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Richard Shimooka: Oppenheimer fails as history but triumphs as film

Commentary

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 Ironically, Nolan’s treatment of the actual subject matter is somewhat conventional, even outdated in some respects.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.

Andrea Mrozek: Staffing shortages are a bad look for the government’s expensive daycare program

Commentary

“The whole world is short-staffed—be kind to those that showed up,” reads a sign outside an Ottawa doctor’s office. It’s a sign of the times.

Labour shortages are common today, but none have received as much attention as child care.

The success of the Trudeau government’s Canada-wide early learning and child care plan (sometimes described as its “national daycare plan”) hinges on parents actually gaining access to subsidized spaces. Nationally, there are licensed spaces for only roughly 30 percent of Canadian children, and licensed care is the only kind included in the $10 per day plan.

That means spending billions and finding that existing spaces can’t be filled due to staffing shortages isn’t a good look.

And forget about expansion—the YMCA Canada reports a staffing shortage so severe even children currently enrolled cannot attend. In a March 2023 briefing to the federal committee studying child care legislationthe YMCA wrote that it’s missing “419 staff to meet current registrations, 1,427 staff to return to pre-COVID operating capacity, 2,869 staff to move to licensed capacity and 3,442 to expand beyond licensed capacity by 20 percent.”

Yet not every daycare is reporting shortages, and where they are, increasing wages and benefits is not viewed as a panacea. Parent groups, child care associations, daycare owners, and early childhood educators are talking about solutions beyond money.

If you understand “child care as the care of a child no matter who does it,” then there is no labour shortage at all, said Helen Ward, who leads Kids First Parent Association.

“There is a huge early learning and child care labour supply. All kids, with a minority of exceptions, are currently actually in child care,” said Ward. “There are more healthy grandparents/elders and fewer young kids proportionally than ever before… Grandparents and aunties are key in Indigenous cultures as in other ethnic groups, and all are ignored and sidelined by an official definition of child care as including only licensed daycare.”

Ward’s definition may better reflect family practice across Canada. It is not, however, remotely acceptable amongst some child care activists, and by extension, politicians and policymakers. For them, child care is done by credentialed professionals.

Carolyn Ferns of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care advocates this dominant narrative. Her group’s solution to staffing shortages lies primarily in improving wages and benefits.

“Our position is there should be a provincial child care workforce strategy that includes a provincial salary scale for ECEs and child care workers,” said Ferns. “I believe recruitment strategies that focus on training and hiring more ECEs will not work until we deal with the retention crisis. The two things should ideally happen in tandem, but wages are a key piece of both recruitment and retention.”

They’re asking that salaries start at $30/hour for registered ECEs and $25/hour for non-registered ECE staff.

Wages may be key but they’re not the only thing bringing people to work. Another important factor is flexibility, something Robert Southam, who runs two daycares in B.C.’s Okanagan, has discovered.

He solved his staffing issues by not seeking credentialed ECEs. Instead, he hires for fit and aptitude and offers paid on-the-job training.

“The wage argument is an old school mentality, a legacy demand that has lost some of its relevance with the current workforce that really wants flexibility,” he said.

When he runs his ads, he gets “a barrage of applicants.” These include young women between jobs, highly educated foreign applicants looking to establish a career in Canada, or a 29-year-old mom, who is currently working minimum wage, evenings and weekends.

“Our offer is, for them, a lot better than what they are currently doing,” said Southam.

For him, a mandated wage grid would kill jobs. He has budgeted four educators whereas B.C. legislation only requires three. “If my ten-year educator is getting $27/hour and if the wage grid comes in and says you have to pay her $32, I can no longer afford to have four educators,” he said.

Children play on a play structure as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to parents at the YMWCA daycare in Winnipeg. John Woods/The Canadian Press.

Data collected by the College of Early Childhood Educators, Ontario’s ECE regulator, also points to attrition for reasons beyond wages. For ECEs who’ve resigned, almost half (49 percent) cite “no longer working in the ECE field” as a reason. Retirement comes next at 17 percent. But a significant 12 percent have moved to another province or country. This speaks to a need for immigration reform.

Anny Nasser, an Ontario daycare owner, has lost staff to other provinces.

“There’s a lot of staff who come in and move to other provinces because it’s favourable immigration-wise. I’ve had two staff leave because of that. One moved to Nova Scotia and one moved to B.C.,” she says. “I will say I’ve never had staffing issues until post-COVID.”

Andrea Hannen, executive director of the Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario, hopes for a “whole government” approach to labour shortages. This means the involvement of several ministries. 

Although the ministry of education already provides tuition assistance, she encouraged the ministry of labour to help international students work across the province and the ministry of colleges and universities to help existing daycare workers get ECE qualifications.

For Hannen, wages and benefits are not the sole answer, either.

“Benefits are definitely an issue and there is wage disparity,” she said. “Often people go to the public sector because it pays better. But whether public or private, working conditions can be challenging. Often there isn’t a lot of flexibility in the workplace. There are other factors, like having sufficient autonomy as an educator.”

Southam and Hannen both believe the labour shortage could be quickly resolved with a concerted effort. Southam mused about whether those advocating for higher wages and benefits actually want to solve the problem.

“The labour shortage seems to serve their purpose. If the labour shortage is solved, the government’s institutionalization of child care becomes less of a thing to mandate,” he said.

While ECE recruitment and retention are not new subjects, the core focus until recently was a shortage of spaces, not workers. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who recently concluded a consultation about the child care labour situation, said he heard the feedback “loud and clear” about wage increases. Ontario’s ministry of education did not reply to requests about who was consulted or what those consultations entailed.

Meanwhile, many child care workers and owners likely agree with Nasser.

“Child care as a whole is experiencing either a growth spurt or a transition,” she said. “Something is in the air. And I kind of need it to settle. It’s a lot on everyone’s plate.”