Worship the Giant Bomb
Oppenheimer is a morally vacuous hagiography of power.
Christopher Nolan’s much-touted, three hour bio pic Oppenheimer presents itself as a serious look at the complex moral depth of a brilliant man. But really it’s just a standard Hollywood hagiography, which uses standard-issue Hollywood emotional and intellectual shortcuts to enlist the audience in patriotic horseshit. From his cowardly refusal to give a single Japanese victim a speaking role, to his manipulative use of black and white to give sentimental nonsense a patina of authenticity, Nolan wallows in lazy, glib filmmaking, designed to turn the incineration of hundreds of thousands into a mellow, righteous glow of self-congratulation. Critics who have embraced this nonsense should be ashamed of themselves.
The unwieldy, endless three-hour movie is more or less framed around Oppenheimer’s 1954 security hearing, in which he was stripped of security clearance and disgraced because of his past Communist ties and because of his discomfort with developing the H-bomb. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) tells his life story to the committee, as Nolan cuts away to portray that life via epic blaring soundtrack and interpolation of dramatic incendiary graphics, illustrating the atomic whoosh and boom inside Oppenheimer’s head.
More pedestrianly, the movie follows Oppenheimer as a young man studying the new physics in Europe, emphasizing his brilliance, his idiosyncrasy, his passion for justice which leads him into Communist circles, his philandering, his ambition, and his hatred of the Nazis. All of this culminates in his leadership of the Manhattan Project and the successful development of the atomic bomb, which is dropped on Japan rather than Germany, sparking in Oppenheimer ambivalent Doubts.
Again, the movie makes a pretense of sharing or exploring those doubts. But the truth is Nolan couldn’t care less about the question of whether it was a good idea to drop not one, but two atomic bombs and kill hundreds of thousands of non combatants, including children. And you can tell he doesn’t care because he raises these issues most insistently in the context of that security clearance hearing, which he presents as the most immoral thing in the film—far more immoral than murdering civilians.
The hearing is, we’re told, payback from bureaucrat Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who Oppenheimer once embarrassed in a public hearing. Strauss decides to destroy Oppenheimer’s career as payback, leaking his security file to a rabid anti-Communist with ties to J. Edgar Hoover.
The hearing is presented as a farce, and Strauss eventually ends up ranting like a super-villain, his manipulations condemned even by his own supine staff. The actual ethics of Oppenheimer’s complicity in the bomb is gently nuked by the familiar mechanics of melodrama; Oppenheimer becomes the good guy by virtue of being persecuted by the bad guy. The corpses the good guy is responsible for are relegated to hallucinatory dream where their moral weight is secondary to their role as symbolic demonstrations of the intricacies of his character.
The film uses the anti Communist witch hunts to duck the ethics of nuclear annihilation. But it doesn’t really deal with the ethics of the witch hunts either. We’re told over and over that Oppenheimer was never a real Communist, which allows the movie to mostly avoid taking sides on whether persecuting actual Communists was justified or not. The most prominent party member in the film, Oppenheimer’s lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) is carefully delegitimized; she’s presented as mentally unstable in no small part through persistent hypersexualization.
Much of the discussion of Tatlock has centered on whether portraying sex and nudity in film is ever justified, which has neatly elided what the sex and nudity in this film is doing. Oppenheimer has a number of lovers, but Tatlock is the only one shown topless or having sex with him at all, and she’s practically more nude in the movie than not.
Nudity in this film isn’t equated with pleasure, sensuality, or self-exploration (as in, for example, Don’t Worry, Darling.) Instead, it’s linked to exposure and humiliation. In the scene where he discusses his relationship with Tatlock before the committee, Oppenheimer himself is nude, and we see him and Jean having sex before the censorious security inspectors, in a half dream sequence that’s meant to cast the judges as voyeurs and Oppenheimer as helpless.
Oppenheimer’s nudity is weakness; by extension, so is Jean’s, in this scene and in others. The nudity and sex are necessary because the nudity and sex are the primary way through which the film characterizes Tatlock as unstable and pitiful. Her Communist beliefs are less important than the bare skin that strips them of meaning. Since sex is who Tatlock is, you don’t need to think too much about whether her ideas influenced Oppenheimer.
Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s most important relationship in the film isn’t with Tatlock, or Strauss, or his wife, but with Einstein (Tom Conti). Einstein only has a walk on part, but the short encounters between the two men are thematically central. That’s especially the case for a discussion after the bomb has been dropped which is revisited multiple times, once at the very end of the film.
The exchange takes place outside; standing beside a scenic pond, Einstein, white-haired wise man and God surrogate, gives Oppenheimer his blessing, assuring him that his legacy is important and that the guilt he bears is a kind of sanctification. Oppenheimer reiterates his loyalty to the United States and then, in an ectomorphic, beatific close up, utters some sententious lines about how he set off a chain reaction which destroyed the world.
And what is that moral? It gently evaporates in a gush of deference and awe—at the hugeness of the bomb, and the hugeness of Hollywood. Oppenheimer, like Nolan, is the director of vast human resources in pursuit of a massive payload. The actual meaning, or use, of the mechanism is less important than its power—a power which justifies both the creator and the nation-state in whose name the power is deployed.
As Viet Thanh Nguyen has argued, the “Hollywood industrial complex…is crucial to the military industrial complex”; America’s military superiority is justified and advanced by its massively disproportionate control of representation, ideology, memory, and history. It’s in that context that Nolan tells us that Oppenheimer is a good American and a good man not despite the deaths on his conscience, but precisely because those deaths make him complicated and cool. Vacuous hagiography is indistinguishable from vacuous nationalism is indistinguishable from the romanticization of overwhelming force, in the form of a huge honking explosion and/or the huge honking movie that blandly justifies it.
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