Friday, July 21, 2023

Prometheus, Icarus, Vishnu: thoughts on Oppenheimer

(Wrote this review for Money Control)

Early in Christopher Nolan’s busy, non-linear telling of the life and work of the physicist who played a central role in developing America’s atom bomb, there is a dramatised depiction of a true story about the young Robert J Oppenheimer (played here by Cillian Murphy): at Cambridge in the 1920s, a frustrated Robert had laced his tutor’s apple with poison, before coming to his senses and hurrying to prevent damage.

The Kai Bird-Martin Sherwin biography American Prometheus, which is the main source material for Oppenheimer, describes this incident as an astounding act of stupidity, one that could have halted the young man’s career before it took off, and indicative of his emotional distress – “his feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy” – at the time. In the film the moment is depicted more casually, even with a little humour (and is also conflated with Oppenheimer’s first meeting with the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr) – but it still carries a strong charge. As presented on screen, gleaming in the foreground, the apple is a menacing thing – a reminder of another lethal fruit, in the Garden of Eden. But as Oppenheimer continued, moving into ever darker moral terrain, that early scene felt to me like a reminder of how the shiny green apple of science and rationality can be laced with doom: of science itself as a poisoned fruit of knowledge, and how the people who practice it, in a rapidly changing world, have many personal and political compulsions.

It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration, and the free-thinking mind,” reads a passage in American Prometheus, “And yet it was the irony of Robert J Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.”

In other words, here is a rational man whose life’s work feeds into the most primal and atavistic of human impulses: the impulse to wreak mass destruction that will eventually consume everyone, including the aggressor; the impulse to look for new enemies or “others” after the first lot have been silenced. This see-sawing between rationality and irrationality – in ways that leave it unclear which force is dominant – has been dealt with before in one of Nolan’s better films, The Prestige. But the canvas here is much larger, involving the nature of realpolitik (and scientific progress) at a time when the US, having used the Bomb to end the Second World War, now casts its gaze on the new bogeyman, Communism – with Oppenheimer caught in the crosswinds.

With its many narrative threads and tangle of characters and allegiances, this is a demanding, sometimes confusing film if you don’t already know something about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (I was a little lost despite having sped-read portions of the book in preparation). Nolan moves between the regular narrative scenes (shot in colour) about Oppenheimer’s life and the later interrogations (in black-and-white) conducted by those who are concerned about his supposed Communist sympathies, or that a spy may have carried nuclear secrets to the Soviets. The paranoid ravings of AEC commissioner Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who became hostile to Oppenheimer, provide a framing story, an outside look at the film’s protagonist. But we do get up-close views of Oppenheimer and his inner life too, and much of this hinges on the casting of Murphy, and his marvellous performance.

Though Robert’s childhood isn’t depicted, watching Murphy it is easy to see what he might have been like as a boy, and the portrait gels with the one in American Prometheus: an eccentric, lonely, laconic child, prone to being bullied, whose “seemingly brittle and delicate shell disguised a stoic personality built of stubborn pride and determination”. We do see a young Robert who learns Dutch in six weeks to deliver a talk at a seminar, (“because quantum physics isn’t demanding enough?” someone quips). We meet the man who is a Jew with strong personal reasons to be appalled by what is happening in Nazi Germany (the bomb is initially developed to deal with Hitler), as well as the man whose political consciousness is awakened through close friendships with Communists (and who reads lines from the Bhagwad Gita to his Communist lover while they are in bed together). The husband, the passionate adulterer, the cold, distant-seeming scientist who is capable of feeling the horror of what the bomb does in Hiroshima. Hamlet was Oppenheimer’s favourite Shakespeare character, the book tells us, and one can picture the delicate, dreamy-eyed Murphy in a version of that role, struggling with indecision and melancholy about the world he has helped reshape.

Despite the introspective man at its centre, this is very often a muscular film, with some of its most lucid and direct moments involving the straight-talking army-man Leslie Groves played by Matt Damon (You might feel, as I did, that the Groves scenes come as a welcome break from the evasiveness and double-talk elsewhere.) The women in Oppenheimer’s life – his wife Kitty, and Jean Tatlock, with whom he apparently had his most intense relationship – don’t get much screen time, though they are played by fine actors like Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh. (Blunt does get a brief scene where – as a wife confronting a husband grieving the death of his lover – she gently ticks Robert off with a statement that will carry a much wider resonance in his life.) In India the explicit sex scenes between Robert and Jean have also been censored, so we are probably missing something of the junoon in this tragic romance, the sense of true passion in Oppenheimer’s life in a realm other than physics.

The film moves from shots of men in uniforms sitting in closed, sterile rooms talking endlessly and academically (what cities can the bomb be used on? How far along might the Soviets be in the arms race?) to the kinetic preparations in the great outdoors of the Jornada del Muerto desert (an updated version of the American Wild West) – leading up to its big visual setpiece, the tense nuclear test on an early July morning. The sequence delivers everything you’d expect from a big-budget film by one of the world’s most ambitious directors, but Nolan also seems determined that this shouldn’t be the “money shot” for the viewer, the massive climax that everything is geared towards. And this is a notable choice, because the visceral excitement of watching a skilled filmmaker using his resources to create a stunning action scene can run contrary to the inward-looking tone of a film like this.

If anything, after the Los Alamos test sequence, a sense of inertia enters the film – a reckoning, a pulling back. The news of the Hiroshima bombing is conveyed without much fuss; whatever celebrations there are culminate in a muted scene where Oppenheimer seems to confront the implications of what he has been part of. In its final stretch the film returns, almost as if deliberately choosing monotony over pace, to scenes of men debating in rooms. And to the great conceit that many people who helped build the nuclear bomb must really have believed in – that the ultimate destructive force would help create an idyllic peace. Of course, we can look around us and know better now. (The question “Who are we at war with?” is pointedly asked in the film at one stage – this when the US and Russia are still reluctant allies – but a question running below the surface of the story is: “Is it even possible to not be at war with anyone?”)

For Nolan acolytes it sometimes feels like this director can do little or nothing wrong. For many of the rest of us, there is a messiness, bordering on incoherence, in some of his work (and not just in the narratives that are innately convoluted like Inception or Tenet). At the same time, even for Nolan-sceptics, the grandness of vision, the boldness, the willingness to go all out, can be breath-taking. I wasn’t gripped by Oppenheimer from beginning to end, and felt it was overlong, but it achieves depth and poignancy when it cuts through the clutter and focuses on the enigmatic figure at its heart – a Gita-quoting Prometheus bringing a new fire to the world, an Icarus flying too close to a nuclear sun… and at heart perhaps even a pacifist, but who can know for sure?

(Earlier Money Control pieces here)

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