May 052024

I finally saw last year’s blockbuster, Oppenheimer. Let’s just say that my reaction to the film is not exactly in the mainstream.

That is, Best Picture my ass.

I am okay with Murphy’s Best Actor. Downey Jr. was especially good, earning his Best Supporting Actor in a role that I can only describe as unpleasant, playing the main villain of the Oppenheimer story, Lewis Strauss.

An actual photo of the real Oppenheimer

But the film?

For starters, there’s the jumbled timeline.  I am deeply familiar with the Manhattan project, and reasonably familiar with Oppenheimer’s life, including the story of the humiliating revocation of his security clearance in the 1950s. Even so, I was confused: I had a hard time keeping track of what I was seeing.

Then, there are some of the portrayals. Teller was unrecognizable. Where was the famous limp? And what’s with the accent? Sometimes, no accent at all, sometimes an accent that, whatever it was, didn’t sound even remotely like Teller’s. For some of the other, well-known physicists, it was same thing: I’m glad the closed caption sometimes showed the name of the person talking, otherwise, I swear I would not have known that one of them was Szilard, for instance. And Groves? His portrayal by Matt Damon was more like a caricature than the real general.

And then there are the gratuitous sex scenes. I hope I don’t come across as a prude by mentioning this, but… was it really necessary? I mean, yes, I get it, their penetrating questions about Oppenheimer’s private life were metaphorically undressing him, but was it really necessary to assume that the audience is so dumb, they won’t “get it” unless you put Oppenheimer, stark naked, fucking his girlfriend right there in the chair in the conference room while he is being interrogated? Seriously, this was so over the top, I could not believe my eyes. My reaction was that they were trying to out-Kubrick Kubrick, but without the talent of Kubrick (and I am decidedly not a Kubrick fan.)

Then how about the conversations? Some of them, I swear, sounded like a bad AI (no, not GPT-4 or Claude 3, more like GPT-2 or compact versions of Llama) trying to recreate conversations between scientists. I don’t want to set an impossible standard here. How about just meeting the standard, say… of a sitcom? The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon are both more respectful of the science (and the intellectual quality of discussions between scientists) than this film.

And some of the scenes were just grossly inauthentic. Never mind misrepresenting the then-perceived significance of the Oppenheimer-Snyder paper on gravitational collapse (yes, it is significant, but no, the term “black hole” was not even coined until a quarter century later), what was that with that childish celebration when the print edition arrived? By then, Oppenheimer and his colleagues would have known for months that the paper was accepted. Oppenheimer would have seen, and corrected, the galley proofs. The fact that print copies of the journal would appear on the appointed date would have been neither a surprise nor news to anyone involved.

What about the things that were omitted from the film? And no, I am not talking about technical details, not even the massive role facilities other than Los Alamos played in the development of the bomb. How about Oppenheimer’s 1960 visit to Hiroshima? It could have offered some profound moments, perhaps even allowing the film to conclude in a way much more fitting than the stupid “burn the atmosphere” CGI.

And speaking of CGI… what’s with the Trinity explosion itself? I read somewhere that it was not CGI. I could tell… it felt cheap. A bit like the explosion of the planet Alderaan in the original Star Wars movie, before the remaster.

The film had some redeeming segments, especially in the final half hour, but even those were overplayed, like that final (as far as I know, wholly fictitious) conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein. Certainly not enough to salvage the movie for me. The best part were the end credits, as the music score was decent (not sure about Best Original Score quality, but it was enjoyable).

All in all, between the two acclaimed blockbusters from last year, in my view, Barbie won hands down.

Incidentally, I reminded myself that I had an equally negative view of another famous blockbuster from ten years ago, Interstellar: crappy story, crappy science, a psychedelic scene that wanted to be a bit Kubrick-like but couldn’t quite make it (and I absolutely hated what Kubrick has done with the closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey). What I didn’t realize until this moment is that both Interstellar and Oppenheimer were directed by the same Christopher Nolan. Guess that makes it official: I am no fan of Christopher Nolan! On the other hand, I suppose I am a fan of his younger brother: I liked Westworld, and I am beyond impressed by what he did with Fallout.

 Posted by at 11:27 pm

  2 Responses to “Oppenheimer”

  1. Given US film-making generally, ‘Oppenheimer’ was about par for the course.

    I enjoyed the segments about E. O. Lawrence and his cyclotrons which reminded me of being shown around the cyclotron and synchrotron at the UK’s Birmingham university while working as a temporary lab assistant to a physics prof. during my school holidays in the 1960s.

    But my big gripe about the film was, as far as I can recall, the complete neglect of the UK/German input to the development of A-bomb physics (the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum, the work of two German-Jewish refugees, working for Mark Oliphant, at the same UK Birmingham university.

    “In August 1941, Oliphant was sent to the US to assist the Americans with microwave radar.[53] He took the initiative to enlighten the scientific community there of the ground-breaking discoveries of the MAUD Committee. He travelled to Berkeley to meet with his friend Ernest Lawrence, who soon caught his enthusiasm. Oliphant convinced the Americans to move forward with nuclear weapons, and his lobbying resulted in Vannevar Bush taking the report directly to the president.[54] Leo Szilard later wrote: “if Congress knew the true history of the atomic energy project, I have no doubt but that it would create a special medal to be given to meddling foreigners for distinguished services, and that Dr Oliphant would be the first to receive one.” From

    The only mention of a UK connection in the film that I can recall was the shameful role of the spy Klaus Fuchs (German refugee, British citizenship in 1942) who worked at Los Alamos and passed secrets that may have helped the Soviets gain atomic weapons a little sooner than they would otherwise. His discovery as a spy played a major part in undermining post-war US-British cooperation on bomb development,

    I know Hollywood isn’t generally concerned about historical accuracy, but it I think it would be good for US audiences to appreciate that early work that stimulated the Manhattan Project came from Britain and German refugees. Oppenheimer and General Groves may, together, have been crucial to the ultimate success of the Manhattan Project, but unlike the impression that the film provides, they didn’t “invent the atom bomb”.

  2. Par for the course, you say, and sadly, you’re right; but as I mention, it does not need to be this way when even some sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory) can treat the science with more respect, and more accurately. As I live in Ottawa, I am also reminded of the vicinity of the Chalk River lab and the role it played both during and after the war. And you’re absolutely right in your conclusion that Oppenheimer and Groves didn’t invent anything. They did execute (brilliantly, I daresay, despite the sad fact that it was in the service of a military objective) a research project of unprecedented magnitude, which turned a conceptual invention into a working device.