Saturday, July 29, 2023


Ch-Cha-Chain (Reactions) of Fools
Fallout: If the Radioactive Doesn't Get Ya, The Political Will 
I took a course in college called "The History of the Atomic Bomb," so I already knew about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and Lester Groves, and Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi, and Niels Bohr, and Richard Feynman. Our best and well as Germany's best and brightest, having escaped the Nazis.

I've listened to the plays, seen previous adaptations, know the story backwards and forwards. I got a C+ on my final paper around the subject of "Should we have dropped the bomb on Japan?" (I don't remember which side I took, but I believe it was favoring the Demonstration scenario).
But, I've been interested in seeing Oppenheimer, because I wanted to see what director Christopher Nolan would do with it. J. Robert Oppenheimer led a life that could have filled a few movies, but Nolan has compressed it into one three hour film, with the highs and the lows, and of the parallel tracks and rippling occurrences that underscored and undercut his career, and made the man who oversaw the construction of an atomic bomb from theory to reality become a pariah to the very country he handed it to on a desperately sizzling platter.
And Nolan in the past has been a wizard of sorts playing with the possibilities of story-telling and film-making, and juggling and parsing scenarios so as to create  adrenaline-generating third acts that brings everything together for a thematic jolt. One could say he creates these puzzles in the editing room, if the conceits of the films weren't so inextricably linked to the construction.
But, here, Nolan keeps it rather simple: two stories running parallel to each other, both involving hearings on their subject matters. They're sub-titled 1: "Fission" (in which atoms are split): in color, involving an older Oppenheimer in 1954 being grilled by a back-room secreted committee over whether he would retain his top security clearance; 2: "Fusion" (in which atoms are combined): in black and white, involving the very public hearing of Lewis Strauss to become Secretary of Commerce in Eisenhower's cabinet in 1959.
Two seemingly unrelated stories, but tied together so deeply that to split the two would be like splitting atoms, as they both deal with brilliance, arrogance, ego, and their limitations. There couldn't be one story without the other. And just as you can't have a nuclear explosion without fallout, both men—Oppenheimer and Strauss—would learn of consequences, that will haunt them to the end of their days.
Nolan starts the movie with a peaceful image—rain falling in water—but, as serene as it is, it's the natural image to describe the film. Just as rain falling will ripple out in concentric circles, actions will have reactions and those will spread without much control, a chain reaction that will only dissipate until it runs out of energy. And Oppenheimer is a film interrupted with small moments—a spark, a ripple, the sound of stamping feet, a line of poetry—that will echo throughout the film as mysterious fragments until we see them in context and realize their importance to the whole, like little figments of conscience that haunt until they are reasoned into clarity.
We see the the path of Oppenheimer (brilliantly played by
Cillian Murphy) to Los Alamos—a terrain he loves ("If I could combine physics with New Mexico, my life will be perfect"), through European studies—he gives lectures in Dutch—meeting the great minds of physics—Heisenberg, Bohr—then re-enters the U.S. to teach at Berkeley, hoping to initiate a field of study in quantum physics, which starts with one student, then many. Concerned with unionizing the colleges for faculty and techs, he flirts with the Communist Party, but, does more with one of their members, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), who will challenge him, mystify him, and ultimately be used against him.
He marries Kitty Puening (
Emily Blunt), has a child, and although he's playing with things nuclear, he can't seem to manage a nuclear family. He's approached by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb before the Nazis, and although Groves knows Oppenheimer's leftist leanings, he still wants "Oppie" to lead the project—"I wonder if you could tell me how the Army would treat a humble physicist" "I would if I ever met one"—and as part of the project, Oppenheimer figures out the best rail-access for delivering fissionable material from three corners of the country and winds up with New Mexico, isolated, empty of population and surveillance, to build something that is only a theory...before the Nazi's do. "We have one advantage," Oppenheimer tells Groves. "Antisemitism." Germany has driven out its top nuclear physicists.
Well, you know the story. We've all lived in a world with constant nuclear brinksmanship, and the few souls who remember a time before "The Bomb" are dying off. We're used to it now (which seems inconceivable to me) and we're at a time of such complacency that you still hear mentions on the news of "nuclear options" and "tactical nukes." But, Oppenheimer takes us back to a time when the Atom Bomb was not only apocalyptic, but also inconceivable. At the time of its creation, there were a lot of "unknowables" about the Bomb. All they knew was that it would be big and cause a lot of destruction in a wide area—a city destroyer. But, at the time of the Trinity test, nobody knew if the chain reaction in the air would stop or if it would keep feeding on itself, incinerating the area, and possibly more. And, they didn't know anything about fallout.
The fallout—of all kinds—is the new thing here. With the responsibility of building a weapon with so much destructive power—with the complete agency of the government to do it—comes with it the emergence of those who see that power and covet it. And this is where the Strauss story comes in. Played quite amazingly by 
Robert Downey Jr., Lewis Strauss is a political operative and functionary, whose ego cannot merely appreciate the accomplishments of Oppenheimer and his team, so he must control it, harness it, and by doing so, subvert it to his own ends. As Oppenheimer did to nuclear fission, Strauss does to Oppenheimer and does so with a cold-blooded zeal. And given Oppenheimer's past propensity to fill any intellectual void with affairs and radical politics, Strauss is given the very weapons needed to undermine any attempts to prevent the scientist's efforts to keep the destructive genie contained, slowing nuclear proliferation and ever-increasing mega-tonnage. "Amateurs chase the sun and get burned," Strauss says at one point "Power stays in the shadows."
Oppenheimer is a solid three hours long, packed pillar to post with detail and small roles by very good actors—Nolan newbies like
Rami MalekCasey AffleckAlden Ehrenreich, Josh HartnettJames RemarJason Clarke, and vets of past films like Kenneth Branagh, David Dastmalchian, Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, Gary Oldman—and one may begin to think that the Strauss story gets a bit superfluous and should even be cut, but it is essential to the story and theme of how one man can make a difference, for good, evil or both. And of how power corrupts—even the pursuit of power corrupts—and though one may blaze with brilliance like a nuclear flash, it is not self-perpetuating...and fades...even if it consumed by itself.
Yeah, I took a course in college. But, you learn something new every day...if you're doing it right.
Nolan wrote the screenplay, based on the 2005 biography "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" and starts with these apt words: "Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity."
The haunted gaze of the elder Oppenheimer
—a look both accusing and guilty

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