pictures.

This column contains significant spoilers about the film Oppenheimer 

To start, I have an admission to make. Last week I had planned to watch Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer already with an idea of the shape this review would take. The development of the atomic bomb, as well as the geopolitical era that the film covers, holds deep resonance for me, and it’s hard not to be deeply intrigued by the perspective such an interesting director might have on the topic. 

Yet several days on, I am still struggling to think through the implications of the film. Oppenheimer is a complicated, challenging work to discuss for so many different reasons. Its disconnected narrative approach, invoking techniques employed in some of his other movies like Inception and Tenet, obfuscates Nolan’s aims. Furthermore, its handling of the historical era is much harder to assess. 

The historical territory covered by Oppenheimer remains the subject of deep debate among historians. The most immediate topic, the development and use of the atomic bomb, is highly charged, as evidenced in some of the online discussions of the film. Ironically, Nolan’s treatment of the actual subject matter is somewhat conventional, even outdated in some respects. A number of scenes are heavily dramatized, and in some cases distorted. In particular, the decision to use the atomic bomb and the subsequent development of the hydrogen bomb provides a fairly misleading view. Walking into the theatre, I was convinced this was to be the subject of this column.

To my surprise, however, the Manhattan Project was not the focus of a movie about Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist and director of the project’s Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II. At least not in the conventional sense. Rather, Nolan’s carefully crafted narrative is more focused on the features of the scientist’s life that came to define how the public perceived him. This is evident in the film’s construction, with the majority of it spent retelling Oppenheimer’s life, shot in colour. It tells how the scientist personally attempted to navigate the complex ideological eddies of his times, and three distinct eras are apparent: the growing international and moral uncertainty of the 1930s with the rise of fascism and communism in the face of democratic fragmentation, the urgency and collective purpose of the Second World War, and the early Cold War paranoia best exemplified by McCarthyism. How he captures the social dynamics of these three eras is one of Nolan’s best achievements. 

However, these sections are framed by the contentious 1959 Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss for Secretary of Commerce in the Eisenhower administration, which is shot in black and white. In Nolan’s questionable retelling, Strauss’s passage becomes inexorably intertwined with perceptions of Oppenheimer’s public and private life. 

But what is Nolan’s intent for the film? I can discern two. The first is that this is a broader vehicle for him to drive home his views about nuclear weapons and the existential dangers the arms race posed. Berry Hertz suggested as much in his review for the Globe and Mail: “unlike his other films that imagined all manner of solvable apocalypses, Oppenheimer does not pretend to offer hope.”

If true, then the film itself is a significant disappointment. Nolan relies on far too many caricatures and misrepresentations to make such an argument viable. No scene better illustrates this view than the near parody depiction of President Harry Truman by Gary Oldman, who’s demeaning and dismissive of Oppenheimer’s concerns surrounding a potential nuclear arms race. Nolan’s Truman is completely at odds with the historical record that shows the extent to which his administration seriously grappled with how to best navigate the post-war aftermath and the nuclear age. As Melvyn P. Leffler wrote in his magisterial book on the Truman Administration’s national security policy:  

Faced with the reality of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and the prospective growth of Soviet power throughout Eurasia, America’s cold war policies took shape. Looking back, we can see that those policies were partly wise, partly prudent, and partly foolish. Given the imponderables policymakers faced in the international system and the uncertainties about Soviet aims, it is their prudence that seems most striking.

This and other analyses illustrate the challenge that senior officials faced in crafting a policy to check Soviet aggression across the world, yet the movie reduces them to one-dimensional actors. Perhaps what provides the greatest disappointment, if Hertz’s thesis is true, is the missed opportunity to convey this.

When it comes to narrative and character, Nolan is consistently able to deliver complex concepts to the audience in an easily comprehensible fashion. Yet in the case of the actual history, he neglects to provide that same context and instead relies on simplistic depictions to move the story along. This tidy-if-false narrative serves the story and supports his views but fails to accurately reflect the record.

But strict factual documentary is clearly not Nolan’s priority. Oppenheimer is more properly received as a biopic and a work of art, not history. Building a rich character study is Nolan’s main intent, and in that case the film is a triumph. It delves deep into the challenges and contradiction of the man at its centre, and the dramatizations and simplifications can be understood as a way to reveal the man’s deeply complex and often inscrutable views, alongside his contradictions and personal failings.

Further enhancing the film are the richly coloured characters that Nolan surrounds Oppenheimer with. The sheer number of individuals that populate the screen sets the film apart from other historical dramatizations, like Thirteen Days on the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Lincoln. One of the clearest examples is Edward Teller, a highly controversial figure who assisted in the Manhattan Project and later went on to develop the hydrogen bomb. Benny Safdie’s portrayal of the physicist provides the audience with an insightful sense of his foibles, motivations, and views that reflect back on Oppenheimer and add so much greater colour to the film’s character palette. 

Flaws and all, Oppenheimer is certainly a film worth watching and grappling with. Few films are ambitious enough to take on such grand, weighty themes, and even fewer still are capable of provoking both an immediately visceral reaction and lasting contemplation. Whatever his other aims, Nolan has accomplished at least this, and that is no small thing.

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