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The Hater's Guide to Oppenheimer

Is Oppenheimer a good movie? Maybe. Probably, even. But I’ve been angry about it for a month now, so it’s finally time to write a (somewhat biased) review so I stop annoying my friends and family. And it’s still in theaters! You can still go see it, and then call me and I will talk to you for at least the three-hour runtime about why it’s such a frustrating film! (Please do not do this unless you are prepared.) What follows is kind of a review, but kind of a thinkpiece.

(mild spoilers for Oppenheimer to follow, but nothing major)

This guy is RUINING my LIFE

The reasons Oppenheimer frustrated me beyond belief are many, but my main problem with the movie comes down to this: it’s very hard to criticize a thing when you are also doing the thing you’re criticizing. Meaning: Oppenheimer (the film, but also the film’s version of the man) is very, very focused on why we turn some people into great men, and how those great men both create and destroy their own mythos. It purports to deconstruct the genius through Oppenheimer’s self-conscious maintenance of it, and how it spirals out of his control. Unfortunately, the movie also posits that Oppenheimer really IS smart, he really IS that much of a genius, he really IS important (a guy literally tells him so), and that the physics he and his colleagues study really IS fundamental to the world (and not just because it is used to commit horrifying war crimes). Consciously or unconsciously, Oppenheimer reifies what it intends to critique.

Watching this movie is like going on a date with the kind of guy that says, in all seriousness, “See, the cult of singular brilliance is totally bad! But. But what if there WAS a singularly brilliant guy.” Based on his movies, many of which center on tortured men whose genius leads them into personal misery and ethical quandaries (see Inception, the Batman films, The Prestige, Interstellar) Christopher Nolan is exactly this kind of guy, and it’s hard not to notice the parallels when pointed out.

Oppenheimer also suffers from the same flaw that plagues many other Nolan films: women are not people. They are hot, emotionally volatile props or they are set dressing. They are here to marvel at Oppenheimer’s genius or be frustrated by it, but never to truly challenge the framing of the narrative. Nolan loves to do this (see: Marion Cotillard in Inception, Jessica Chastain in Interstellar). I’m pretty sure the reason why I loved Dunkirk is because there were no women around to be turned into sexy lamps by the narrative. And I do actually love when women are hot and insane (Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor Ragnarok can step on me anytime), but that’s not actually why they’re here. The women of Oppenheimer are there to act as props. They are Oppenheimer’s guilt complex and his moral compass. And yeah, all characters are props of the narrative, but dang, at least the men in this movie get to have the complexity of real people. Florence Pugh is doing her best with an all-timer “manic pixie dream girl” character. What if a woman was hot…. and emotional… but so emotional that her emotions eventually overcome her in a way that our cold, scientific protagonist cannot understand??? Many people are asking this. Oppenheimer is asking this.

I can overlook the casual sexism of the narrative (though big shoutout to the person who told me the narrative is sexist because the main character, Oppenheimer, is sexist). As someone who loves movies, I overlook that kind of thing all the time. My real problem with the movie is that a story about the burden of genius suggests that Oppenheimer’s path, and those of the physicists around him, is in some way inexorable. The bomb WILL happen, because the military is collecting people to do it. The course of history has is some way been written, and the scientists are ultimately powerless to stop their work from becoming the ultimate weapon. That as much as Oppenheimer flirts with community-centered thinking via unionization and communism (and what is the movie trying to say about communism, I continue to wonder), his ambition and his genius will drive him to self-destruction. And yet somehow, he is also shocked by the horrifying outcome.

Unfortunately, since I have a PhD in impact physics I can say from personal experience that while it is very hard to do ethical work in a field that cannot be untangled from the military-industrial complex, it is also very easy to not take money from the DoD and to not work on things that could hurt people. Many of my colleagues and I do it all the time, because it matters to us that we reject as much of the bad parts of the field as we can. It matters, because we can dream of new visions for science, centered on connecting with the people we’re meant to be gathering knowledge for. Doing that is a choice, but it’s a choice to do the opposite, too. The Manhattan Project might be one of the most high-profile cases of scientists playing a critical role in war, but it was certainly not the first time. Highly educated scientists make conscious choices, and the scientists of Los Alamos chose to ignore the pacifist movement in the US at the time, as well as the people of New Mexico that would face the very real radioactive fallout of their tests. Oppenheimer’s “oh no, they’re not stopping with my bomb, this is all out of my control” framing uses the military (and Truman) to partially absolve the scientists, who are left hand-wringing about what they’ve built.

But this isn’t a case of “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” (Jurassic Park kicks ass, though.) Genius does not automatically create destruction - that’s a narrative framing. Actually, so is the idea of genius itself! And objection to complicity in the military-industrial complex isn’t new, either. Many scientists could and did object to the war, to their professional detriment. Many scientists can and do object to the way science is used to assist in building state power. And it kind of sucks that movies like Oppenheimer, intentionally or not, show Oppenheimer the man as a tortured genius womanizer coolguy. It’s not great for audiences but it’s especially not great for science, which is reckoning today with a rejection of the “hero mode” version of science that this movie depicts. Science has a long and storied history of living legends who’ve done terrible things. It is so easy to not praise them, and instead turn to all of the people doing radically different and interesting work instead. But Christopher Nolan likes to think about tortured genius coolguys (I wonder why), so here we have Oppenheimer.

So should you watch Oppenheimer? Yeah, probably. It’s got a lot to think about. But if you watch it (or watch it again, when it comes out on streaming), I encourage you to think harder, not just about what the movie is showing you, but what it’s not. Why is the myth of the great genius so important to so many? What’s the alternative? In science, we’re dealing with that right now, and it’s hard work. But we’d love to talk to you about it.

(I will say the Trinity test sequence is truly phenomenal film-making though. Credit where credit is due.)

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