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‘Oppenheimer’: Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should
Great movie, though it should have heeded its own advice.
Oppenheimer raises interesting questions, and it respects the audience enough to let them work out the answers themselves. I appreciate a movie that airs multiple perspectives and gives us things to think about.
J. Robert Oppenheimer and other physicists pursued the development of the atomic bomb because they feared what might happen if the Nazis developed it first. But was Oppenheimer’s real motivation fear, idealism, curiosity, or ego? He and his team continued developing the bomb even after Hitler’s death, and before that, they continued even upon discovering a slight possibility that an atomic detonation would set off an irreversible chain reaction and destroy the world.
So how did they justify continuing? How did the military justify using it on two Japanese cities? How did the use of the bomb affect the man who spearheaded its development? Was the bomb a necessary evil, or did it effectively destroy the world as everyone knew it? Or both?
We all like to think that we absolutely would not have dropped those bombs if we were running things back then, but we can’t possibly know for sure because we didn’t grow up in that world that the atomic bomb forever changed. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can examine those events so we’re better prepared the next time we’re at a major crossroads.
Of course, it’s hard not to contemplate recent developments in artificial intelligence while watching this movie. I already wrote about AI, so I won’t go into detail about it here. But it is something else the movie can get us thinking about.
Oppenheimer is a cerebral film, as you’d expect from writer/director Christopher Nolan. Ideas are its strength—interpersonal drama is not—and it provides a nice counterbalance to other recent movies. I enjoy a good superhero movie as much as anyone, and the new Mission: Impossible was also tremendous fun, but we need protein in our diets too.
The non-linear movie spans from Oppenheimer’s early career to his persecution during the McCarthy era. The puzzle pieces come together masterfully as the movie progresses, retaining clarity throughout. Nolan’s movies can sometimes get a little too convoluted for their own good (earning this brilliant parody), but the historical basis grounds this one, for the most part.
The huge, sprawling cast includes not a single weak link. Cillian Murphy deserves the many nominations he’ll inevitably receive for his portrayal of Oppenheimer. Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, and Florence Pugh also excel in key roles, and there’s a lot of “Hey, it’s that guy from that thing” (and that guy, too, invariably nails it).
The direction, cinematography, score, practical effects—across the board, everyone is at or near the top of their game. Even great movies have their flaws, though. This one would have benefited from more restraint.
Oppenheimer did not need to be a three-hour movie. Granted, it never felt like three hours. It held my attention throughout, and I could watch it again somewhere down the line. But well-crafted excess is still excess. The 1950s scenes have some good candidates for cutting; we could have gotten the point without seeing quite so much of Oppenheimer being grilled about his security clearance. As a good rule of thumb, less time spent in Senate committee hearings is better.
The main thing that needed to be cut, however, was the nudity. From a pragmatic standpoint, the decision to include blatant sex scenes reduces the potential audience. A PG-13 version could have retained the movie’s greatest strengths while allowing it to be shown in high school classrooms, where it could have sparked discussion. Even more, it could have opened movie theater doors to younger teenagers who might have discovered a fascination with history or science.
But beyond that, nudity in a biopic strikes me as unsavory. These were real people—I don’t want to think about them naked, let alone see it. Why did “We should take off J. Robert Oppenheimer’s clothes” cross anyone’s mind?
Christopher Nolan certainly has the clout to make a three-hour movie, and he can include nudity if he wants to. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, which is basically the theme of the movie.
Oppenheimer helps us understand the mindsets that led to the atomic bomb’s creation, and it also helps us understand the risks involved and the chain reactions it set off. It suggests there are certain frontiers we can’t return from, and perhaps some of those frontiers are best left unexplored.
To give Nolan the benefit of the doubt, maybe he calculated that three hours was the time required for this message to permeate the minds of AI researchers.
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