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  • Eve O'Dea

The Hollow Men: A Second Look Oppenheimer

Take any still frame from Oppenheimer’s 180-minute runtime and you would be forgiven for assuming that the film’s stunning visual display would indicate a compelling storyline, dynamic characters, and thoughtful dialogue to match. Pay attention to the actual content of the film, and you will find yourself sorely mistaken. Whether mid-Barbenheimer fever or six months after the fact, on a 60 ft-tall IMAX screen or from the comfort of your living room, the imagery of Oppenheimer, stitched together at breakneck speed, is dazzling enough to trick us into ignoring its narrative and dramatic incompetences. We are left with a three-hour movie about one the most important moments and people in modern history that is utterly lacking in humanity and fails to leave a lasting impression, resulting in something eerily hollow and amoral. 



Christopher Nolan has a lot of explaining to do. To recount the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he drops his audience into three interconnected timelines. In the first, our titular protagonist is a PhD student bouncing his way from European physics department to European physics department. He then begins working at U.C. Berkeley, gets recruited into the Manhattan Project, and helps develop the first atomic weapon. Our second timeline follows Oppenheimer (or Oppie, to his friends) after the conclusion of the Second World War as he begins serving on the advisory board to the Atomic Energy Commission. While he tries to use his position to advocate against the development of the hydrogen bomb, he ends up on the wrong side of the 1950’s Red Scare and is accused of being a communist (or at least a sympathizer, which was bad enough), thus destroying his reputation and goodwill amongst the American administration and government. A third story focuses on the political aspirations of one Lewis Strauss, a former rear admiral and chair of said Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss is trying to work his way into the Presidential Cabinet as the Secretary of Commerce, he just needs to make it through a pesky Senate hearing. The only thing standing in his way? His previous relationship with the now disgraced Oppenheimer. 

That’s a whole lotta story, even for a three hour runtime. In order to fit all of this in and keep his audience engaged, Nolan does what he has to do, that is strip the film of any emotional and dramatic weight to keep it light and easily-digestible for the average movie-goer. There is no room for nuance, and no time for silence or stillness. He rushes through every scene at full tilt. I imagine, based on total guesswork, that the average shot length is around 4 seconds long, just short enough to hold onto 21st century audiences’ continually diminishing attention spans. The film carries its viewers like a speeding train. Yes we are covering a lot of ground very quickly, and the mechanics are impressive, but we never get to slow down or stop to see the view. By the end of our journey we may still ask ourselves “how did we get here?”



Nolan introduces us to the film’s high-speed pacing right off the bat, as an older, post-war Oppenheimer narrates his experiences as a young man in Europe. We cut frequently between Cillian Murphy’s face staring wistfully out his rain-battered window, his trials and tribulations as a student at Cambridge, and what I can only describe as vague science imagery (balls of fire, space dust, etc). Also, in this condensed space, he meets his hero Niels Bohr (I hope you know who this is, because the film is not going to tell you) and injects his teacher’s apple with cyanide with the intent of killing him. The veracity of this latter incident is up for debate. It may have not happened at all, but if it did, as the book American Prometheus on which the film is based on claims, the real story offers a far more nuanced examination of Oppenheimer’s character and psychology than that which we see onscreen.

The consensus is that if Oppenheimer did commit such an act, then it was more likely with non-lethal chemicals designed to make his professor ill, not to kill him. And it did not go unnoticed by the powers that be. As a result of these alleged actions, he faced expulsion, but was saved by the intervention of his parents, granted he undergo psychiatric treatment. This chapter of Oppenheimer's life is interesting enough to merit a substantial amount of the film's attention rather than be played off as a bit of morbid humour. Films about such enigmatic figures as Oppenheimer cannot and should not be expected to adhere to every detail of a subject’s life with total accuracy. However, the oversimplification of this experience significantly dulls Oppenheimer as a character. Nolan is determined to make him out as the archetype of the misunderstood genius, removing any bite present in the real life man that could make him unlikeable.



At Cambridge, Bohr tells Oppenheimer to think more deeply about physics from a philosophical perspective. So, he reads T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a poem which eulogizes the world after a near-apocalyptic war, and looks pensively at Picasso’s Femme assise aux bras croisés almost a decade before the work was actually painted. The arbitrary allusion to both of these works feels like the cinematic equivalent of a namedrop placed here so the film can tell us how clever and well-read it is. Later in the film, Oppenheimer nonchalantly references a sonnet by John Donne beginning with the line “Batter my heart, three-person'd God” when conceiving of the name for the first ever nuclear bomb test. “What?” asks Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, the unpretentious stand-in for the audience. “Trinity” says Oppenheimer. That’s all we get. As with the works of Picasso and Eliot, Oppenheimer, both the character and the film, gets to dangle other people’s great art in front of our faces without actually engaging with said art and demonstrating an understanding of its significance. Robert gets to be smart without showing his work, and so does Nolan.

From Europe, the film jumps from year to year, mostly in California where Oppenheimer makes a name for himself by establishing the quantum physics department at U.C. Berkeley. We meet a slew of real-life supporting characters played by a handful of “that guy” actors who for the purposes of the film can be interchanged without consequence, except for one.

Much has been written about the portrayal of one Jean Tatlock by actress Florence Pugh. While some of the criticism comes from an evident fear of sex and nudity by the American movie-going public, some of the criticism rightly condemns the absolute hollowness of this one of a few named female characters in a film otherwise dominated by the male perspective and experience. It’s almost laughable how often Pugh is naked in this movie, and while the actress has defended the choice, her character’s entire arc further indicates Nolan’s utter and somewhat fascinating struggle to adeptly write female characters as anything other than one-dimensional motivations for men. Her dialogue is, like the entire script, somehow both over and underwritten at the same time. Every line that comes out of her mouth makes her seem more inhuman than the last, like a total fabrication by a man who is convinced that every standoffish woman he meets wants to sleep with him. She calls him but gets upset when he answers, he brings her flowers and she throws them in the trash. If only women weren’t so damn confusing. Jean is Oppenheimer’s very own manic pixie dream communist. Not to mention, the sex scene is bad. The fact that it is Nolan’s first is not surprising. The amount of information Nolan tries to feed us in three hours results in scenes which are rushed and vacant, and this scene is no exception. It is utterly stylistically lacking, which is especially notable in a year when several films have actually made an effort to thoughtfully portray sex on screen and challenge how we have done so in the past (All of Us Strangers, Poor Things, Passages). Given how little screen time Pugh has otherwise, and how her entire dialogue drips of cliche and male imagination, it’s hard to believe that Nolan included those scenes for any reason other than to put a naked woman on screen to keep people’s attention for a three hour movie. And then she gets sad and kills herself, and she exists as a footnote within an overstuffed film.



The initial sex scene with Jean features one of the film’s most sigh-inducingly smug moments, of which there are many. Jean (naked) casually walks over to Oppenheimer’s bookshelf to study his collection, and is surprised by its diversity. He name-drops Carl Jung, she responds “you know analysis” with a raised brow, way more impressed than she has the right to be (Tatlock was a Stanford-educated psychiatrist, but the film doesn’t have the time to tell us this) She then picks up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, of all the books in all the world, so Oppenheimer gets to tell her, and the audience, that he reads Sanskrit. Is there anything this man can’t do?

In a 1964 NBC News documentary called The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a sixty-year old Oppenheimer was interviewed about his experience at Los Alamos, the development of the atomic bomb, and shared what was going through his mind during and after the Trinity Test. During one particular moment, his gaunt face fills the frame, but his eyes are cast downwards. He's not speaking to anyone in particular. Likely, he is unable to look anyone in the eye in this state of remebrance:


“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”


This unwavering shot of someone so visibly shaken is chilling, and tells us everything we need to know about the psychology and emotional turmoil of a man who may have once truly believed he was doing the right thing. The magnitude of that famous line is evident in this moment, and hits like a ton of bricks. In Oppenheimer, this line is flippantly uttered at the behest of Jean mid-sex, amounting to a self-aware nudge and a wink. It is, to put it mildly, silly, delivered like a superhero’s catchphrase, meant to elicit cheers and knowing “I understood that reference” glances from audiences. The line is of course uttered once again after the Trinity Test, in Oppenheimer’s head. Nolan does this a lot, having characters repeat the same line, or showing the same image twice to explicitly demonstrate a thematic connection between two moments in the film, because we couldn’t possibly figure this out on our own. That Nolan thinks of Oppenheimer as a superhero is evidenced by a fragment from the screenplay (which can be read in full online) in which his familiar style of dress is described as: 


“HAT and coat, PIPE in mouth. ICONIC.”


This view of Oppenheimer as an icon, as an important-man-of-history rather than as a real, flesh-and-blood person is emblematic of the entire film’s raison-d’être, to impress us with outward appearances and broadly painted ideas while showing little interest in anything below the surface.



In the UK, a pair of scientists have split the atom, Hitler comes to power in Germany, Oppenheimer gets married, General Leslie Groves recruits him to direct the Manhattan Project, and we find ourselves in Los Alamos, New Mexico. From here, the film checks off the necessary series of events that lead up to the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the Trinity Test. While the actual subject matter of this act is decidedly more interesting than what preceded it and what will eventually succeed it, it maintains the same, monotonous pace and contrived energy as the entire film. It explains itself in almost every capacity, not just the scientific and historical happenings, but character’s emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. There is no subtlety to speak of, nothing is left unsaid or up to interpretation. Nolan demonstrates a fear of losing his audience to the runtime and brass tax of the film’s biographical and historical plot by inserting an exhausting amount of cuts in every scene. Single lines of dialogue are often chopped in two. While this could be justified to illustrate a sort of chaotic energy leading up to the climactic event, this pace is constant throughout the film, playing like a three-hour montage, or a trailer for a still unreleased movie. This is only amplified by the constant, albeit wonderfully crafted, score by Ludwig Göransson. The score is dialled up to an 11 at all times, suggesting to the audience that each scene is only there to lead up to the one after it, and so on and so on until the film comes to an end. Together, the score and editing result in non-stop anticipation, removing any sense of grounded presence in what we are currently watching. There is no patience to speak of.



July 16, 1945. The place is buzzing, our gaggle of scientists take their positions within several miles of the drop site. They are counting down to what is undoubtedly the most important moment in every single one of their lives. When the bomb drops, there is silence, an effective (and accurate) choice which allows the morbid beauty of the explosion to speak for itself and hold on to a few seconds more of tension. Then, Nolan tugs on our leash. Clearly, he doesn’t trust the power of his own image, perhaps afraid that he hasn’t done enough to impress us. He cuts back and forth to our characters’ faces as they react to the explosion in a state of awe, mouths open, unblinking. It is easy to imagine this scene done differently, as one long, uninterrupted shot of visual grandeur and eerie silence that would signify how little power these scientists have over what they have just created. 

We have now made it through two hours, and have an hour to go. Key moments, as per usual, are sped by. One such development, which deserves a hell of a lot more screen time, is Oppenheimer's change of heart. This is perhaps the most cinematically worthwhile scene in the film. Just after the U.S. bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer gives a victory speech to an audience of eager youngsters in a gymnasium at Los Alamos, but his heart isn’t in it. The lights are too bright, it is too quiet, like all the air has been sucked out of the room. All he can hear is screams. The face of an audience member dissolves like a post-impressionist painting, calling back to the imagery of The Waste Land and that Picasso painting. Charred bodies are scattered on the floor. The actual human effect of the bomb suddenly becomes real to Oppenheimer, and he starts to fear the consequences of his actions. This is a great, effective scene that conveys real life horror without exaggeration. And yet, it is over far too quickly. 

Oppenheimer, the character, does not have to feel guilty about the bomb. I do not require him, as a viewer, to follow the same moral compass as my own. But Nolan tells us that Oppenheimer does feel guilty, and is haunted by his actions, yet he does the bare minimum with it. The film is too concerned with positioning Oppenheimer as the victim of a conspiracy to spend any time on his personal experience with guilt and remorse. It would have us believe that no one suffered more greatly from the Manhattan Project than Oppenheimer himself.



Nolan can justify his decision to not visually represent the Japanese victims of the bomb given that the majority of the film is from Oppenheimer's perspective. He did not see the bombing in real life, nor walk through the rubble at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so why should we? Instead, he shows us Oppenheimer’s reaction to photographs of the devastation, amounting to little more than a cringe. The implication is that the audience is likely to derive more sympathy from the discomfort of the perpetrators than the suffering of the victims. Were Nolan to humanize Oppenheimer’s victims, the audience could develop a little bit of contempt towards him, something Nolan is unwilling to allow. To Nolan, Oppenheimer is either a hero or a victim, but never a villain. If Nolan cared to take the time to deal with Oppenheimer’s guilt, that is really deal with it and not just allude to it, he would have either a 4-hour film, or have to cut everything preceding Los Alamos and the Strauss Affair (which would hardly be a loss). Many critics and viewers have noted that in addition to the omission of Japanese victims’ voices and faces, the film blatantly ignores the existence of thousands of people who lived near the Los Alamos site and whose lives and land was irrevocably damaged from the effects of nuclear fallout. “Nothing for forty miles any direction” says Oppenheimer, and the film makes no attempt to correct him or demonstrate his ignorance. Instead, the sprawling vistas of the New Mexico landscapes are portrayed as empty and desolate, the perfect site for detonation. I cannot help but think of another 2023 WWII-set film that portrays victimhood in such a radically different way, that being Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Glazer ingeniously manages to portray the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as both faceless to his lead characters and ever-present to his audience. Nolan does not allow us to be this uncomfortable. If there is no actual person or population attached to Oppenheimer’s guilt, then we can easily forget about his actions and what is making him guilty in the first place. In fact, his supposedly baseless guilt reinforces him as the good guy, the one whose remorse merits praise and sympathy.



Most of Robert Downey Jr’s screen time as Lewis Strauss occurs in the latter third of the film, set in 1959 during his senate hearing to become the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. So far, his role has consisted mostly of expository dialogue detailing his ambitions and what happened to Oppenheimer after the war. This sequence, done in black and white to distinguish Strauss’ perspective, echoes political thrillers of the 1950's and 1960's (The Manchurian Candidate, Advise and Consent, Seven Days in May, The Best Man) that came about as a result of Cold War paranoia. Like other segments of the film, it is cut up into little pieces, removing the cinematic structure that is key to establishing tension. The Strauss Affair, much like the sequence at Los Alamos, is an interesting-enough story to merit its own two hour film which would allow for greater character development and a thoughtful script. Instead it must share the stage with two other movies and thus loses its potency.



Lack of resemblance aside, Robert Downey Jr. makes sense as Strauss. I readily believe him as a man of the mid-century, hellbent on success while plagued by paranoia. He probably would have fit in nicely with the likes of Douglas or Lancaster. To say he gave the best performance in the film is to say that of all the film’s actors, he says his lines the best. Of course, that is what actors do, but few performances in this film have the chance to do anything beyond utter their lines as they were written on the page, with no room for idiosyncrasy or interpretation. Matt Damon is the only actor whose dialogue and performance is not totally restricted by the cadence of Nolan-speak. At times, he actually sounds like a real person. The most unfortunate performance in the film is that of Emily Blunt, whose Kitty Oppenheimer suffers largely from Nolan’s already established inability to write female characters that do anything besides serve the interests of men. Kitty’s character is dominated by her alcoholism to the point of parody, and otherwise contains about as much personality or basis in reality as you would expect the “Sad Wife” archetype in a Nolan film to have. 

The scenes of Oppenheimer, which I am more inclined to call them moments given their fleeting impact, bleed into each other without differentiation, regardless of time period or setting. Thematically, this makes sense of Nolan, whose films have consistently dealt with distorted timelines and the complex relationship between the past, present, and future. But by doing so within a biographical film, Nolan has taken away the opportunity for his film to breathe, for rest periods, for a change in atmosphere and tempo that would result in an ultimately more dynamic and interesting film and protagonist. Instead, our three segments are almost identical in tone and (lack of) structure. Without a present within which we can situate ourselves, the film suffocates under its attempt to cover as much ground as possible. From the moment Oppenheimer starts, it seems like Nolan is trying to get the whole thing over and done with.



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