Monday, May 20, 2024

Oppenheimer (2023) movie review and summary.

Sometimes close-ups of people’s faces are interrupted by cuts to events that haven’t happened, or that have already happened. There are repeated images of flame, debris, and smaller chain-reaction explosions that resemble strings of fireworks, and non-flammable images that evoke other horrific personal disasters. (There are many gradually expanding flashbacks in this film, where you first see a glimpse of something, then a bit more, and finally everything.) But these aren’t just about the big bomb Oppenheimer’s team hopes to detonate in the desert, or the little ones that keep exploding at a bigger or bigger moment in Oppenheimer’s personal life. other times, because he made a naive or thoughtless mistake that angered someone long ago, and the wronged one retaliated with the equivalent of a ticking time bomb. The “disintegrated” cut, to borrow a physics word, is also a metaphor for the domino effect caused by individual decisions and the chain reaction that causes other things to happen as a result. This principle is also visualized by the repeated images of ripples in water, beginning with the opening shot of raindrops making circles on the surface, which foreshadow the end of Oppenheimer’s career as a government adviser and public figure, and the first nuclear explosion at Los Alamos (which observers see, then hear, finally feel its impact at the end).

The weight of the film’s interests and meanings is carried by the faces – not only Oppenheimer’s, but those of other important characters, including General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the military superintendent of Los Alamos; Robert’s long-suffering wife, Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), whose tactical mind could have averted many disasters if only her husband had listened; and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who despised Oppenheimer for many reasons, including his decision to distance himself from his Jewish roots, and who spent several years trying to derail Oppenheimer’s career after Los Alamos. The latter constitutes her complete narrow story of pettiness, mediocrity and jealousy. Strauss is Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart, regularly and often pathetically reminding others that he too was studying physics at the time, and that he is a good person, unlike Oppenheimer, the adulterer and communist sympathizer. (This film claims that Strauss leaked the FBI’s file on his progressive and communist associations to a third party, who then wrote to the bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover.)

The film talks quite often about one of the principles of quantum physics, which states that the observation of quantum phenomena by a detector or an instrument can change the results of this experiment. Editing illustrates this by constantly reframing our perception of an event to change its meaning, and screenwriting does this by adding new information that undermines, contradicts, or expands our sense of why a character did something or whether they knew why they did it.

This, I believe, is really what “Oppenheimer” is about, far more than the atomic bomb itself, or even its effect on the war and the Japanese civilian population, which is talked about but never shown. The film does show what the atomic bomb does to human flesh, but it is not a recreation of the actual attacks on Japan: a distraught Oppenheimer imagines the Americans going through it. This filmmaking decision likely antagonized both viewers who wanted a more straightforward account of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those who accepted the arguments presented by Strauss and others that the bombs had to be dropped because Japan would never surrender otherwise. The film does not say whether he thinks this interpretation is true or whether he sides with Oppenheimer and others who insisted that Japan was on its knees by that point in World War II and would have eventually given up without the atomic attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. No, this is a film that allows itself the liberties and indulgences of novelists, poets and opera composers. It does what we expect it to do: Dramatize the life of Oppenheimer and other historically important people in its orbit in an aesthetically bold way, while also letting all the characters and all the events be used metaphorically and symbolically, so that they become pointelistic elements in a much larger canvas that deals with the mysteries of the influence of the unsociable human personality and the influence of the human personality.



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