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Great discussion I had with Thomas Temin on “The Federal Drive” radio show about the challenges of transitioning from the military to industry.
So… saw the movie “Oppenheimer” last night on opening night. Happy to see that against “Barbie,” a movie about history was doing relatively well—theater packed. But this movie was done in typical Christopher Nolan film, most shots lasting 5 seconds or less resulting in a jumping narrative style, that when combined with the technical jargon and the too loud “Hans Zimmer-like” soundtrack made it difficult to understand, even for a physics-degreed guy wearing hearing aids.
Warning: spoiler alerts contained below!
BLUF: they get the history mostly right, although they attribute certain conversations to the wrong people. Nolan says he did this for clarity in the reduction of number of characters, but in a movie with more than 30 main characters you are expected to track, I can’t see how adding one or two more to correct the history would have hurt.
Did I love it? Well, I liked it a lot. I loved the presentation of the physics. Brought me back to my two undergrad courses in quantum theory. Loved the discussion of whether the bomb would set the atmosphere on fire. That was one of the conversations attributed to the wrong guy—the actual guy who did those calculations was one of my grad school profs Robert Hamming. In the movie Oppie asks Einstein in one scene to do the calculation (never happened) and in another scene it was an unnamed character (likely my old prof) who tells Oppie that the probability is “near zero.” Fun note: in one of my grad school courses “Hamming on Hamming” he went through those equations with us.
And I loved seeing Tom Conti’s portrayal of Albert Einstein. Having read all of Einstein’s books in my undergrad days, Conti plays him exactly as I have imagined him.
Another fun scene is when Oppie starts teaching his first class (Berkely) and tells his one student who is trying to understand quantum, “You’re looking at it the wrong way.” I wish I had that prof. I was looking at it the wrong way in undergrad too, but nobody was ever bold enough to tell me that.
But I did not like the gratuitous sex, which added nothing to drive the story forward and seems to have been inserted just because it’s what British filmmakers do.
So back to the movie: It ran for 3 hours and didn’t feel like it. There were slow parts but I never found myself looking at my watch. The chronology was difficult to follow despite jumping from color (paradoxically, for the sequences happening in the 1940s-1954) and black & white (for the Senate scenes with Admiral Lewis Strauss—played by Robert Downey Jr— mostly taking place in 1959). Strauss is the antagonist who never attended college, made enemies of Chester Nimitz, yet gets a Navy reserve “graveyard promotion” to rear admiral right after WWII and insisted on being called “admiral” for the rest of his life. He has a giant chip on his shoulder throughout the movie, which apparently was accurate.
Was the movie accurate from a historical sense? Very much so. Even some of the more contrived and unbelievable scenes (such as the “more useful than a sandwich” scene which humiliated Strauss) actually happened.
If you put differences in Nolan’s jumpy, distracting narrative style aside, his biggest miss with the movie is his failure to recognize that something can be “regrettable,” yet one still may not regret it.
This is the matter Nolan goes back and forth with Oppenheimer at the end. Does he regret the Hiroshima bomb? Oppenheimer does not say. Yet Oppie clearly feels that the need to drop the bomb was regrettable. Nolan goes back and forth with this as if it is a paradox, but it’s not. Any sane human being regrets the fact that something substantial had to happen for the war to end. And as we cover in our episodes of “The Unauthorized History of the Pacific War” podcast, dropping the bomb was the least bad choice of many really bad options, one which actually minimized the loss of life necessary to end the war. Anyone who thinks otherwise has to ignore the facts of the conflict and many contemporary statements, most notably from the Japanese leaders themselves.
Is “Oppenheimer” worth seeing? Absolutely—if for no other reason than we need serious movies to compete in the box office with comic book and toy movies else they will stop making serious movies.
But whatever you do, stay to the end, that final scene with Oppenheimer and Einstein. The closing line of that movie may be one of the best lines for film ever written.
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