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Oppenheimer: Film Review

9/10 Stars




Oppenheimer is a film about consequences.


There is a moment in Oppenheimer, challenging to remember unless one knows the story, in which Oppenheimer has a short conversation in the kitchen with his long-time friend, Haakon Chevalier. Oppie is doing the dishes, and Haakon casually says a dangerous thing. A mutual friend of theirs, George Eltenton, had means to funnel information about the Manhattan Project through the Communist Party into the Soviet Union.


Oppie stops drying a glass.

“Well,” he says, “that would be treason.”

Haakon casually acknowledges this. Before he can continue, Oppie’s wife, Kitty, walks into the kitchen and interrupts the conversation.


This moment, while Robert was doing the dishes, would later be called the Chevalier Incident in capital letters and be retold a dozen times. It became the moment around which Oppenheimer’s life and career would turn more than a decade later.




It’s strange. How many conversations do we have in our kitchen? How many of them could destroy a career?





You see, he didn’t report it immediately. And he was the director of the Manhattan Project. When he did report it, he left out the name Haakon Chevalier. Then, when he reported it to the project head of security, Colonel Pash, he lied about it. In fact, he created an entirely new story.


Why?


Protection, but not just for himself. For Haakon Chevalier.



Oppie didn’t want to rat on his friend. But he was naive about his friend and the way the world works. It became the central weapon of the kangaroo court put together by Lewis Strauss (played incredibly by Robert Downey Jr.) to destroy Oppenheimer’s credibility and influence.






Those consequences were significant, but what of the bomb?


 

In the early 1940s, the great threat was Nazi Germany. Oppenheimer was personally motivated to create the “gadget” before they could. He was Jewish. As he says to a colleague,

“It’s not your people they are killing in gas chambers.”

So they built the Manhattan Project headquarters at Los Alamos and began working. As General Groves (played to tender and comedic perfection by Matt Damon) tells a subordinate,


“Alright. Build him a town. Build it fast.”

But the United States of America would never drop an atomic bomb on Germany.


Without ever seeing a Japanese person, scenes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or anything from the mission to drop the bombs, Nolan forces the audience to grapple with the personal consequences of dropping an atomic bomb.


The man responsible for creating the bomb hears it from President Harry Truman on the radio with everyone else. Little Boy, a bomb weighing ten thousand pounds, was dropped with a “tremendous bang” on Hiroshima, Japan.



Then Nolan gives us one of the most incredible scenes from his masterpiece. The one where Oppenheimer delivers a speech to celebrating Manhattan Project staff sitting in wooden bleachers.


The percussive strange stomping we hear throughout the film and see in Oppenheimer’s nightmarish visions comes from a celebration. It was Robert’s proudest moment. But he was horrified.



The sound design drops from overwhelming to silent. Robert tries to speak. He gets out what they want to hear. A woman in the front row opens her mouth to cheer with everyone else, and we hear a blood-chilling scream instead. Then silence. It’s all he can hear.


Consequences too great to fathom.


It’s not about relitigating the right wartime decision. As Oppie tells staff questioning the ethics of their work, this gadget will make a hell of a difference to American G.I.’s who would otherwise have to storm the Japanese mainland. And Japan, though a weakened enemy, was resolutely unwilling to surrender. But we can’t shake the feeling that something is terribly wrong with it all—the wrath of God in man’s hands.


Robert Oppenheimer has been called an American Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to man. As punishment, Zeus chained him to a rock and tortured him for eternity.



Societies often recognize a great person’s contribution to the world too late. And how often is it to assuage our guilt for not recognizing it sooner? We feel ashamed for spotlighting their few failures more brightly than their many accomplishments.


The opening image of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is rain sprinkling the reflective surface of a puddle. Nolan returns to a similar image at the end.


Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer stand pondside on Princeton’s campus. As at the beginning of the film, rain drizzles the surface of the pond. Einstein tells Oppie,


“Now it’s your turn to face the consequences of your achievement. They’ll pat you on the back. Tell you all is forgiven… Just remember, it won’t be for you. It will be for them.”

The political infrastructure of the time chained the bomb’s creator to a rock of exclusion against which he did not struggle. However, in the end, it was not what tortured him so. Just look at his haunted face.


J. Robert Oppenheimer’s true rock of torment was his own conscience.






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