It Dares to Look Askance at Its Hero



Like countless moviegoers around the world, I’m a major fan of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” But like many of those who saw it, I wasn’t alone in having qualifications about the last part of the movie. For me, the first two hours of “Oppenheimer” were electrifying. I felt the kind of full-scale mind/soul immersion that’s the definition of what we look for when we go to the movies. But in the last hour, I experienced a certain falling-off quality. I was still involved, but less involved. As the film kept returning to the 1954 hearing that resulted in Oppenheimer losing his security clearance, with Oppenheimer in the hot seat being hectored by a team of interrogators led by Jason Clarke’s special counsel to the AEC, I thought, “Why are we still at this damn hearing?” I asked because I didn’t know.

Now I do. A month or so after “Oppenheimer” opened, I went back and saw it again, and this time my qualifications evaporated. I was just as electrified as I’d been by the first two hours ­— only now that sensation didn’t end. The feeling of immersion lasted all three hours, right to the final shot. I’m a bit embarrassed to say this, since it means admitting that I didn’t get the film right the first time; as much as I raved about it in my Variety review, I would now rewrite the last part of that piece. But I’m even more fascinated by why I missed a crucial element of the movie.

“Oppenheimer” presents its title character as a totemic figure, a daring, mysterious, endlessly complicated renaissance genius who rose to his moment by envisioning and overseeing the creation of the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy, in his mesmerizing performance, endows Oppenheimer with an all-knowing aristocratic dandy swagger. He makes him a singularly charismatic figure, a wizardly idealist who conjures up an awesome power and then grapples with the consequences of his actions. And since it feels as if Oppenheimer, at that hearing, is being persecuted (to a large extent for his earlier Communist ties), it was hard to watch it without feeling like I was on his side.

The movie, however, is not on his side. Not really. In the last hour, it’s deeply critical of Oppenheimer — as critical, I would say, as any major Hollywood biopic has ever been of its subject. And this is the road I didn’t fully let myself travel down the first time I saw “Oppenheimer.” The last hour was trying to me because I was fighting what the movie was.

I can say, with some surprise, that the final hour of “Oppenheimer” is now my favorite part of the movie. It’s the most morally dramatic and hypnotic — the true inquiry into who Oppenheimer was, and why he’s a hero who will always have an oversize asterisk next to his name.     

The first time out, I thought I was watching a drama about the creation of the A-bomb. But as captivating as all that is — the science-lab frenzy, the race against the clock, the thorny politics of life in the makeshift city that was set up in the Los Alamos desert — the process by which Oppenheimer and his fellow brainiacs transformed nuclear fission into a weapon capable of delivering a nuclear apocalypse is not exactly the stuff of spoiler alerts. They gathered; they devoted themselves; they wondered if they were going to set the global atmosphere on fire; they triumphed.

Since “Oppenheimer” is a movie with a built-in big bang, I spent a lot of that first viewing anticipating what the Trinity Test would look and feel like. I still think it’s the one disappointing aspect of the film. Nolan fragments the bomb detonation (glaring light, rising hellfire), and in doing so he somehow fails to channel its viscerally terrifying and unprecedented largeness. That kind of threw me off.

Was the building of the atomic bomb justified? “Oppenheimer” says that it absolutely was. The Nazis were working on their own bomb, and Oppenheimer, who was Jewish, very much saw his mission as an attempt to save civilization by winning a weapons race that, had the Nazis won it, might have resulted in a level of devastation beyond the unthinkable.

But was the dropping of the atomic bomb justified? Given that the Nazis had been defeated before the decision was made (by President Truman) to drop the weapon on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a powerful case could be made that it was not. Should Nolan have depicted the effects of the bomb on the Japanese, as Spike Lee suggested this week? I think that would have made “Oppenheimer” a very different movie, and not necessarily a better one. I’m not here to rehash that debate, but I’ll point out that Nolan’s film features Oppenheimer, speaking to a roomful of his Manhattan Project colleagues, cutting to a kind of cosmic justification for dropping the bomb. He says, in essence, that it will act as an inoculation, forever scaring off the human race from using the bomb by demonstrating its deathly horror.

Perhaps he was right. But this was still Oppenheimer’s Faustian bargain. He convinced himself that dropping the bomb was justified, maybe even necessary, but in doing so he was also acting out of an elaborate and convoluted self-interest. On some level he’d invented a new toy and desperately wanted to use it. Though it wasn’t his decision to use it, he distanced himself from the horror of that decision.

The rest of the movie is about how the horror comes crawling back. I certainly saw elements of that the first time. But I what I missed, in my kneejerk-old-school-liberal way, is that the 1954 hearing runs on and on not because the film is trying to demonstrate that Oppenheimer was “persecuted.” As much as the Communist associations he had in the ’30s come into play, the point is not to depict the hearing as a McCarthyite smear (even though, in fact, it kind of was).

No, the startling thing about the last hour of “Oppenheimer” is that it features two characters who seem to exist almost entirely to prosecute and torment our hero, and in both cases what they say about him is right. “Oppenheimer” shows us how J. Robert Oppenheimer was not so much a victim of history, or of an oppressive U.S. government, as he was a defensive narcissist crusader who spent his final years using the trigger of his guilt to cover himself in a kind of grand delusion.

Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss, the former head of the AEC who becomes Oppenheimer’s antagonist, is a stupendous outpouring of extemporaneous verbal energy (the actor is even more commanding without his irony than he is with it). But because Strauss is the person who stabbed Oppenheimer in the back, I assumed, the first time I saw the movie, that Nolan figured he needed some sort of villain, and that the virulent, hawkish Strauss was it. Strauss certainly had petty personal motives; the film returns several times to the Congressional hearing in which Oppenheimer publicly humiliated him with a flippant comment about radioisotopes. Yet the reason that Strauss, in certain ways, comes close to dominating the film’s last hour isn’t simply because we’re watching a bureaucrat take his vengeance. It’s because Strauss is the one who understands, and articulates, a crucial element of the film’s verdict on Oppenheimer: that he was a brilliant and self-glorifying celebrity who forged a mythology around himself, one that extended into his very crusade against the weapon he’d created.  

Oppenheimer was the scientist who let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, but after the war he devoted his life to essentially saying, “Let’s try to put it back in.” Never realizing that this was hypocritical and unreal. In public, he’d mocked Strauss, and it was Strauss’s sleazy double dealing that was on trial during his own 1959 Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Commerce — the other hearing that’s featured in the movie.

But the reason that Strauss is in the movie, and the reason Downey should win the Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance, is the fantastic fervor with which he rakes Oppenheimer over the coals. Just because Strauss is rather scurrilous doesn’t mean that he’s wrong; he’s the one who has Oppenheimer’s number. And so does Jason Clarke’s Roger Robb, the AEC attorney who, in one of the film’s most cathartic moments, gives a speech in the 1954 hearing that excoriates Oppenheimer for the hypocrisy of his position on the hydrogen bomb: his denunciation of it as a monstrously overscaled weapon — but talk about the wrong messenger! Oppenheimer’s A-bomb was already an obscenely overscaled monster.

Christopher Nolan, in that inquiring last hour, has written all this into the movie, not because he wants to damn J. Robert Oppenheimer but because he wants to take the full measure of a 20th-century visionary who charged into the creation of the atomic bomb as if it were the science project of a lifetime — which it was ­— but had the luxury of not fully thinking through the implications of his actions. By the time he thought them through, he’d turned his criticism of America’s nuclear policy into a grandly repressed apology. He used the nuclear debate, and even his own martyrdom, to justify himself. But the way the movie portrays this doesn’t make it an attack on Oppenheimer. It makes “Oppenheimer” a piece of history that’s also a human exploration of the most exhilarating honesty.


Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.