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Oppenheimer – First Reactions


I may be the worst person in the world to write a movie review. The way I like to watch movies is by immersion, not being analytical. I am not versed in the language of film criticism. If I watch a movie several times, I can start to get that part of it, but I have seen “Oppenheimer” only once.

I have my own priors – I’ve lived in two of the film’s sets for significant periods of time and have interacted with people who knew Opperheimer and participated in the Manhattan Project. I have been indoctrinated into the Oppenheimer cult and was gratified to see E. O. Lawrence portrayed as one of the bad guys, along with, of course, Edward Teller. (Necessary note that the reference to a cult is a deliberate exaggeration.) I drove to the movie past the place where the bridge was where David Greenglass handed off blueprints to a Soviet handler. I sat with two former Lab colleagues t the theater. Today I drive to Los Alamos to attend a memorial service for a friend at Fuller Lodge.

There are several ways I could go about this, but I think I’ll start with random thoughts about the movie, then, in later posts, move on to locating it in today’s culture. If you want standard film criticism, Abigail Nussbaum addresses the film and some of the criticisms of the criticisms. I mostly agree with her.

I thought it was a very good film. I found the flashbacks and achronological sequence not at all hard to follow, but they might be for others. It tells a particular story very effectively. Reviewers and watchers do not agree on what that story is, because the development of nuclear weapons raises high emotions. I’ll get into that in later posts.

One disagreement with Abigail – it seemed clear to me from the beginning that the story is structured around the two hearings. Early scenes are shown in color with the tag “Fission” and in black and white, “Fusion.” The director, Christopher Nolan, has said that the first represents how Oppenheimer perceives events and the second is from other viewpoints. The two could also be tagged, in today’s parlance, “Fuck Around” and “Find Out,” both for Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss. Keeping those two tracks in mind can help to work through the achronology.

The meeting sequences are sparse in the beginning and increase to become the whole story. The history, with a few dramatic liberties, is accurate, probably more accurate than any other account I’ve seen. It also was true to the way I’ve imagined things happening, which is based on more Oppenheimer biographies and histories of the Manhattan Project than any sane person should, along with personal interactions with people close to the events.

Having lived in the locations is always distracting for me. The outside scenes of LeConte Hall at Berkeley where Oppenheimer had his office and which I walked by every day looked the way they would have. The town of Los Alamos, however, was set in the beautiful open scenery west of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch, where many movies have been set.

The physical reality of Los Alamos is quite different, with steep-sided canyons ever present, interrupting easy travel. You have to go west toward the mountains to go north or south. It’s an oddly claustrophobic feeling in open-seeming scenery. Fuller Lodge was genuine, and the scene in which Kitty finds Robert after he’s been told of Jean Tatlock’s death looks like the area at the head of Pajarito Canyon, which is a place he reasonably might have ridden to.

Fuller Lodge was a social center for the Boys’ Ranch and the Manhattan Project, and continues today. It was the only lodging and restaurant when my husband and I interviewed. It was also, we were told shortly after we arrived, where Edward Teller had come back to Los Alamos for the first time and walked from table to table trying unsuccessfully to get people to greet him.

The story is about men, because most scientists and engineers were men at that time. The numbers of women and people of color in Oppenheimer’s classes were not representative of that time. It would have been all white men. Oppenheimer’s Jewishness is highlighted mainly by his interactions with I. I. Rabi, another American Jew. Oppenheimer observes to Groves, I think, that German antisemitism gives the US an advantage, which is true. Enrico Fermi and others were available to the Manhattan Project because they had fled antisemitism in Europe.

Opperheimer’s lover, Jean Tatlock, and his wife, Kitty, are the only significant women in the movie. There’s not much about Tatlock because there seems to be little historical material about her. I thought Kitty was as strong as a subordinate character could be. Again, we don’t know a lot about her, although more than Tatlock.

The music was not as overwhelming as the trailers promised it would be, fortunately, although it attempted at times to rise to those heights. It seemed heavy-handed to me. I might have chosen quieter classical music as an accompaniment to the action and more silence.

Nolan has said that he regards Oppenheimer as the most important person in the world, and the film gives us no reason to doubt that that is what Nolan believes.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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