Movie Review: Oppenheimer

I should note that the last movie review on this blog was almost exactly 12 years ago, when I had watched the movie Source Code [LINK]; going back to that post let me cringe a little again at my writing style as a college student. In any case, although I have watched many movies since then but haven't felt compelled to review them for this blog, I felt a little more compelled to do so after recently watching the movie Oppenheimer in IMAX (though not 170 mm IMAX), because of the historical & scientific significance as well as the hype around its release. That movie is essentially a dramatized adaptation of the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin (which I haven't yet read), covering the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer during his career as a physicist & developer of nuclear weapons for the US and particularly focusing on his involvement in the Manhattan Project & his subsequently being stripped of a security clearance.

There were a few things that I liked about the movie. I understand that Edward Teller was ostracized by the scientific community by giving testimony that would further bolster investigators turning scientific disputes & personal friction between Teller & Oppenheimer into a reason for claiming Oppenheimer to be a national security risk, but considering that Teller's further ostracism came more when he further dug into developing nuclear arsenals & using nuclear weapons in absurd ways that signaled a weird lust for nuclear explosions, I appreciated that the movie stuck with Teller's role in the Manhattan Project (without letting later views of Teller color his portrayal during the time of the Manhattan Project) and made explicit his real-life testimony praising Oppenheimer's integrity & ultimate loyalty to the US (as opposed to other countries). I also appreciated how the movie made clear that arguments against the use of nuclear weapons after the actual bombing of Japan could be seen as facile or hypocritical when compared to similar arguments before the initial test in Los Alamos. In particular, Oppenheimer initially rationalized concerns about the US having access to the destructive power of nuclear weapons by recognizing the far greater threat to humanity of Nazi Germany getting & using such weapons first, so later claims of being disgusted by their use need to be shaped with a lot more nuance than Oppenheimer actually provided. Additionally, as I have read most of the Bhagavadgītā, I could see that Oppenheimer quoting Kṛṣṇa's line (repeating the translation that Oppenheimer used) "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds" is arguably a misunderstanding of the philosophical implication, considering that Truman essentially had to correct Oppenheimer in the same way that Kṛṣṇa had to correct Arjuna: the US (with the president, at that time Truman, as the symbolic executor), like Kṛṣṇa, was the entity with the will to destroy, while Oppenheimer/Arjuna was the human instrument and the nuclear/celestial weapons were the insentient instruments. I wonder if more people will recognize this and thus not blindly praise Oppenheimer just for quoting the Bhagavadgītā.

There has been a lot of controversy, especially in India and also among Hindus outside of South Asia, about the depiction of a Sanskrit copy of the Bhagavadgītā during a sex scene being sacrilegious. I'm not religious, and I knew of Oppenheimer's fascination with Hindu mysticism, so I initially gave the director the benefit of the doubt that it may perhaps reflect some combined mystical view of sex & spirituality by Oppenheimer in real life, especially given that reactions about these things tend to be much harsher in India than in the US. Now that I have watched that scene, I can say that the presence of a Sanskrit copy of the Bhagavadgītā added nothing to the sex scene or to the understanding of Oppenheimer's life and was probably not something that happened in real life, so it seems to be in gratuitously bad taste. Moreover, I felt like the scenes where Oppenheimer used Kṛṣṇa's aforementioned line, including but not limited to the sex scene, made it feel cheap & unnecessary; in particular, using it first in the sex scene robbed it of the gravitas that it could have had when portraying the nuclear test explosion.

Overall, perhaps because I had some familiarity with the historical events, I felt like the director tried too hard to make an ultimately simply story about the life of a complicated person seem more complicated (as a story) & visually engaging than necessary. It is perhaps damning to the movie that I felt that despite having seen trailers where the cast of the movie encouraged people to watch it in an IMAX movie theater, I felt that I could have enjoyed it equally on a small screen in an airplane. As an example, I could see that the director was in many scenes trying to visually depict the turmoil in & tortured state of Oppenheimer's mind, but the effects often felt too overwrought with crazy pictures & loud sounds. I thus would only recommend it to people who may then be inspired to read the book (as I myself have yet to do).

On another note, there was a scene with a graph on a chalkboard for one of Oppenheimer's lectures showing a single particle tunneling quantum mechanically through a flat barrier in 1 dimension, but the wavefunction was so badly drawn that it didn't seem to show exponential suppression in space in the region of the barrier. When I saw that scene, I immediately thought that if I were a TA for a class in which he was a student and he had submitted that as part of a homework assignment, I would have deducted points.