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On Oppenheimer and the Value of Political Criticism

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As we all know, film twitter is the fucking worst, and they are rarely in fuller flower than when a new movie by a beloved white male auteur is newly out in theaters. The advent of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is thus a prime opportunity for a legion of humorless fanboys to roam the twittersphere in search of any opinion that is not 100% reverent, and show up in the replies to sourly explain that the writer is obviously not smart enough to comprehend a [checks notes] popular entertainment that screens on IMAX and made $80M in its opening weekend. Specifically, the complaint in Oppenheimer‘s case is that political criticism of the movie, and especially of whether it is sufficiently condemnatory of Oppenheimer, or sufficiently interested in the actual victims of the atomic bombings, is Doing it Wrong. Adam Kotsko offers what is probably the most measured, generous version of this argument at The Atlantic, and even he equates the critics he’s condemning with evangelical Christians.

More clear is the fact that all mainstream criticism—especially of film and television—is evangelical in form, if not in content. Every artwork is imagined to have a clear message; the portrayal of a given behavior or belief is an endorsement and a recommendation; consumption of artwork with a given message will directly result in the behaviors or beliefs portrayed. This is one of the few phenomena where the “both sides” cliché is true: Left-wing critics are just as likely to do this as their right-wing opponents. For every video of a right-wing provocateur like Ben Shapiro decrying the woke excesses of Barbie, there is a review praising the Mattel product tie-in as a feminist fable.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the phenomenon that Adam describes and that film twitter so condemns doesn’t exist. I find the accusation that viewers these days want entertainment to signpost, in big neon letters, which characters are GOOD and which are BAD to be overblown and overused, but that’s not the same as saying that it doesn’t happen. The failure mode of political criticism is a kind of box-ticking moralism that seems to approach every work with a checklist of whether it espouses the correct views on any given subject. I agree that it’s not the job of a film like Oppenheimer to morally judge its subject, and that the result if it tried to do so would be boring and hectoring. But I also think that’s largely because the film’s format and genre inevitably undermine that kind of treatment. Film twitter can cry all it likes that “depiction is not endorsement!” but depiction does direct audience sympathies. It determines who we see as fully human, who is instrumentalized (in a movie like Oppenheimer, these are largely the women), and who is just absent (the victims of the bomb, the people displaced and poisoned by atomic testing and the extraction of fissionable material). No matter how ambivalent Oppenheimer is on its subject, it ultimately presents him as the most human person in its story, and the audience can’t help feeling for him in a way that they won’t for his invisible victims. (Is this another jab at Succession? Why, yes, I think it is!)

To put it another way, the problem with reviews like Eileen Jones’s in Jacobin, which Adam singles out and which has come under a lot of fire from the film twitter contingent, isn’t that it approaches the film politically or decries it for ignoring the parts of the story that exist outside of Oppenheimer’s point of view. It’s that it does these things in a shallow, poorly-written, poorly-argued way. The absence of direct depiction of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings from the movie is part of the point that it is trying to make, that as soon as Oppenheimer completes his work the products of it are removed from his control, and he ends up hearing about their use on the radio like any other citizen. If you missed that, you might not have any business writing film reviews. (At the same time, Jones’s observation, that the only depiction of the physical effects of exposure to a nuclear explosion is on a white woman in Oppenheimer’s imagination, rather than a Japanese woman in reality, is a valuable one; once again, it matters where the film chooses to direct our sympathy.) But the filmbro response of “hurr durr, it’s a biography, dummy” to any criticism of the film’s narrow focus ignores the fact that “why biography?” is a perfectly legitimate question to ask.

As Aaron Bady observes, asking why an artist chose to make a specific work, and why they chose to make it in the way they did, are essential tools in a critic’s arsenal. They’re tools that can be misused—in our discussion of negative reviews in the Critical Friends podcast a few months ago, Dan Hartland, Aisha Subramanian, and I talked about the need for a critic to engage a work on its own terms. But we also pointed out that sometimes a critic needs to take a wider view, to ask what the choice of those terms signifies, and whether that choice was a worthwhile one. I’m not sure Adam has reckoned with the way that his call, later in the Atlantic piece, for reviews of Oppenheimer to focus on things like pacing and thematic focus can be reduced to the claim that reviews should engage purely with the aesthetic rather than the political. (For that matter, I think it ignores the fact that this is a false distinction, that in filmmaking in particular, aesthetic choices are often political ones, and vice versa—see, again, Jones’s point about whose face we see get melted by a nuclear blast.)

One of the things I tried to convey in my own review of Oppenheimer is that I find the question of Oppenehimer’s guilt—did he have anything to feel guilty about, was he in fact sufficiently guilty, was the public hounding of him justified—to be a supremely boring and irrelevant one. You can respond to that by saying “oh well, I guess the film is just not for you”, but the fact remains that this is, in fact, a film for a lot of people. It is a major studio tentpole. It has sold millions of tickets worldwide. It’s going to be nominated for an Oscar, and so will Cillian Murphy for his portrayal of Oppenheimer as such an ambivalent, guilt-stricken figure. It’s worth asking why Nolan, and Hollywood in general, are drawn to this version of the story, one that prioritizes a single (white, male) actor over all the other approaches one can take to the beginning of the nuclear age. Why did reading American Prometheus light a fire under Nolan, and why did his adaptation of the book place its emphases where it did? It is, of course, possible for criticism of this type to fall into the trap of criticizing the film for not being the film the critic wanted, but I don’t think that’s inevitable. Just because a thing can be done badly doesn’t mean that it is bad to do.

I’ll close out this post with a thought that I’ve been having since watching Oppenheimer, about the contrast between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Wernher von Braun. In one corner we have a staunch supporter of left-wing politics, deeply cognizant of his work’s potential for destruction, who spent years trying to minimize its negative effects. In the other corner we have an unrepentant Nazi and slave-driver who was openly contemptuous when it was suggested to him that he bore some responsibility for how his work for the military was deployed. And yet I think we all know which of these men made a more positive contribution to humanity. I’m not saying this as some glib “Hitler was a vegetarian, Churchill drank and smoke” gotcha, but to suggest that if a period of history can produce such disparate and seemingly incongruous results from these two men, then maybe the lens of biography is the not the most useful one with which to regard them. Saying so is not the only valid critical approach to Oppenheimer (and in fact, it probably does foreclose a lot of other interesting discussions, so I wouldn’t want it to be the final word on the movie). But neither is it beside the point.

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