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Sunday, February 25, 2024

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What Separates “Oppenheimer” From Other Historical Biopics

Oppenheimer” may first and foremost be a Christopher Nolan movie, but it has all the hallmarks of a much more familiar genre. Not only is it a biopic, it has the veneer of the even more traditional “great man” biopic – but only the veneer. Like so many films about a “great man,” it lionizes him as an ahead-of-his-time genius, highlights a few token faults like womanizing and a massive ego, constantly has other characters hype up his greatness, has several other famous real-life peers guest star in his orbit for a scene or two, and makes him look like a martyr for the sins of his country and/or his time period. With such a formula, no matter who the subject is, it is usually straightforward to figure out where it will go and how it will ultimately celebrate him. Yet though some critics would and already have argued the opposite, that is not what “Oppenheimer” does at all.

Since this particular biopic is about the man who made the nuclear bomb and the entire nuclear age possible, there have already been debates on whether Nolan condemns him enough or lets him off the hook too much. After all, not only does Oppenheimer protest the hydrogen bomb and get run out of society for it by nuclear/Cold War/anti-Communist forces, it reveals Robert Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss as the real “villain” behind his downfall and the subsequent unstoppable buildup of our atomic arsenal.

Most biopics would settle on that very simple narrative and go no further. They would simply paint a post-war Oppenheimer as a martyr who regretted everything he’d done and paid for daring to oppose humanity’s march towards nuclear destruction – regardless of how he started that march. They would excuse his actions in Los Alamos as merely that of a naïve man who thought he could control the aftermath and who was just betrayed by darker forces than himself instead. And as such, they would sidestep the genuine damage he did and make it feel like his downfall was the real tragedy – not the tragedy he unleashed. Some would argue that’s precisely what Nolan does in “Oppenheimer,” they might have a point if they looked at it a certain way. But as with most Nolan films, biopic or not, it takes looking closer to see what he’s really going for.

There have already been arguments that “Oppenheimer” should have shown the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or at least presented the devastating aftermath to get across what the Trinity Test made possible. Plus, when the Trinity bomb finally does go off, after all the expectations of it being an ear-splitting and theater-rattling moment in IMAX, the actual atomic explosion is actually more silent – and more beautiful in its silence – than any viewer might have expected. But the entire point of such a reenactment is in its supposed beauty – where the explosion is so remote, and Oppenheimer and his people are so far removed from it that they saw the awe of it instead of the horrific devastation.

But while the true horror of it all only hits Oppenheimer on the day the Hiroshima bomb was celebrated, maybe even that doesn’t hit him hard enough. After all, despite complaints that the attack and its destruction were never put on screen, it is literally made clear in one scene that Oppenheimer couldn’t bring himself to see it on a big screen either. But since he spends the rest of the film fighting against the nuclear arms race and getting punished for it, it is easy to predict what it’s supposed to mean. In most any biopic, this would be his “redemption arc” as he renounces the sins of his past, or is at least made the great martyr for trying – hence making it easier for audiences to celebrate or feel sorry for the “great man” above all else like usual. Yet, at every turn, Nolan resists or subverts that formula instead.

Even before the Trinity Test, the seeds are planted that it won’t be that easy. When Oppenheimer collapses after abandoning former lover Jean Tatlock to her supposed suicide, his wife Kitty decries that he doesn’t get to “commit the sin and then have us all feel sorry for you” after the consequences. Like with many things in “Oppenheimer” ‘s long and seemingly inflated first half, this has an even harsher echo or parallel later, once Kitty tells a now-disgraced Oppenheimer that allowing himself to be “tar and feathered” won’t make him forgiven as he hopes.

It’s one thing to have a long-suffering wife character read the great man to rights and be accurate in doing so. It’s quite another when the so-called villain does it as well, even though Strauss’s campaign against Oppenheimer is as much about imagined personal and professional slights as anything else. Yet as he very accurately argues in his climactic speech, and as the movie itself backs up by cross-cutting to Oppenheimer’s climactic questioning in his security clearance hearing/kangaroo court, at no time is Oppenheimer shown to truly regret and condemn his work at Los Alamos – even as he fought against what came after.

There is no doubt of Oppenheimer’s guilt and self-hatred over what he did, at least to some degree. But at least in the movie, all the signs of his regret are in his own head and tortured visions, not from any guilt he voices out loud. Not only does Strauss argue that Oppenheimer would still do what he did at Los Alamos all over again if he had the chance, and not only does unofficial prosecutor Roger Robb fail to make Oppenheimer take any personal guilt or responsibility for the Manhattan Project, it is persuasively argued that all his actions after the war were just to make himself best known for his future martyrdom or Trinity – not Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Whether or not the real Oppenheimer ever actually repented or tried to for creating the bomb, most biopics would at least make it up to look like he did. But it is literally the point of the movie’s climax to point out he didn’t – and whether it would have made a difference for his career or the arms race if he did might be beside the point. If there is regret inside him, and there clearly is in his own mind, even if not said out loud, Nolan makes it clear that it is not nearly good enough or excusable enough.

Nonetheless, while Oppenheimer was condemned and stripped of his influential standing regardless, he was eventually taken back during the LBJ administration. In many a biopic ending, like “Ray” or Downey’s own “Chaplin,” the betrayed and persecuted “great man” is seen being exalted, exonerated, and forgiven by an apologetic American society in a more enlightened time period. That way, audiences can leave reassured that all ended well for the hero and that America learned from its mistakes in dealing with this great man after all.

But from now on, it will be impossible to look back on such endings and tropes without thinking about how “Oppenheimer” dismantles them. Ironically enough, it takes another great man in Albert Einstein – who survived his own far more wrongful persecution by his own community only to be “forgiven” years later – to warn Oppenheimer of how his eventual reacceptance will mean nothing. As much as it may signal forgiveness, it will not be done by America’s powers to forgive him as much as it is to forgive themselves – yet neither side can ever be truly forgiven anyway.

In any case, Oppenheimer’s true punishment isn’t his lost reputation, his persecution, or even being taken to task for Trinity. Not only is there no redemption, true forgiveness, or absolution for him, but he must also suffer from what’s become of his own visions and mind. Where once he only saw beauty, creation, and the stars in the constant visions of his youth, now he only sees the death, destruction, and terror that is no longer buried underneath the universe, thanks to him – and now so we do all as well. It was all too hard for him to make us share in his beautiful visions of quantum mechanics and the universe when his career started, yet it was far easier to make himself, and we see and fear the horrors of it all at the end – and we’ve still feared it for 78 years and counting.

Even biopics about men who’ve destroyed more than they’ve created don’t usually leave their subjects that low. Even when “The Social Network” condemned the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, they still ended by insisting he was only “trying really hard” to look like he was awful and gave him a fictional note of sympathy at the very end. No matter who the great man is in these biopics or what he’s done, the formula requires at least some attempt by the end to make him softer, more tragic, or more sympathetic than he might have actually deserved to look like.

Nolan certainly has empathy and a sense of personal tragedy for Oppenheimer’s fall. Yet that is far from the main point or takeaway of “Oppenheimer,” even if some might see it that way. Most Nolan movies are open to many interpretations anyway. Still, for once, he is unambiguous in showing us this is not the usual story of a great man we have been trained to see – and not just because it is structured and shot differently than most.

Does “Oppenheimer” still go softer on him and what he did to the world than he deserved? Considering what he did to the world and what it may still lead to later, there might indeed be no condemnation that is proportional enough. Nonetheless, by the standards of almost every American biopic film that excuses, softens, or waves away the sins of great men just because a majority consider them great men – regardless of what the actual truth is – “Oppenheimer” ultimately destroys that formula with the unyielding force of the atom itself.

Have you seen “Oppenheimer” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you think it will stand out enough to be a major awards player? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here. Thank you!

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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