By , February 26, 2024 7:32 pm
The movie
Based on this previously reviewed book

Back in October I finished American Prometheus, an intricate biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had planned to see the movie in November but that didn’t happen. All these months later, it’s only playing in one theatre in Toronto: the Kingsway in Etobicoke. Val and I finally saw it yesterday. I had purposely not read any reviews or watched the trailer in anticipation.

Though I am not a film person, I was not disappointed. In fact, it was an incredible effort to turn such a detailed and complex book into a movie. Normally I don’t like modern movies because they are so fast-moving and loud, as in bombastic, no pun intended. This film has those qualities in a good way. It had to be fast to weave multiple timelines into one storyline. It had to be loud because of course it’s the atomic bomb we’re talking about here. It has an interesting, dark score that also makes use of non-musical sounds to complement some of the apparently not CGI visual effects.

Not being a film person, I didn’t know anything about Christopher Nolan or his previous movies. I didn’t even know who Cillian Murphy is. No matter. It’s best to go into these things cold with few expectations, otherwise a movie is usually a let down from a book. Not this one. It is certainly different from the book (as one would expect) but it is also mostly faithful. Perhaps Einstein is emphasized more than in the book (not sure why other than he’s a recognizable figure). Perhaps a few dozen people are left out (Oppenheimer knew A LOT of people). Of course certain events had to be skimmed over to get it all in. But the gist of it is there. And of one of the keys to the book is that the reader is left unsure of what to make of Oppenheimer. He’s not perfect. He’s not a hero. He has some great qualities, and some really bad ones. His character leaves the same residue in the film, though he is probably more sympathetic in the film than the book.

I asked Val what he thought the overall message of the film is; he said politics and power would always intercede no matter what one’s intentions are. Interesting. I am normally the cynic. I think it’s a pretty depressing thing to live not only in the nuclear age but in the climate crisis. The film says to me that we are complex beings who live in a messy world of our own making. History is as life.

In comparing this movie to another recent release, Maestro (the story of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein), Oppenheimer wins on every single level. I read quite a few articles about Maestro after I watched it on Netflix because I was perplexed by its overdone approach; it seemed to go for such realism that it was difficult to watch. The Bernstein character was always smoking in the movie. Though this may have been true in real life as well, it became the signature of every single scene, to the point where I could concentrate on almost nothing else. Oppenheimer, too, smoked to excess in real life. But the film makers chose to contain it so it did not distract from the point of the movie. I think that is called art.

Biography need not be hagiography. It’s nice that Oppenheimer doesn’t make its namesake character into a great man or god.

Leave a Reply

Panorama Theme by Themocracy