OT -- MOVIE REVIEW: Oppenheimer

I am not the world’s biggest movie fan and it’s not my intention to become a recurring movie critic. However, the movie Oppenheimer is worthy of discussion. In a movie market cluttered with “franchise films” (Mission Impossible…), comic book derived cartoons and real-life action (Spiderman, Flash) and nostalgia for childhood dolls (Barbie), the implied tagline for Oppenheimer could have been “at last, an adult movie about weighty subjects.” The movie is a historical period piece so it isn’t possible to spoil the movie in any real sense with a review (and that’s not the intent here, regardless). After seeing the movie, the best way to review the film is to first make some distinctions between what the movie did NOT attempt to accomplish and what it DID attempt before addressing those attempts on their own merits.

What the Movie Did NOT Try To Accomplish

Oppenheimer did NOT attempt to deliver a “scientific biography” of the Manhattan Project, primarily focused on the technical / financial aspects of the effort, peppering it with deep dives into the psyches of Oppenheimer and his team to understand how their personal and scientific selves approached the work and processed the aftermath of a working bomb. The actual project required synthesizing advancements in chemistry, metallurgy, theoretical physics, explosives, etc. References to those disciplines and the challenges of fusing them together into a “gadget” occupy a total of maybe ten minutes – in a three hour film.

If you were interested in how theory related to bomb design had to race in parallel with theory involving the creation of enough fissionable material by two alternate, unproven and (equally) astronomically expensive processes, that entire struggle is summarized into a simple recurring visual metaphor of marbles in a fishbowl (uranium) and a smaller cocktail glass (plutonium). I don’t recall Hanford or Oak Ridge ever being named, despite the costs and labor of constructing those plants dwarfing the infrastructure put in place at Los Alamos in terms of buildings and people.

What Oppenheimer TRIED to Accomplish…

The VAST majority of scenes and dialog in the movie (probably over eighty five percent) involve what could most appropriately be termed a Red-Scare inspired whodunnit regarding a career and public profile assassination. Obviously, the movie is historically based so it should not be a spoiler to note that Oppenheimer was subjected to exactly this treatment after failing to support new efforts at creating hydrogen bombs (thermonuclear bombs using FISSION bombs to trigger the compression of hydrogen to create FUSION reactions achieving megaton yields instead of mere kiloton yields). The movie has one small plot twist that unfolds in the last twenty minutes of the movie that I will leave undescribed. After about fifty minutes of the film had elapsed and it became clear the movie was not going to get into ANY technical details, the movie took on more of a Good Night, and Good Luck feel, only about nuclear politics rather than the news media.

The ACTUAL Movie Experience

How did Oppenheimer fare in achieving its goals? First, the elephant in the theatre must be discussed. Oppenheimer was filmed in IMAX. I watched in a Superscreen DLX theatre, not an IMAX theatre but after watching all three hours, nothing in the content seems to justify the effort and expense. The entire movie is a historical piece so all of the scenes are either shot in black and white or tinted to make them look like dimly lit 1940s settings. The scene depicting the initial Trinity test might have been a logical candidate for the hi-definition realism of IMAX but director Chris Nolan didn’t place five IMAX cameras around a desert valley and pay Los Alamos Laboratories to set off another atomic blast. Numerous press stories on the movie issued prior to release state that the “blast” in the film was all real but involved “conventional” explosives which means it looks like a Hollywood explosion rather than a nuclear explosion. A “realistic” bomb scene would essentially have been an entire screen of white bright enough to illuminate the bones in your hand like an x-ray for a few seconds. Anyone looking away from the blast could probably view the developing cloud through welder glass after a few seconds. Anyone looking AT the blast would probably be blinded for at least two to three minutes.

In other words, there’s no adequate or accurate way to convey the actual detonation visually. Nolan could have focused on secondary effects to emphasize the unique power of the new weapon. One famous anecdote from the Trinity test not reflected in the film explains how Enrico Fermi estimated the yield of the Trinity test by releasing torn up shreds of paper just as the bomb blast reached his observation point with the other scientists. The shreds of paper were blown 2.5 meters which he estimated to correspond to a blast of 10,000 tons of TNT. Later estimates put the yield at 25,000 tons.

Perhaps the point most effectively conveyed in the film involves how Oppenheimer’s scientific career advanced in the 1920s and 1930s despite him developing a reputation as a sloppy lab worker for experimental work and disinterested in the nitty gritty, mind-numbing math behind the rapidly evolving theories of the day. That dichotomy is summarized as he meets one mentor early in his career who invites him to work with him for a period. “I don’t care if you can read the music, it’s important if you can hear the music.” In other words, many scientific advancements are equally dependent upon those with visualization skills that make interrelated concepts “click” and those with the skills to translate such relationships into written mathematical or prose form. If you don’t have the vision, you’re just a scribe with nothing to write. If you can’t communicate an idea clearly, it cannot be understood, validated or advanced by others.

The most annoying aspect of the production involved Nolan’s use of modern cinematic ploys to add drama like rapid jump cuts between different arguments and interrogation scenes taking place at different points in time, all while annoying escalating “music” plays to remind the less sophisticated movie goer that this is all leading to something… At some point. But this is a three-hour movie. Interrogations are a key part of the overall screenplay so this effect gets used (abused) for minutes at a time, totaling what seemed like thirty minutes of screen time. And all that music means you can’t follow the dialogue, even if you might have normally been able to follow it, despite any presence of time or place cues.

Almost as annoying as the jump-cuts and drowned out dialogue is the failure to appropriately introduce any of the famous figures in the movie using any common cinematic devices. Maybe a newspaper clip showing a name and recognized headline about an event… Maybe a flashback scene with a brief caption with a year and city name, at least. Nothing. Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, who were instrumental with efforts in 1940 at the University of Chicago and creating the first sustained nuclear reaction are brought onscreen with a brief mention of “Chicago” and never appear in conjunction with their name so the movie goer can make an association. When Ernest Laurence first makes an entrance in the film, the screenplay just conveys he is already a respected experimental physicist at Berkley and briefly mentions his work in building cyclotrons that were used to expand understanding of atomic structure. Normally, a movie making some effort to be educational might have figured out a way to gently hint to the viewer that Ernest Laurence is the Laurence in two different national laboratories, Laurence Berkeley National Laboratory and Laurence Livermore National Laboratory, that are still advancing physics to this day.

In the movie, Ernest Laurence was less critical to the key plot but the character of Edward Teller who was crucial to Oppenheimer’s eventual fate was given a similar non-introduction. In real life, Teller became known as the father of the H-bomb and drove most of the theoretical work leading to its working form in 1952 (though the idea of a fusion bomb triggering a fission bomb was first suggested to Teller by Enrico Fermi…). Teller joined the Manhattan project in 1942 and his time was split between distractions on his idea of a fusion bomb and assistance with “metallurgical” science being done at both Los Alamos and University of Chicago. Later, he became a major player in the effort to discredit Oppenheimer in the public but none of this is hinted at when he first appears on screen.

The net effect of these rushed character introductions not only makes the flow of the film clunky, it prevents the film from making the key point about Oppenheimer himself that made his reputational assassination so tragic. The movie implies that many around Oppenheimer understood he had unique skills of visualization and synthesis but leaves it at that. Without understanding the brilliance of those around him, it is impossible to appreciate how perfectly suited he was for that problem at that moment in terms of his scientific expertise and communication skills.

Overall, as I sat through this three hour movie – I mentioned it’s three hours, right? – it occurred to me that I wasn’t experiencing the desired suspension of disbelief where a movie transports a viewer into the perspective of one of the characters, a separate narrator or just a fly on the wall objectively watching the events unfold. Instead, I felt like I was watching the movie through the director’s viewfinder with a copy of the screenplay opened on a tray next to the camera. Or maybe stuck in a darkened editing room with a giant mixing board and digital equivalent of a Moviola, watching the director and editor make every decision about every cut and every sound effect insertion – and feeling manipulated by all of those trite techniques. The movie wasn’t an action movie. It wasn’t an epic cross-country adventure. It wasn’t a space fantasy. It wasn’t a cops and robbers car chase extravaganza. It should have been a movie centered on dialogue, political conflict, morality and human ambition. None of which require action movie cinematography and soundtracks.

What COULD Oppenheimer Have Achieved?

The movie does end with one effective point about the fickleness of society in alternately creating heroes, destroying them and occasionally rebuilding them, all to suit the motives of hidden players and their schemes. That’s an effective takeaway for a period piece about a controversial deadly weapon created by a controversial figure during a time when America was swinging from one enemy (the Axis powers) to the next (Russia and communism in general). By focusing on the mechanics of a career battle without spending more time on the discussions that went into the technical challenges of the time and potential consequences, the movie Oppenheimer fails to tie this history to current events. Is Artificial Intelligence the next atomic bomb technology whose adoption is outstripping our ability to comprehend and thwart its possible dire consequences?

The movie hinted at but did not emphasize how quickly the next round of paranoia about Russia and communism began constraining America’s perspective and that of the West in general. Indeed, the bulk of the movie involves an administrative hearing rigged to retract Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 based upon his personal relationships in the 1930s and his work leading the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Council starting in 1947. It never actually explained any trigger behind the 1954 hearing or how a key nemesis reached a point of power to initiate that hearing as a form of revenge. The lack of context and erratic editing of the movie convey nothing to modern viewers about how the Red Scare fear mongering of that time led to such persecution. By failing to explain the context of that time, the movie fails to raise any parallels to modern struggles over orthodoxy.

The movie does provide insight into concerns project members including Oppenheimer had during the design work and after first use about the morality of such a weapon of mass destruction. However, little time is spent addressing the project’s other long-term health impacts. There is about thirty seconds of dialogue in the movie as a team discusses one female member’s risk to future children as a result of working around the uranium and plutonium. Throughout the movie, director Nolan includes segments where Oppenheimer experiences an inner “fast forward” to horrific images of victims (accompanied by annoying loud sound effects) as he begins to understand more of a bomb’s destructive potential. Some of that screen time could have been used to include references to workers sickened by radiation exposure at lab and enrichment facilities, military personnel subjected to radiation during bomb testing in the decades that followed or average citizens still exposed to waste from Manhattan Project work all over the country.

In reality, the Manhattan Project taught America how to become a national security state. It taught faceless bureaucrats that it was possible to cloak pet projects behind national security concerns and obtain unaccountable billions from taxpayers for unexplained goals and never be accountable for costs or outcomes – behaviors that are corrosive to democracy. With just a minute or two here and there, the film could have tied Manhattan Project era work to programs still in place today to show the lasting scientific and political impacts (good and bad). A viewer without any knowledge of the Manhattan Project would be left with the impression it spent a lot of money eighty years ago, yielded a hero who was subsequently tarred and feathered during the McCarthy era then vanished without a trace.

As an aside, if you ARE interested in the scientific aspects of the entire Manhattan Project, there is no better book on the subject than The Making of the Atomic Bomb, written by Richard Rhodes in 1986.



Yes, Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is not only highly informative but utterly gripping if you have that slightest level technical understanding and imagination necessary so as to be gripped.

david fb


There were medical studies after the war. For plutonium (often incorrectly described as the most toxic substance ever created), the people exposed did not suffer the medical problems that are sometimes assumed.

From the link:
What was perhaps the world’s most exclusive club comprised a handful of Americans who became contaminated in accidents with plutonium in the scramble to make the first plutonium weapons. All were young white males who had been working under laboratory conditions acknowledged to have been “extraordinarily crude” in 1944-5, on one of four chemical processes: purification, fluorination, metal reduction and recovery. The kinds of accident they suffered included chemical burns by plutonium salt solutions. Members were enrolled by medics at Los Alamos because they were judged to have experienced the highest exposures to plutonium of all people engaged in the Manhattan Project. The chosen 26 were excreting the highest levels of plutonium in their urine. In 1952, when the club was formed, each was estimated to be contaminated with between 0.1-1.2µg of plutonium.

Most of the men left Los Alamos soon after the war ended and scattered throughout the USA. Three of them continued to work with plutonium. Four had been involved with three or more accidents with the stuff. The medics traced all 26 in 1952-3 and carried out their first follow-up of medical studies. Thereafter they were given a complete medical examination about every five years. Two decades later, in 1971-2, 22 of them returned to Los Alamos for a more complete study of their plutonium body burden, with two more opting for their own doctors instead of Los Alamos’s. One had died.

By 1979, when George L Voelz and his colleagues published their 32-year medical follow-up of club members, two had died: the first from a heart attack in 1959, aged 36; and another from a road accident in 1975, aged 52. The surviving 24 had suffered no cancers other than two skin cancers “that have no history or basis that relate them to plutonium exposure”, they reported. They found the diseases and physical changes in club members were “characteristic of a male population in their 50s and 60s”. The mortality rate of the club was about 50% of the expected deaths among white American males at that time.

  • Pete

Looking forward to seeing Barbie.

Thanks for letting me know to save my money on Oppenheimer. His moralizing is great for a sound bite. Three hours of his self reflection and interrogations would be torture. The whole idea is not to use the bomb. Everyone understands that to varying degrees.

On the planned invasion of Japan, from the book Hell To Pay, by Dennis Giangreco:

The conclusion delivered to the War Department in July 1945, shortly before Potsdam, was that the United States could squeak by with the current six-figure level of inductions, but a new “worst case” had now been created: “We shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese [and] this might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 and 800,000 killed.”

The Japanese leadership had come to a similar conclusion. Nearly 178,000 Japanese civilians had lost their lives in recent months—most burned to death or asphyxiated by American incendiary bombs—and 8 million had been made homeless even before the atomic bombs were dropped. Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo made its own clear-eyed assessments. Based largely on the recent fighting on Okinawa, where nearly 130,000 combatants and perhaps as many as a quarter of the island’s 400,000 men, women, and children were dead by July, a remarkable 20 million (representing total casualties in some records and deaths in others) became the figure discussed in Imperial circles.

In the summer of 1945 the immediate future looked pretty grim. The fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa was savage, and to the last man. Not a single Japanese military unit had surrendered during the war. The shock of the atomic bomb allowed the heretical choice of surrender to finally be advanced by the emperor.

200K or less from the two bombs is 1% of 20 million. So, yeah, Oppenheimer’s moralizing was mostly off base and trite.


A gentle hint: it’s Lawrence, not Laurence.


General and random comments:

My understanding is that the film is not designed to be a scientific analysis nor educational platform on nuclear power, but a character study of a tortured soul facing one of the most existential questions a person can, along with his personal travails after given the political tenor of the time. Hence the name: “Oppenheimer”, and not “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”.

The long term health impacts were not understood at the time, so it would have been difficult to incorporate in the film without stopping everything and moralizing from the screen: “And this is why atomic power is a bad idea, kids…” More than that, the long term impacts are not even well understood today; later Army tests using live human recruits shows some impacts on some of them, but none on others, so … not an easy topic for discussion within the context of a popcorn movie.

The dropping of the bomb is often credited for the Japanese surrender, and it surely had some impact. Also, and not to be forgotten, was the entrance of Russia just days before into that sphere of the war (to that point Stalin had a non-aggression pact with the Japanese, and part of Potsdam was that he would renounce that treaty, and redirect his troops to helping the US and Allies in the Asian theater following the final collapse of Germany). So the Emperor had the option of surrender to the Allies, or eventual surrender to Stalin, leaving a probable divided country (see: North and South Korea). Stalin, once he entered a country, was not known for leaving amiably.

It is known that the Japanese were looking for an honorable way out for a while before the atomic blasts, but were attaching conditions the allies found unacceptable (laughable, actually). Like: we will have our own war trials and the allies will not be involved. Like: we will maintain our military at the same levels, but peacefully. Like: the Emperor stays, with no changes in power. (He did eventually stay, but subservient to Allied dictat.)

I intend to see the film. I am expecting historical accuracy, and reading about this period has always been a passion for me. Whether the film is any good on the level I am expecting I won’t know until I get there, will I?


I agree with you and David fb. Rhodes book is an outstanding example of history of science.

Someday I may watch Oppenheimer on TV, same for Barbie. Maybe only just one of them.

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I am getting up the guts as a single guy to go watch Barbie. Who knows maybe I will meet my own Barbie. Downward limit age 55, upward limit age 63.

@waterfell There were medical studies after the war. For plutonium (often incorrectly described as the most toxic substance ever created), the people exposed did not suffer the medical problems that are sometimes assumed.

That might be true for plutonium maybe not so much for uranium. This issue is of particular historical and practical interest to me. I grew up and still live in the St. Louis region and Manhattan Project hangovers are a huge problem in several areas of the metro region. Here’s a link summarizing how waste from initial refinement of uranium by Mallinckrodt Chemical in downtown St. Louis that provided material for the first nuclear “pile” chain reaction at the University of Chicago was shifted two or three times, leaving contamination at each location that is still causing concerns today:

You can scroll through the story and the map updates along with the narrative, showing how the material was moved to create a ever-wider contamination footprint.

One of the consequences of that material getting repeatedly moved around was the subject of a 2017 documentary on HBO called Atomic Homefront describing health impacts of contamination around Coldwater Creek. Locals became active in requesting government intervention after a woman who went to high school in the early 1970s at a building next to Coldwater Creek started getting sentimental about old high school friends, started looking them up on social media then noticed a disturbing trend – an unusual number had already died or were dying of weird cancer varieties that sometimes set in as early as their late 20s or early 30s.

Not mentioned in the muckrock.com piece or the Atomic Homefront movie is another nearby 215 acre site in Weldon Springs, MO in St. Charles County just across the Missouri River that was also used for uranium refining between 1941 and 1966 and whose contaminants are now threatening several water intakes for the St. Charles County water system.

One update on a different aspect of my commentary related to how the movie made no attempt to tie the dilemma of 1945 – deploying a technology to solve an immediate problem without a full comprehension of the technology’s future impact – to similar debates now such as Artificial Intelligence… I found it somewhat odd that this very topic appeared in press stories in the last two days related to the Oppenheimer movie release. Who raised the topic? Director Christopher Nolan.

Uh, Chris, you had $100 million dollars to produce this film. Money was no object. Clearly RUN TIME was not a concern either. Maybe you could have devoted 5-10 minutes of screen time to subliminally inject this theme into the screenplay. No need to beat the film goer over the head. Anyone mildly interested in the film will likely pick up on a subtle reference or two to help them form the association on their own and begin contemplating it.



What about the “half your age plus 7” rule? That would be about 37 on the low end. :joy:


I am thinking the square root of 19 times 20 would be good to go. Some girl in her mid 90s.

I ran into a friend yesterday at CVS in line in front of me. He was buying blue pills. Said something about inflation. Seems his pills went from $500 to $600 per month. God bless him.

What’s love got to do with it?

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And herewith, a shorter review:

An astonishing work, sure to be a major Academy Award entrant on multiple levels, and a great lesson on what happened from the beginning of the Manhattan Project (and before) to the inception of the Cold War and the prospect of thermonuclear holocaust and tangentially the Red Scare hysteria of the 1950’s, as played out through the life and career of Oppenheimer.

It was the fastest 3-hour movie I’ve ever seen, although I can remember only a couple others, “Barry Lyndon” went for about a day (though the clock said less.) Oppenheimer is not told in linear mode, but the jumping back and forth assembles itself into a coherent narrative. I’ve read a lot about the period and the program (but not the book on which the film is based). Mrs. Goofy knows almost none of it, and called the film “incredible”.

Unlike WTH, I was expecting what I got: a drama based on the events and mores of the period, not a lecture on “what should be” (AI), and none of the participants were unknown, indeed they were all “introduced” by name at one point or another (that there are many, and the introduction casual - not, as suggested - with spinning newspaper headlines or Movietone newsreels, didn’t bother me in the slightest.Not knowing everyone’s exact role didn’t bother my companion either; if she wants a history lesson she can go back, or perhaps take a course.)

I found the acting superior in every case, the assemblage of the various eras into a coherent whole fascinating (far better than a linear retelling), the costuming and dialog without flaw, and the cinematography the best in recent memory. My only regret it that I didn’t see it in iMAX. Not that the entire film deserves it, it doesn’t. There are, however, moments which would lift the moviegoer out of the “usual movie house seat” and into the “extraordinary”, but I acknowledge that might not be necessary for most and that the film plays just fine in enhanced or even regular format.

See it. Four stars. It illustrates the genesis of the world we inhabit, pivoting around the single most important scientific achievement in human history. Prometheus flew too close to the sun, and we all know how that story turned out.


The Oppenheimer story has been told very well in TV documentaries especially on PBS. But its been a while.

For the current generation, this may be their first exposure to this information. I hope it covers the subject well. I still remember Tora Tora Tora as the best telling of Pearl Harbor. And Midway of Midway. And Dunkirk did reasonably well.

Telling Titanic as a love story with a convoluted plot was a pretty extreme stretch but I suppose people found it informative.

Harrumph! Stuff actually happened in “Barry Lyndon”. NOTHING happened in “A Wedding”, total waste of life watching that thing.

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FWIW, the Criterion Channel has made the Oppenheimer documentary “The Day After Trinity” available without subscription until August 1 (so today and tomorrow).

I found the first 30 minutes boring, talk of childhood and other irrelevancies, and the final 60 minutes quite worthwhile, if you care about this topic.

Here is the link from the NYT site “The Day After Trinity”

And the story in today’s Times: