Oppenheimer will open July 21 exclusively in theaters and in IMAX. It will be the longest film of Christopher Nolan’s career, clocking in at nearly three hours. And honestly, for me that isn’t long enough, now having read 2/3rds of American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, the book upon which the screenplay is based.
This is a big story to tell. It’s not just the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer as the director for the Manhattan Project. His life was expansive in ways I am honestly not sure even exist for many people anymore. He was as exceptional as Einstein (if not more so) and he belongs in the pantheon along with him and every other major groundbreaking scientist and inventor we remember and revere, like Galileo, Da Vinci, Darwin.
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan
Oppenheimer: Cillian Murphy
Truman: Gary Oldman
Kitty Oppenheimer: Emily Blunt
Jean Tatlock: Florence Pugh
Leslie Groves: Matt Damon
Lewis Strauss: Robert Downey, Jr.
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Score: Ludwig Göransson
Editing: Jennifer Lame
Production Design: Ruth De Jong
Costumes: Ellen Mirojnick
This is already shaping up to be an incredible year for film and something to be excited about. Between Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan), Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese), Dune: Part Two (Denis Villeneuve), Napoleon (Ridley Scott), and The Killers (David Fincher), it almost feels like we’re seeing a resurgence of sprawling, ambitious, and epic movies. Two of those are financed by streaming platforms, though will also get a theatrical release. Aiming at large canvas movies best seen on the big screen means we can have the best of both worlds.
Nolan shot Oppenheimer in IMAX, a massive logistical mission that few directors dare to tackle, and even fewer know how to fully exploit for maximum cinematic impact.
The film will apparently refrain from showing sequences of the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (I think, but I don’t know). If so, that’s probably for the best, since any accurate depiction would be too horrific to witness up close.. We’ll see the Trinity test — and that is enough.
Because deploying the atomic bomb to bring an end to World War II was such controversial decision, showing that kind of horror would be, I think, too overwhelming for audiences. It remains as controversial today as it did then, which is why we don’t see it discussed much. Similarly, the barbarism inflicted on the Osage Indians at the hands of greedy white men in Oklahoma has been a story too shameful to be told in any major way.
The Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus takes us deep into the life of the brilliant Oppie, whose active and curious mind had him learning multiple languages, reading every book he could get his hands in his youth. And then there was his love life – fascinating unto itself. He was accused of being homosexual by J. Edgar Hoover, but his biographers, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, insist that was Hoover’s paranoia (or perhaps his projection). Though Oppenheimer doesn’t seem like a man who would rule out any kind of experimentation.
He had three major relationships with women. One was with Jean Tatlock (beautiful, fascinating, possibly gay, maybe murdered by the FBI for being a communist and because they feared she might leak nuclear secrets to the Soviets, though her official cause of death is suicide), portrayed by Florence Pugh. His wife Kitty, mother of his two kids, would also take her own life, and is portrayed by Emily Blunt.
I kind of fell in love with Oppie while reading this book, I’m not gonna lie. He’s just so brilliant and charismatic, even just through the pages of the book and in the few interviews that remain. He has what the Talking Heads would call a “face with a view,” eyes that depict a depth of soul.
Though his curiosity and ambition to do something “important” brought him to Los Alamos to build a small city to build a big bomb, after the end of the war he told President Harry Truman, “I have blood on my hands.” Truman essentially wrote him off as a “crybaby,” and ordered his staff to never let him near the White House again.
When Oppie objected to the development of the hydrogen bomb, he was called to testify in the anti-communist hearings and had his security clearances revoked. They’d been tracking him as a suspected communist for years, but the mass hysteria reached its peak in the 1950s after the Soviets developed their own bomb and after the Rosenbergs were outed as Russian spies (and then executed).
When Oppenheimer premieres July 21, it will nearly coincide with the 78th anniversary of the Trinity test, which was on July 16, 1945. America dropped the bomb on Japan the following month of August. It killed hundreds of thousands of people, though Oppie thought it would kill around 20,000.
Oppenheimer and the other physicists believed they were building the bomb to stop Hitler. Oppenheimer was Jewish and a victim of antisemitism throughout his life, and going after Hitler seemed justified. But after Germany surrendered, the decision was made to use the bomb against Japan since they refused “unconditional surrender.” There is some discrepancy in the book about that, though. Could America have warned them? Could we instead have demonstrated the power of the bomb to persuade them to surrender? The book even suggests that negotiations could have taken place.
Oppenheimer would spend much of the rest of his life trying (and failing) to find a way to eliminate the nuclear program entirely so such a tragedy could never again occur — yet, here we are, with nine countries on our fragile planet in possession of more than 12,000 nuclear warheads.
After suffering 5 brutal years of World War II, there was increasing desperation to end the war before even more allied soldiers died. We had already hit so much of Japan with conventional bombs, yet they kept coming, kept on fighting because Japan’s imperial mindset of the era required control of territory for economic reasons, not purely ideological ones. That meant, for the Japanese, they had to win. The Japanese people knew only what they were told on national radio and newspapers, and many believed that the Emperor was endowed with divine power. Japan’s military had attacked us first, awakening the sleeping giant, but were unprepared to discover that their aggression would result in such tragic and devastating consequences.
When America dropped the two atomic bombs, the U.S. military not only targeted areas that could cripple the Japanese economy, but also areas that had been largely untouched by prior bombing raids, so we could take full measure of the strength and destructiveness the bombs would deliver. It may be easy for some people to look back and pretend we knew the right thing to do (it’s a no-brainer for me: don’t drop a nuke), but in the fog of war, it’s never easy to make the right decisions.
The result was that Oppenheimer’s genius was co-opted by the U.S. military, and his moral sensitivity was subverted. Pandora’s box had been opened and made impossible to close. On the other hand, had America not got there first, there’s a good chance that Germany would have developed a nuclear weapon of their own.
I had not realized that Oppenheimer was such an enigmatic figure until I started reading American Prometheus. A boy genius who could learn a language in a couple of weeks, he had studied physics in Germany, graduated from Harvard, taught at some of the best universities, and lived the life of a bohemian in the 1930s.
Oppenheimer was the kind of guy who would take off on a long horseback journey, armed with only Vienna sausages, booze, and chocolate, and would ride for days and days, sometimes even in the pouring rain. Then he would sit by the fire and read D.H. Lawrence. I mean, COME ON. Just try to resist the man.
Back then, being a communist was akin to what today is called being “woke.” Nearly a century ago, those drawn to Socialism were the “social justice warriors” who were concerned with human equality and economic rights. Communism would become a dirty word much later, once it the darker side of the ideology became clear (see Orwell’s 1984 and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago), and was soon regarded as an ideology that became a threat to the American way of life which would come roaring back in the post-war America, especially under Eisenhower.
(By the way, that era from the 1930s through the 1950s was the last “Fourth Turning.” We’re in another one now. Hold onto your butts.)
As far as the Best Picture race is concerned, with a dozen major movies as yet unseen, we have no idea how things will go, but there are some things we can still be sure about, even in June. The first is this: the biggest and most important films this year will be directed by men, and probably many of them white, many of them heterosexual — that’s still a problem for Hollywood, even if the co-director of last year’s Best Picture winner was a white male. No one wants to say any of this out loud, but they don’t call it a Fourth Turning for nothing. I’m not going to lie to you, dear readers. I have to tell it like it is, no matter how much people want me to tell it like they want it to be.
The films that I would ordinarily see as Best Picture frontrunners would be:
Oppenheimer — Christopher Nolan
Killers of the Flower Moon — Martin Scorsese
The Killer — David Fincher
The Holdovers — Alexander Payne
Napoleon — Ridley Scott
Ferrari — Michael Mann
Poor Things — Yorgos Lanthimos
The Color Purple — Blitz the Ambassador (Samuel Bazawule)
Next Goal Wins — Taika Waititi
Maestro — Bradley Cooper
Pain Hustlers — David Yates
White Bird — Marc Forster
Leave the World Behind — Sam Esmail
Zone of Interest — Jonathan Glazer
Dune: Part Two — Denis Villeneuve
Then we get to the higher profile films by women:
Film Twitter does seem to drive the Best Picture race these days, and they seem to be 100% on board with Past Lives at the moment, according to the Queen of Oscar Twitter, Zoë Rose Bryant (no shade, it’s just the truth — she’s unseated Matt Neglia for the moment. Someday I want to write the definitive power list for Oscar Twitter but that day is not today):
Of course, at the moment, Past Lives is the only one of the 20 contenders we just listed that anyone has yet seen.
But as is often the case, it’s not simply about the movies or the directors when it comes to what drives the awards race. It is how the movies reflect how the industry wants to be seen. And for the moment, it seems the way that many people want to be seen is as “good Puritans” for their inclusivity utopia. That’s not a bad thing. It just is what it is. This allegiance to champion a great and important cause used to revolve more around the Holocaust because the Academy was ruled by the Greatest Generation (and largely still is). Then, when the Boomers took over, it became more about movies that addressed significant social issues of the day, though the Holocaust and race relations still resonated, especially with the older voters.
Now, since the Academy has expanded the membership and invited many younger and international members in, things have changed dramatically in terms of what they consider important. It’s hard to argue against the idea that identity matters more than anything else, and identity vis-à-vis the new reversed hierarchy of the internet. What do I mean by that? Well, the old hierarchy, driven by the free market and the ticket buying majority, was mostly controlled by the patriarchy. Specifically, the white male patriarchy. For some, even more specifically, the white, male, heteronormative, cis-gendered patriarchy.
The internet mostly reversed that hierarchy as Gen Z came of age, birthed from the loins of Tumblr circa 2012 and helicopter parents like me. What that means is that they feel good when anyone but the (see above) wins. A woman, a woman of color, a transgender person, someone who is disabled. And the list keeps getting longer. It’s basically anything but the majority in America.
I know this bothers people when I talk about it. I mean to say it’s all about inclusivity and progress, etc. And for them, it really is. It isn’t just virtue signaling. This is something deeply felt, a religion of sorts, as we saw when Everything Everywhere All at Once won everything everywhere all at once. It was a kind of religious rapture for many movie-lovers. So when some people are deciding what movie they think should win, they are judging it from inside that utopian bubble, as opposed to how it used to be decided: box office, alpha male prowess, who was King for a Day.
There’s no point in sugar-coating what most people already realize about what the film industry and the Oscars have become. Not that it’s a bad thing. It just is what it is.
Thus, even with nearly two dozen of the year’s most anticipated movies are directed by (see bad thing above), that doesn’t mean they will be the frontrunners. If the Oscar race is micromanaged by the activist-driven Film Twitter, then we know how this is going to go. They will need “correct” winners, and when a white male is involved, in general, many of them will pick it apart and criticize it in a way they would never do with films directed by people at the top of the reversed hierarchy.
That said, I will do my best to mitigate some of that wherever possible, meaning I’m ready to challenge Oscar Twitter if they, say, go after David Fincher. So we can pretty much have that drama to look forward to. Hey, we have to entertain ourselves somehow, right? Here, at the world’s end.