First let me remark on the film itself. Visually, Nolan continues his ‘dogma of performance’ where every decision is slanted toward reality except — predictably — the sex scenes. Structurally, he has mapped his philosophy of folded narrative onto basically four events with nested histories, both as traditional viewer-oriented (narrative-expository) flashbacks, and those carried in his soul.
These four, for the curious are a second lakeside meeting with Einstein, the actual Trinity event, his first sex with Tatlock, and his testimony about exporting iron isotopes to Norway, but it hardly matters what they are.
I understand he worked out this device on a planned project on Howard Hughes, also a ‘four’ as described below, and also bound to sex. I’m still unsure how successful this structure is. In all prior projects (that he’s written), the dynamics of the world are primary, and the movement of souls through it are secondary. (I’ve called this noir.) This runs counter to the mainstream — let’s say Scorcese/Spielberg — notion that dramatic characters are the focus and they drag the world behind them. So Nolan’s synthesis is (I believe) an attempt to have a greater impression on filmmaking than he has with his other projects. Since my life choices are more aligned with Nolan, I applaud this. But I don’t think it is as powerful a synthesis as he planned, despite the support of Downey.
Regular readers know that I rank films on a three point scale: one is useless, two: some interesting elements, and worth watching is three. Occasionally, and with some rules, I’ll give a film a four. I have much the same rating system for colleagues. A four goes beyond genius; such a person sees the world the way it really is, so simply by what seems intuition, he/she ‘knows’ what will happen at the edge.
They navigate in what to us seems the dark. Some of these will be like Einstein who sees things we cannot and finds a way to convey it. Other fours are like Oppenheimer who sees assemblies of concepts in others that we cannot, and finds a way to convey it. My guess after many decades is that the latter is more rare.
This film’s depiction gets that right, at least in the beginning. For Oppenheimer, as it had been for Einstein in a prior generation, all the work is in finding the notational scaffolding for the vision that ‘just is seen’ as a four once described it to me.
Sometimes a four can be amazingly effective in attracting top minds and harmonising to that vision. Such was this man, never arrogant, generous in passing insight, intensely human.
I wish Nolan would have found a better set of visualisations for this. Malick and Tarkovsky both tried and did no better. I also wish he would have created the space Oppenheimer lived in. Most fours literally see a different set of forms than the rest of us and in this story those forms are found through interactions. We see famous characters move in and out, but none of the mind melds.
Other things I missed from the actual story… the self-loathing of Strauss as anchored more in the dynamic of a Jewish man who was at the pinnacle of the inside club and who hid that in reaching the pinnacle of another, bigoted club, contrasted with Oppenheimer who walked away from both. The hate (I’m told) was palpable and racially centred.
Also, while Nolan gives some dramatic history of a couple affairs, he missed something essential. Often, male fours link sex and vision. The two hungers are inescapably bound. It isn’t that he had affairs, it was that desire made manifest pulls manifestations from the rest of the soul. All real science is passion brought into the world. Most scientists are twos — bookkeepers.
And Nolan left out the joy of the life after Los Alamos. At Princeton he created a bubble of joyful discovery with others. Losing his Q was an insult and shame on us. Shame. But it was a blessing as well.
The film also lightly touched on the big schism in physics, but only superficially. Oppenheimer did in fact lobby against the H-bomb as an unwise strategy. But his difference with Teller was from a deeper place, at what we’d see as a religious difference. All physicists use quantum mechanics. It is the most successful and reliable theory in history, but there are two camps for what lies under it. One camp holds that the universe is inherently organised as form that in many cases presents as quantum mechanics. But the types have a topology that becomes more ordered the deeper you go, albeit more abstract. Another group invented chaos and local order that is increasingly complex the deeper you go.
If you work at any level in science other than bookkeeping, you choose your religion — or like most simply adopt it without knowing. The first camp has Einstein, Oppenheimer, Wigner, Ne’eman, Morrison and Feynman — indeed everyone on most top ten lists starting at Newton.
(Feynman is the unconstrained bongo guy in the movie. He was as central a four as Oppenheimer. Also a profound serial womaniser and security drama.)
So one framing of the Manhattan project is the unhappy competition of these two world views (which has some relevance to Jewish traditions in Kabbalah).
I won’t be giving this film a four, in part because it is an experiment in its form and I say let Scorsese alone to do his thing. And go back to making the movies that themselves are explosive.
Posted in 2023
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.