I just watched Oppenheimer in San Francisco in true IMAX 70mm. To cut to the chase, I have not been this annoyed by a movie in decades, first some background, so you you know where I’m coming from.
I have read The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb both books by Richard Rhodes. On the German side I’ve read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer and Heisenberg’s War by Thomas Powers. I have read biographies on FDR, Truman, and other contemporaries of Oppenheimer. Lastly, I’ve read The Curve of Binding Energy by John McFee, which I highly recommend. Most of these books won the Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve also seen many documentaries and movies on WWII and the Manhattan project. I believe I can confidently claim to be an amateur historian of WWII and this period of atomic history.
Ok, back to the movie. There are so many problems I had so I’ll list them in no particular order.
Sound was too loud
My ears are still ringing. The sound was deafening. I could not hear the voices and dialog at all. All I could hear were explosions and the sound of the world’s loudest violins. They kept making the sound go quiet for a moment and then BLASTING the sound as loud as they could. It was disturbing to say the least. I hated the sound mix. It made me wish for subtitles so I could tell what they were saying.
Chronology was confusing
They could have told the story in chronological order. I would have been able to follow it so much more easily. Instead, they used flashback on top of flashback, sometimes flashing for less than 1 second. It was incredibly hard to know what the present was. The flashback didn’t even have a single focal point. It flashed back from two events, one a banal security clearance and the other a senate committee hearing. Christopher Nolan’s movies have a ton of this, like Memento and Tenet. It’s hard to follow those movies too. Honestly, I think it would have been a better movie told in a normal timeline.
No character development
We didn’t really get to know any of the characters. Having read the histories, I can tell you that this was a period of deep and fascinating people. Every single person involved could have been portrayed with more depth. We didn’t get to know anyone in the movie, didn’t get to see anyone grow or learn. For a 3 hour movie, this seems crazy. How can we have so much time and so little character development. Even Oppenheimer, you really didn’t get to know him. He was impenetrable with his crazy-eyed stare.
I actually wish they had put people’s names at the bottom of the screen when we were introduced to them. Because of the sound and the thick accents, we often would miss character introductions.
Glossing over great characters
John von Neumann was the smartest person in a focus group of the smartest people in the world. Look him up, he is fascinating. Richard Feynman is amazing. Leo Szilard started the whole thing! The spent less than a minute on Enrico Fermi who almost had a nuclear meltdown in the middle of Chicago. They glossed over everyone and every thing that happened. There were so many great stories and they skipped all of it.
Instead, they padded run time with a bunch of women Oppenheimer slept with. We never got to know them and who honestly they didn’t matter in historical contexts. Even the main antagonist, Lewis Strauss played by Robert Downey Jr. is a boring character in historical terms.
One truly important character was Werner Heisenberg. He was the Oppenheimer for Germany. He purposely dragged his feet on the German side to avoid giving Hitler the bomb. His story was tense and historically important. He got less than a minute in the movie too.
The plot was boring
The making of the atomic bomb is actually a great engaging story. The political use of the bomb and the arms race are equally compelling. The Russian espionage that allowed the Soviet Union to build a bomb is a thriller. Oppenheimer’s security clearance, a decade after the war, is just not interesting. Who cares?! It had no stakes. Why did it matter? We didn’t see why it made a difference. He was still allowed to give speeches and lobby wasn’t he? The senate confirmation? Who cares? Why did it matter? They didn’t really cover McCarthyism either. It was just a bunch of flashbacks on top of 2 boring meetings
The plot had no plot. 3 hours of nonsense. Oppenheimer’s life is not that interesting. It should have been an ensemble story about the making of the bomb, not a weird love letter to Oppenheimer.
The way Truman was portrayed does not jive with other biographies I have read about him. He was shown as a politically, self-absorbed figure. I think he was much more circumspect about the bomb and the portrayal was unfair. Leslie Groves, played by Matt Damon, also left me feeling that the true character was lost. He was more a force of nature than he was portrayed. He seemed like a bumbling army guy who only got in the way, when in actuality, he was more responsible for the Manhattan Project than Oppenheimer.
Glossing over technical details
The technical details of the Manhattan Project are very interesting. In Fat Man and Little Boy, they covered the same story with more interesting details. Oppenheimer barely mentioned these things. They had plenty of time, they could have covered it better. I found it so disappointing.
One detail I always loved was how they figured out how to compress the plutonium using explosives. Explosions aren’t evenly detonated; they actually explode in a circle spreading from the blasting cap. They figured out how to have slower and faster moving explosives and shaped them like a lens so that when they exploded it would all land in the middle at the same time. This is extremely clever and could be explained in a minute of dialogue.
Lastly, there is amazing footage of the actual trinity test and other nuclear explosions. Why didn’t they use them? They could have used AI to increase the fidelity, but that would have been a powerful demonstration.
The portrayal of women
None of the characters had any development, but the women especially felt glossed over. The naked communist woman’s motivations and character made no sense to me. The sex scene in the chair of the security clearance meeting (in front of his wife) was bizarre and self-indulgent as well as gratitous. We didn’t need to see that.
The women at Los Almos actually played some important roles. It felt like ti was added in hindsight and not truly explored. I did not understand how he fell in love with his wife or what their relationship was.
Was anything good?
Yes. The 70mm Imax format is something you can not replicate in your home. It is absolutely huge. I think Cristopher Nolan was smart to use this format and it gave the movie many different ways to present to story including using color vs black and white as well as different aspect ratios.
Other than that, this movie had nothing I could enjoy.
I hate to be a complainer. Maybe it is because I know so much about the true-life events that I felt cheated. Maybe you loved the movie. Anyway, I feel the negativity is purged now. I can get back to my life.
If you are interested in the history, this is a video from the History Channel before they got obsessed with aliens.