New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

The case against ‘Oppenheimer’

Leading the pack with 13 Oscar nominations, including best picture, it’s time to ruffle some Nolan-heads and reassess the biopic.
(Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

It’s hard to ignore Christopher Nolan’s success as a filmmaker. With eight Academy Award nominations under his belt and stellar box-office performances, it’s unsurprising that his works hold cultural significance. It’s equally hard to avoid his sycophantic fans.

Some lurk in TikTok comment sections or film lectures, yapping on about why “Inception” was robbed of a best picture win. Others take their unending blocks of text to Letterboxd, embedding them under five-star reviews or adorning their favorites tab with Nolan’s filmography. A few even run a website declaring their fandom to the world. To them, Nolan is a deity — his screenplays are their gospel.

So when the release date for his newest film “Oppenheimer” happened to coincide with the release of Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated “Barbie” in July 2023, of course Nolan-heads came out to their local theaters in droves, gleefully sitting through the three-hour flick and generating  $952 million at the box office. But internet discourse ensued following “Barbenheimer” double features, with many publishing spirited rants and voiced-over Minecraft parkour clips sharing their discontent with Nolan’s narrow depiction of the Manhattan Project and the atrocities it caused.

Considering that the Oscars are right around the corner and the film received 13 nominations, including best picture and best direction for Nolan, it’s prudent to reexamine the biopic’s impact on viewers’ understanding of the historical events portrayed in the film.

Adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Nolan’s biopic is a first-person narrative of the infamous physicist, portrayed by Cillian Murphy. The film encompasses over three decades of Oppenheimer’s life, split into two major timelines that parallel major scientific discoveries at the time: fission, the splitting of a radioactive atom and fusion, the combination of two hydrogen atoms.

At the core of “Oppenheimer” is the physicist’s crisis following his role in the Manhattan Project and its human cost. Much like an atom during nuclear fission, Oppenheimer is morally split. He declares he “likes a little wiggle room” with his application of theory, but enables his inner battle between support for the United States’ war efforts and the belief that those efforts are detrimental to humankind. In turn, Oppenheimer’s legacy is also split. He’s lauded for his contributions to atomic theory, but is simultaneously blamed for creating the atomic bombs that led the Cold War and remembered as a womanizer and egoist. When his internal perspective “fuses” with external pressure, he becomes destroyed. 

Experiencing the film through Oppenheimer’s perspective allows us a more intimate understanding of his mind, but also confines us to his worldview in scenes where objective accounts of his discoveries or personal affairs may have been more insightful. The difficulty balancing narrative and historical context is inherent in the biopic genre as a whole, but in the case of “Oppenheimer,” a limited scope of events is confusing for viewers unfamiliar with the physicist and the Manhattan Project. It doesn’t help that the film also suffers from inaccuracies.

Multiple historical blips in “Oppenheimer” have been spotted and shared on social media. For example, the use of 50-star flags in a scene set prior to 1960 or the mention of “black holes” when the term had not yet been coined were pointed out shortly after the film’s release. While these details may fly over most viewers’ heads — I mean, it must’ve flown over Nolan’s — it’s hard to ignore larger liberties taken in the film, such as the misrepresentation of Los Alamos prior to its establishment as a site for the Manhattan Project. 

Los Alamos is depicted as barren and largely uninhabited before Oppenheimer and his team arrive, except for Indigenous burial sites and a boys’ school that the Manhattan Project commandeers and converts into a laboratory. “Oppenheimer” neglects the forced displacement of Indigenous and Latine communities in northern New Mexico in order to establish the Los Alamos National Laboratory, with homesteaders receiving very small — or no — payments for their land on the Pajarito Plateau. Also neglected are the “Downwinders,” people living near the Trinity Test Site whom the government did not inform about its activities there, resulting in radiation contaminating their food and water supplies. 

Considering the film’s emphasis on morality and the human cost of atomic weapons development, it’s shocking that there’s no mention whatsoever of the impact of the Manhattan Project on these communities, even in the black-and-white “fusion” sequences of the film, which are meant to portray objective historical accounts. We are privy to multiple scenes in which Oppenheimer is forced to grapple with the effect of his discoveries — envisioning those around him being enveloped by light and disfigured as if they’ve been exposed to the bomb — yet there is no consideration for the harm done just so the Manhattan Project could even begin. 

Another gripe with the film’s storytelling — a longtime criticism of Nolan’s filmmaking — is his one-dimensional portrayal of female figures. Both Kitty Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock suffer from a lack of depth in the film, distinguished only by their Communist Party membership and drinking and mental health struggles. Kitty is portrayed as a drunk waving around a flask or screaming at a baby in every scene, with her one shining moment of intellect in the film occurring near the three-hour mark. Jean, a psychiatrist, is presented as manic and hypersexual, asking Oppenheimer to read the Bhagavad Gita mid-sex or calling him in between tears before drowning herself in her bathtub. The most prominent women in Oppenheimer’s life — both accomplished and shrewd in real life — are reduced to dependents of or assets to the physicist, without their own space to be developed past ditzy flirts or negligent lovers.

Like Oppenheimer claiming light can be both a particle and a wave, “Oppenheimer” can be recognized both for its masterful elements and criticized for its limiting historical accounts. It’s hard to look away from the film, whether a result of the striking visuals, Murphy’s disturbing, attention-commanding performance as Oppenheimer or Ludwig Göranson’s dread-invoking score. It’s undeniable that the biopic deserves its place in the conversation around 2023’s best films.

But if  “Oppenheimer” was released on a date other than July 21 and Nolan’s name wasn’t plastered on the poster, its glaring historical inaccuracies and narrow narrative would be a larger point of criticism, especially at awards shows. Without Nolanites and a historic summer premiere alongside “Barbie,” the biopic would’ve seen far less acclaim — and likely wouldn’t be in the running for the Oscars’ biggest award of the night. As “Oppenheimer” moves onto streaming and diehards inevitably dive in for a pre-Oscars rewatch, they should listen to the physicist’s words about “wiggle room” and allow space for themselves to consider if their fandom is genuine, or if they just hopped onto the Nolan bandwagon because they found an empty seat. 

Contact Dani Biondi at [email protected].

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