Tuesday, August 15, 2023

“Oppenheimer”: The Ecstasy and the Agony of an American Prometheus

There’s no question that Oppenheimer is not as colorful as its “Barbenheimer” mate. There’s simply no place in this story of the so-called Father of the Atomic Bomb for the cheery pastels and peppy musical numbers that help make Barbie such a crowd-pleaser. (Oppenheimer’s soundtrack is loud, atonal, and jarring. And at key moments the film shifts away from color cinematography into somber black-and-white.)  It’s instructive to remember, though, that at some point Barbie’s and Oppy’s stories overlap in time. The climactic congressional hearing around which Christopher Nolan’s complicated film is structured took place in 1959, the same year that Mattel’s Ruth Handler introduced her plastic fashion queen to little girls everywhere. What a mixed-up world we live in!

 As a biographer myself, I’m a loyal member of Biographers International Organization. At annual BIO conferences we discuss the implications of biography, and compare techniques for conveying the essence of a life. BIO is where I’ve interacted with Kai Bird, who with the late Martin J. Sherwin wrote the 2005 Oppenheimer biography that became the main source for Christopher Nolan’s film. Their book is massive. In its more than 750 pages it contains a huge amount of information, all of it dedicated to bringing to life a brilliant but highly tormented individual, one whose contributions to science and to the winning of World War II were balanced by a deep-rooted sense of moral culpability. No wonder their work is called American Prometheus, reflecting (in a way the erudite Oppenheimer would surely have appreciated) the tortured Greek hero who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.

After seeing Oppenheimer, I’ve been reflecting on the very different ways that biography and film serve their subject. Though Oppenheimer crams many historical details into its three-hour running time, I found it hard to connect the vivid faces surrounding the lead character with their role in his orbit. Which were good guys? Which were not? Any spies among them? The action moved much too quickly for me to be sure. And there simply wasn’t time to fill in the family details that a reader of biography craves. Like: how was Oppy raised? What was the source of the family wealth? What exactly did his brother mean to him? And. also, what became of Oppenheimer after the events the film uncovers? What about his children, following a mysterious scene in which Oppy seems to be giving away his hysterically crying little boy to someone better suited to parenthood? Nolan’s work has certainly aroused my curiosity, and I suspect it will drive plenty of new readers to American Prometheus.

 By the same token, film can far outdo a prose biography when it comes to giving us an emotional jolt. The high point of Nolan’s work is of course the Trinity Test, the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying moment when Oppenheimer and his team witness the successful detonation of an atom bomb in the New Mexico desert. It’s a moment when Nolan pulls out all the stops with every cinematic trick at his disposal, using both sight and sound to bring us the blast that led Oppenheimer to mutter words he himself had translated from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Nolan also relies on bursts of unexpected surrealism when handling Oppy’s extra-marital dalliance with Jean Tatlock, injecting nudity in a very surprising way. And I’ll not soon forget the lead performance of Cillian Murphy, who’s charged with holding together the portrayal of a man simultaneously otherworldly and all too down to earth.




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