–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Oppenheimer or How I Learned to Love the Bomb

by | Jul 20, 2023

The first test of an atomic bomb occurred at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945 in the New Mexico desert. It was code named Trinity. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the head of the multi-headed hydra of science research called the “Manhattan Project.”

There were multiple locations throughout the United States with active atom-splitting research or the refinement of uranium or plutonium byproducts that were as clandestine as they were geographically separated.

Oppenheimer is no stranger to cinema. The Day After Trinity (1981) chronicles Oppenheimer’s career and while not the first documentary to focus on the elusive scientist, jump-started a wave of films that came afterwards.

Features like Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) and television movies like the flawless Day One (1989) were spectacles that demanded attention. The latter was lauded for its historically accurate portrayal of characters and the circumstances surrounding the Manhattan Project, including footage of the first atomic bomb explosion.

As close to the events as 1947, MGM released The Beginning Or the End, a film that treds on relevant bullet points regarding the creation and dropping of the A-Bomb on Japan. Oppenheimer and Major General Leslie Groves cooperated on the production. The film includes footage of the Hiroshima explosion filmed from the Enola Gay as the plane was no doubt banking and hauling ass stage left to escape the deadly radius of the world’s first tactical nuke.

The sand underneath the Trinity test site was turned to glass and subsequently called Trinitite, which was legally able to be mined from the area until 1952. You can still buy Trinitite collected before the cut off date, by the gram, on remote New Mexican highway rock stores or online.

Civilians are allowed to visit the Trinity test site twice a year. You can apply at a government website listed here: Trinity Site Open House.

Only 125 cars are allowed each session, the route of which is located at Stallion Gate, off of Highway 380 in New Mexico. Visiting dates are April 1 and October 21. 

For years I’ve personally been obsessed with a clip I saw in a documentary film. KTLA-TV in Los Angeles had already broadcast a live atomic test on February 1, 1951. Their camera was placed on the top of a Las Vegas hotel approximately one-hour, as the crow flies, from the blast. In following years, they would feed similar live broadcasts that were covered by the then major networks. The footage in question was the broadcast of a live atomic test on network television in 1952.

I’ve diligently watched film docs like Day After Trinity and The Atomic Cafe (1982) but cannot find the exact footage that I recall. Movies are like that: you see an image and it lives forever in your head without a specific source.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer seeks to recast the reluctant scientist as the equivalent of a sensitive artist whose public turns against him. Cillian Murphy gives the performance of his lifetime.

Fans of Murphy will already be cognizant of his acting skills in movies as diverse as Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley or the Wes Craven thriller Red Eye or even the cultish television series Peaky Blinders

Nolan and Murphy are no strangers with Murphy appearing in all three of Nolan’s Dark Knight films as well as a pivotal role in Nolan’s best film, Inception.

Oppenheimer wows the audience with impeccable tech credits and pacing that borders on obsessive non-linear editing. Oppenheimer’s life unfolds as a mountain range where we see past, present, and future at the same time. There are over 75 speaking parts, many with actors you recognize a few minutes after they’ve appeared. You’ll never guess who plays Harry Truman.

One moment Oppy unites European quantum mechanics with American mechanical know-how interacting with a who’s who of early 20th century scientists (Einstein, Fermi, Heisenberg, Gödel, many others), yet the next moment he’s time-shifted to the scrutiny of 1950’s Congressional hearings. It’s not a trial so much as a kangaroo court, with no question as to the outcome.

Oppenheimer spends half of the film in color, a palette that indicates Murphy’s declining mental state after he accumulates a self-regulated guilt of his creation. Sometimes he imagines everything around him – and it could be in the middle of delivering a lecture or testifying before Congress – exploding with the flash of that first atomic test. The background wall shakes. Other segments, more objective in their portrayal of events, are in black-and-white.

The stark contrast of Oppenheimer’s mindset are matched in character intensity by Robert Downey, Jr. as Lewis Strauss, an equally historic figure who hired Oppenheimer post-WWII only to later turn against him.

There’s a reoccurring scene that takes place near a pond at Princeton that involves Oppenheimer, Einstein, and Strauss that repeats like a rhyming couplet of cinema. We see it from different viewpoints each time. Dialogue is important in scenes like this. Part of  Oppenheimer’s charm has to do with the sound mix of words and the propulsive score that dominates most of the movie.

Nonetheless, more than once Oppenheimer slows while switching gears. Nolan has built a unique machine with his latest film only the tonal changes don’t oscillate with atomic accuracy. It’s not total blockage because Nolan has so many courses to deliver that enough scenes resonate with meaning.

Lengthy films are not a problem in my cinematic universe compared to pacing and Oppenheimer moves very well. The cleverest part is the actual Trinity explosion. So many things are happening that lead up to the detonation and then all of a sudden boom.

There’s a sense of historic importance minus the minutiae of reality, like how they waited for a rainstorm to clear only an hour before. Clumsy scenes where Los Alamos scientists are exposed to lethal doses of radiation and die heroically are wisely avoided.

Nolan places the action as seen from 25-miles away. The brunt of the explosion is light and silent clouds of fire. Only half-a-minute later do we experience the sound. The result is like the initial explosion only this time with vibrations.

This is where the fat lady sings. Only Nolan hasn’t finished telling his story, and the subsequent hour attempts to flesh out the Oppenhiemer-Strauss conflict for better or worse.