To Ask the Question
Great films ask a question, and even better films leave you glued to your chair at the end of it posing the question yourself. “I saw a 70mil. print in Paris with the audience, and I remember they all couldn’t get out of their chairs at the end. They saw the movie and they all just sat there and didn’t leave the cinema which I’ve never seen.” Cillian Murphy recounts alongside Emily Blunt on The Empire Podcast. After watching this film in IMAX at my Ohio AMC theater, I was left the very same. Tears fell atop already dried salty paths on my cheeks as I thought about the dangerous power our world now owns and the consequences humanity has faced because of it. The year has ended, and Oppenheimer remains my top choice for 2023’s incredible catalog of movies.
NOTE: There very well may be spoilers involved in this article, I highly recommend watching the movie and then coming back here. Seeing as most events in the film have occurred in history there won’t be much to spoil. With that, read at your own risk.
A Storytelling Masterpiece
The movie follows J. Robert Oppenheimer, a touch of his intelligent and nihilistic beginnings, but mostly his involvement in The Trinity Project and the creation of the atomic bomb. Once releasing the bombs terrible havoc amongst Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer then faced the scarring and lasting effects of these events ethically and morally. Politically, Oppenheimer is betrayed by the very country that employed him to create their new toy by using J. R. Oppenheimer’s indirect ties to the communist party as the basis of their political assault against him, leaving him stripped of any power over how these weapons are used.
This was Christopher Nolan's movie, so coming into it, I knew the concept was going to be well-thought-out and motivated, if not a bit out of order in terms of structure, and confusing. So I was leaning in ready to take it all in and not miss a beat. What surprised me the most was how little I noticed how long this film was. The pacing was remarkable. The rhythm was not choppy and coarse but held onto you with every cut. The soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson is rich, thought-provoking, and tension-filled, aiding this rhythm. The sound design by Richard King emphasized the story with sound leaving you questioning whether you could look away from this film for even one second.
Christopher Nolan was highly ambitious with this film applying practical sets and a star-studded cast, as well as a script written in the first person. “You feel like you’re inside of it and I realize that that translates when you see the film. I feel like this film reaches through the screen wraps its arms around you and pulls you inside of it.” (Emily Blunt). With this many actors, it could have been too many cooks in the kitchen but with Nolan’s exceptional leadership, he implemented each actor like a chess grandmaster leaving no piece to waste. There was no lack of intention with Nolan’s direction. Pacing, character development, acting, sound design, cinematography. Everything was so unique as an individual, but as a whole created something epic.
The Actors, the Storytellers
When I talked about this film being like a chess board I truly meant it. However a chess board is just a chess board, there are both the pieces and the one controlling the pieces. But in this particular film, I sensed that our chess grandmaster had quite a few queens on the board. Cillian Murphy played a fiercely curious, and deeply conflicted J. Robert Oppenheimer. Emily Blunt acts as the brilliant but unlikable backbone of the Oppenheimer family as Katherine Oppenheimer. Matt Damon plays a stoic and grounded General Leslie Groves. Robert Downey Jr. played a political threat against Oppenheimer as former acting United States secretary of commerce Lewis Strauss. Finally, Florence Pugh finding the cracks in Oppenheimer’s constitution as a therapist and J.R. Oppenheimer’s secret affair playing Jean Tatlock.
Cillian Murphy is someone whose career I’ve been following closely, from Christopher Nolan’s Movies, Inception, and The Batman Series, to his work in Peaky Blinders. I’ve loved how stoic he is as a person and how separated he is from fame itself. On the outside, he seems like quite a humble figure, from reading books at a plane terminal to having nothing to do with a smartphone, and nonexistent on social media. Cillian Murphy plays the progression of this character masterfully and he’s an actor who made me lean forward soaking in every single movement, expression, and behavior he expressed as J.R. Oppenheimer.
It’s Emily Blunt that was both an exciting and refreshing powerhouse which you only really realize toward the end of the film. As J.R. Oppenheimer’s wife, she plays a highly intelligent scrappy, yet, flawed individual trapped by a life she probably didn’t know she did not want. “For me, it’s never important if someone is likable. I just have to understand them. I could play that quiet desperation of the character, the restlessness and that unashamed flair that she had, which was so fiery and exciting. And yet she was this very stabilizing force for him. She was his most vigorous protector.” (Emily Blunt) Her strength is shown as the backbone of the Oppenheimers, and without her, Oppenheimer would not be the same.
But Robert Downey Jr. was another powerhouse performance. He made me think that there was a lot of truth to the pouting politician who’s had his power taken away. Many of the people I’ve gone to the movie with have noted his performance standing out on screen, thinking maybe there’s a supporting Oscar heading his way. I’m not certain myself, I think there are some strong contenders against him, even so, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance was exceptional.
These actors bolstered and solidified the subject material to grant the audience trust to continue following along with this story. What these actors also succeeded in was empathy for the characters on screen. It’s a success in storytelling. Through this medium, it asked the question, and offered me, the audience, that question as well. Why I love this movie so much is how it sparked empathy and a warning.
An Allegorical Warning
Oppenheimer set the stage for what’s currently happening today expressing the archetypical seeker or alchemist. Seeking something far beyond humanity's grasp, a power of the gods, Prometheus, granting fire to humanity. Once thought unobtainable until someone, devoted enough, becomes able. However, this power comes with consequences, and I believe it has created fear within us that this power may be utilized once again, from the Atomic bomb to its successors, the threat still pertinent to this day.
It’s the technological advancement of AI that is allegorical to this story. It’s not lost on me how AI has already affected the filmmaking and writing world itself with the SAG strike and Writer’s Guild strike having come and gone mostly due to AI’s effects on jobs within the industry. Both of these technological advancements and their creators held foresight into the risks. Both could destroy the world, one more tangibly than the other. Both creators are highly intelligent as well as tactfully naive. Even though they’ve heard the dangers, there’s a need greater justified than the effects of the danger. “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t” Oppenheimer says to Isidor Rabi who, for moral and ethical reasons, cannot bring himself to be a part of the project in Los Alamos later known as the Trinity Project. With this, Rabi relents and joins the project realizing that the race, though a moral and ethical dilemma, is inescapable and his skillset is necessary in winning it.
Those who are creators have to be somewhat blind to the cause and effects. Sometimes the fear of foresight will paralyze the creation itself. We won’t know until we know what these effects are going to be through AI, just as Oppenheimer never truly knew the damage to come “They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it. Theory will only take you so far.” (Oppenheimer). Oppenheimer created an understanding of the turmoil that occurs within a creator and the effects of the creation itself.
Though I couldn’t express this while left sitting in my chair in the movie theater, only in retrospect, at the time of watching this film I just felt this wave of danger and abuse of power wash over me. I sat there thinking about all of the powerful people that we have in office, and amongst the entire congress that can act like power-hungry children, intelligence questionable in many regards. In an interview with Christopher Nolan for The New York Times Dennis Overbye makes an observation “I went to the book to fact-check the movie and was surprised to read that Truman really did call him [Oppenheimer] a crybaby.”
Christopher Nolan Responds “Doesn’t seem very presidential, does it?”
“Given recent history it sounds very presidential to me.” Dennis Overbye hitting the nail on the head in regards to modern politics and past politics. But even if there is intelligence in office there aren’t a lot of good answers in regards to actions to be made. Every action has some sort of response and most of the time we lack the foresight to understand what that response will be, many times running into consequence, while we’re simply hoping for some positive step forward.
An Answer to the Question, Closing this Film Study
First, let’s define the question. For those of us who may play Prometheus, should we grant humanity the fire to destroy themselves? To break this apart, let’s look at the fire. A fire that keeps us warm, a fire that smelts iron and through both fire and water can craft durable material, material that can harm, and material that can shelter and protect. Through fire, we can both protect our planet and harm it. The question becomes hard to answer, and I have to admit, I do not have an answer. However, as long as we’re asking the question I believe we’re getting closer to one.
I watched this movie for the second time recently while writing this article and as the question was asked to me once again, streaming it in my room, I couldn’t help but silently sob during the same moments I had witnessed in the theater. This is a difficult question, and the fear of this power becomes so heavy. After the bomb successfully goes off the entire camp breaks out in cheers and begins to celebrate. It’s heartbreaking to watch how it seems so twisted. I won’t talk about the second portion of the movie that brought tears to my eyes, I will leave that solely to you to witness.
This movie left me in that chair both times I watched it leaving me with the question. The only way that I could allow myself any semblance of movement once again is if I asked that question myself. Playing it around in my mind, I imagined a world without this weapon and I imagined what it might be like without any weapons. “What would true peace look like?” was a question I asked myself, and though it became hard to imagine, the very thought of it made me realize that the point of this film is to challenge the viewer, from aspects of the modern and past world, it’s meant to ask the question, just as a good movie should. Thus, our job is to stand up from our seats and seek out the answer, however difficult it may be to find it.
If you have not seen this movie, please do. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Comment below, what questions in this film popped up for you.
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