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The School Newspaper of Cherry Hill High School East

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The School Newspaper of Cherry Hill High School East

Eastside

Oppenheimer masterfully depicts one of the most complex figures in American history

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Courtesy of IGN.com
The film “Oppenheimer” was released to theaters July 21, 2023.

WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers for Oppenheimer (2023)

        The past decade has seen an alarming increase in the number of biopics focused on celebrity musicians. Whether it be Elvis (2022), Rocketman (2019), or Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), these films have become sensations due to their ability to recreate career highlights for some of the world’s most influential artists. However, I’ve always felt that these sorts of films fall into a trap when it comes to storytelling. The companies producing the movies obviously wish to appeal to the fanbase of the celebrity to maximize profit. Because of this, the plot will typically avoid the more unsavory aspects of the celebrity’s personality (such as the fact that a 24-year-old Elvis Presley first met his future wife when she was 14 years old). However, Christopher Nolan’s latest film avoids this issue by focusing on one of the most ambiguous and controversial figures from history: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Most individuals know little about Oppenheimer’s life outside of his contributions to the development of the atomic bomb and his regrets about his work later on. Nolan capitalizes on the lesser known private life of Oppenheimer masterfully, highlighting the many controversial aspects of the physicist’s personal life while maintaining historical accuracy. Do not be intimidated by the 3 hour runtime. Nolan masterfully paces the story, never leaving the audience feeling bored or checking their watches. The beautiful cinematography, complex performances, and captivating character analysis make for a truly remarkable viewing experience.

The film begins by following Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) as he studies physics in Europe, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of quantum mechanics. Early into the film, it’s clear that (despite his explosive legacy) Oppenheimer embodies a sense of quiet reflection. His mind plagues him with thoughts of an infinite universe, and he constantly remains anxious about his personal flaws. This culminates in a scene where Oppenheimer attempts to poison his belittling teacher’s apple with potassium cyanide (I was surprised to find that this scene was in fact based on true events). Oppenheimer quickly comes to his senses, however, and rushes to dispose of the contaminated fruit. 

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Later on, Oppenheimer moves back to the United States to begin teaching quantum mechanics outside of Europe. Over time it also becomes clear that, on a personal level, Oppenheimer is somewhat removed from many of his peers. Oppenheimer does not hide many of his scientific views, leading to frustration and embarrassment from some of those who surround him. He also begins to surround himself with members of the American Communist Party and leftist organizations. He begins a sexual relationship with one Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh), a member of the US Communist Party, who eventually commits suicide. Oppenheimer partially blames himself for her death, feeling that he should have been present for her despite the fact that Oppenheimer had a wife and family at the time of her suicide. 

Despite his associations with leftist thinkers, General Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon) of the US Army approaches Oppenheimer and asks for his leadership on the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer, a Jewish man terrified of the possibility that Nazi Germany could be ahead on atomic development, agrees to lead the project. He sets up a laboratory in Los Alamos for development of the atomic bomb, fulfilling his dream of being able to combine his home in New Mexico with high-level physics research.

As Oppenheimer and his team of recruited physicists race to finish the bomb, the defeat of Nazi Germany grows ever closer. With this development, many scientific leaders at Los Alamos began to question the necessity of using the atomic bomb on a weakened Imperial Japan. At this point, Oppenheimer faces one of his highest points of internal struggle. Cillian Murphy brilliantly portrays Oppenheimer as a man with unclear thoughts and motives. He understands the utter destruction that the use of an atomic weapon would bring, but also—perhaps naively—believes that its use could bring about an era of untold global peace. The conflict in his mind is portrayed brilliantly during the scene covering the highly anticipated Trinity Test. The camera focuses on cutting between the intense mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb and closeups of Oppenheimer’s face. For around a minute, the scene remains completely silent as we are forced to reckon with the sheer power unleashed onto the world in the matter of a few seconds.

 I was, at first, surprised to find that Nolan did not include a scene depicting the usage of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, I believe that this decision was definitely a safe choice. A depiction of the usage of atomic bombs on civilian territory would be highly distasteful. Though Nolan does not show the bombings themselves, the legacy of violence at Hiroshima and Nagasaki heavily weighs on Oppenheimer’s mind. Throughout the final portions of the film, Oppenheimer’s spirit clearly faces turmoil due to his role in the devastation of tens of thousands of lives. 

In the last leg of the film, Oppenheimer faces a hearing to determine if his security clearance will be removed. Despite his overwhelming degree of service to the United States, a panel of government officials question his authority due to his past association with leftist figures and the vindictive actions of the AEC Commissioner Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr). Again, Cillian Murphy excellently portrays Oppenheimer as a man broken by the accusations of Red Scare era officials. Oppenheimer hoped to save his own legacy by creating restrictions and safeguards for atomic weapons rather than supporting the development of a global arms race. However, the removal of his security clearance destroys his ability to truly remain a powerful figure in atomic policymaking, which sentences Oppenheimer to a life of reckoning with the consequences of his work. 

Nolan referred to Oppenheimer as the most important person to ever live because he would either be the person to destroy the world or to save it from future warfare. While I disagree with Nolan’s conclusion, I can obviously understand his viewpoint. It definitely would be worthwhile for audiences to experience Nolan’s window into the mind of one of the most complex figures from American history. I ultimately would give this film nine stars out of ten.

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About the Contributor
Matthew Rentezelas, Eastside Managing Editor
Matthew Rentezelas is currently in his senior year and is this year’s Managing Editor. Outside of Eastside, he plays soccer for East and a club team, serves as East’s student Board of Education representative, and participates in Model UN and Mock Trial. In his free time, he enjoys practicing bass guitar, biking, and exploring the world of film.

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