Naked in Purgatory

Dom Rottman

11 August 2023

When I went to see Oppenheimer, I expected a good movie highlighted by directorial and visual spectacle. My expectations were squarely met.

I was not blown away, I was not wowed, I was not moved by the pathos of the characters or story. I did not think it was superb, outstanding, revolutionary, some great hallmark of cinema, or worthy of the deluge of praise given by a majority of critics and a frankly irritating marketing campaign that was buttering me up to believe so. I do not find J. Robert Oppenheimer so portrayed particularly sympathetic or relatable, a “man for our time,” or an otherwise world-historic person. How a great many critics and moviegoers not only enjoyed the film, but were deeply moved by it beyond their expectations, praising it as an achievement of not only Nolan but of modern film altogether, is beyond my comprehension. Not that I don’t believe them, I just literally don’t understand it. Not only would I say that this is certainly not Nolan’s best work, I would also rank it among his worst (I haven’t seen Tenet, so it’s between those two)-–not like that means much for a director of his caliber.

In fact, Oppenheimer both succeeds and suffers from Nolan’s directorial mastery. He has created the biopic par excellence by focusing on form and technique rather than content as such. One might even say he allows the film to speak for itself. But if anything should be rendered mute, it is that which blithely recapitulates the status quo as the authoritative good life, or at least one that isn’t beyond a few tweaks. The biopic, in its violent seizure of history, throwing it under the lens of only a “Great Man,” is the culture industry’s premier offering for those who think the “low art” of eye-popping action blockbusters beneath them, despite both performing the same function of recapitulating what merely is, extolling order in abstracto. In failing to challenge or upend the status quo, Nolan allows it to persist by serving it and us a drama of three acts. Let us consider them in turn.

Spoilers follow in this section. Consider skipping if you like regardless; though it may seem mostly summary, there is a purpose to it

The first act is utterly nauseating. It plays nearly every biopic trope and trick in the book. It opens in medias res with a closeup on Oppenheimer’s face, troubled, in the dock of his security clearance appeal hearing-–the first of the film’s three timelines. From this frame we are launched into the second, beginning at his time at Cambridge. In this act Oppenheimer is less Prometheus than he is Athena, genius immaculately sprung into the world. A tortured mind, clumsy in the lab, everything is made to make Oppenheimer look exceptional not only as a genius but among geniuses. The shots are all centered around him (obviously), reveling in the montage, alternating from the troubled man to the images of his imagination, head not in the clouds but in a colorful outer space of stars and explosions; his hands are cramped as he, solitary, scratches on the blackboard with chalk pebbles; his clothes and hair are disheveled–-until the precise moment he is granted the PhD, where he is no longer a quirky genius but a genius with quirks–-arrogant, womanizer, mildly pretentious, fluent in Dutch in six weeks–-who can stop him? Within half an hour he is giving his first lecture at Berkeley, and the only meaningful thing audience has learned is that he is a Jew. The rest are the hypnotic theatrics necessary for the biopic to function, to characterize the subject and weave together the fallen curtain of history with the dark shroud of the theater. To this end we are throughout treated to a soiree of stars celebrity and scientific. It’s Niels Bohr! It’s Robert Downey Jr.! Wener Heisenberg! Einstein! Jack Quaid, still looking too young! Wait, is that the guy who played Han Solo in that movie we forgot about? Oh my God it’s Casey Affleck! It’s Florence Pugh as… a woman! Oh wait, she turned into Emily Blunt! True to history, the film’s two women are little more than necessary devices for the larger cause. Emblematic of the entire project, their excellence only subsumes them further to their instrumental role by performing it well.[^1]

In the same way, throughout the first act the tattered fabrics of history are taken up as necessary material for the film. Cheif among them is Oppenheimer’s relationship to American politics at the time, which is of great importance later for the third act, where the timelines–-the first, linear one, the second, Oppenheimer’s security clearance appeal, and the third, Lewis Strauss’ senate confirmation hearing-–converge. He attempts to start a faculty union at Berkely. He has intercourse with communists. He sends money to the Spanish Republicans. This seed-sowing, often painstaking for both filmmaker and audience in other biopics, is done at brisk speed nearly to the point of carelessness. The wrong American flag is used. Karl Marx is misquoted.[^2] These petty errors, though ultimately meaningless to the film at large, highlight the purely functionary character of so-called “history” to the biopic. In principle (and in principle only) there is nothing wrong with that; relegating history to instrumentality for a film is a judicious decision, much like how the deep science and mathematics behind the Manhattan Project are explored just enough to make the film operate. The second act, which concerns the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Test themselves, therefore marches on at the same thrilling pace.

The second act is the most interesting, and, in my opinion, the best. This is because this is the part of the film that is the most historical, not with respect to accuracy, per se, but because it is the most concerned with the history of real events. This is still a biopic, of course, but it’s at its truly best when Oppenheimer is little more than our vantage point rather than our direct object. This is accomplished chiefly through his relationships and interactions with other individuals, where we can shift our focus from the “he” or “they” to the between. The space between is where the veil of film becomes recognizable as such and where we can, with squinted eyes, look through it to the real history over which it drapes. The troubled Oppenheimer as a member in the room discussing where to drop the bomb, unamused by the war hawk’s magnanimity to drop Kyoto from the list of candidates on account of its beauty, and his ownership of the decision to build the bomb whenever confronted, conceding reservation but ultimately and personally impelled by the Nazi horror, are opportunities to see past the character and remind ourselves of historical conditions. Of course, it’s a sliding scale. History again recedes into the background when the weight of the interpersonal is shifted from the inter to the person, where talk is mere talk either because it ultimately is (what he was talking about when he was naked and smoking?) or is made to be, such as the recurring scene of him joking that isotopes are better than sandwiches, to appear last as an excuse for a slow zoom on an expressive Strauss, as a return to the theatrical world of men.

This recession of history continues through the third act, which is driven by the relationship between Strauss and Oppenheimer, despite the two appearing together in only four or so scenes, all of which by now the audience has already seen at least once (some of them are repeated). But between these two figures there is no history to be found, as it is no longer needed. Nothing makes history’s recession and stark distinction from film so clear than the decision to not portray, to any degree, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So blatant is this decision, in fact, that there is a scene in which photos of the bombing’s aftermath are shown to an audience–-but not us! Instead, we are to settle with a disturbed Oppenheimer, face concealed, in a dark projector room. We must extend our sympathy to him or nothing at all.

The “history” which comes to damn Oppenheimer at his hearing, and which is used by Strauss to throw him under the bus, is not history at all; rather, it is the confused, distorted one the first act had to create in order to shape Oppenheimer into not a historical subject but a film subject. The characters arrive to give testimony which (mostly) screws him over, and more illustrated is the (reasonably expected) callousness of the panel which judges him. In parallel, during Strauss’ own hearing for his confirmation of Secretary of Commerce, the truth of his actions unravel, revealed to the Senate and the audience, resulting with his ambitions ultimately undone, dealt a coup de grace by nuclear physicist David Hill (It’s Raimi Malek!). “Justice” so-called is served, conflict resolved totally in the only way possible-–in film, and hardly in the real history of real politics, and Nolan cannot even bear to pretend anymore. Much unlike history, the world in film must close and open in a neatly organized manner like chapters in a book. Nolan cannot help himself to end with the kerfuffle of Strauss’s walk of shame but must have him ask offhandedly who denied him confirmation. Though the actual answer is 49 names long,[^3] only one, obviously, orchestrated all of the other 48 with outstanding charisma and was solely responsible. That man’s name?

John F. Kennedy!

Jesus Christ.

The film is bookended with an earlier scene of Oppenheimer talking with Einstein, during which Strauss insisted the two began conspiring against him–-the conversation is instead revealed to be about the moral aftermath of the bomb. To ensure our safe return to the real world, the final frame is the image of Oppenheimer we see on all of the movie posters.

For all that, the film itself does not pass judgment on the man J. Robert Oppenheimer. That is left entirely to the audience, even though they would judge regardless. Therefore it does not excel in transmitting any ideological content. In contrast, going one way or the other, valorizing or villainizing the subject, would be opposite ways to recapitulate the same. Valorizing biopics such as A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game have no shame in doubling down on the time-immune triumph of singular scientific genius, while villainizing biopics such as Vice recapitulate the status quo and the “what-ought-to-be” as the existing good by making the subject an exception to it.

But an artist may paint a man as a king or a demon, or as simply ordinary-–in all cases the same techniques are employed, and a portrait is drawn all the same. Oppenheimer is made into the “tragic genius,” a stereotypical biopic mold. Given, Oppenheimer’s historical circumstances, when combined with the techniques of the biopic, it’s hard to imagine how he would end up as anything but. Of course a scientist would have qualms with making a weapon of mass destruction, and of course someone urging even basic caution with such technology would be criticized and then ultimately thrown under the bus by a hawkish federal government. We are given a martyr almost “naturally,” and therefore Oppenheimer is sent straight to purgatory as final judgment is left to the audience. However, as a consequence of the seemingly natural, reasonable “process” of the film, the audience is misdirected from realizing the illusion that such a process was performed by history, or at least, the illusion that the film corresponds to it well enough. In reality nothing could be farther from the truth. Heroes, villains, and martyrs can exist only in the movies, but a history of real events is mute and indiscriminate in how it presents its conditions to its participants.

It has become fashionable, among the Left, to seek out and expose the ideological content in culture. There is, of course, reasonable motivation behind this, if for no other reason that it has become too easy to notice and even easier to complain about. A recent article in The Atlantic by Adam Kotsko, bemoaning the loss of a traditional film criticism that is committed chiefly to the craft and aesthetic questions, considers this recent phenomenon–-let’s call it “moralizing critique”–-as dangerously similar to what the evangelical right has done historically. The consequence, the author argues, is that if culture does and is meant to communicate certain “messages,” what follows is the argument that such ideology should be replaced with different but equally ideological content; a left parallel to evangelical Christian messaging would be similar to what Soviet culture had done historically with the same precedent of eradicating western, bourgeois culture, replacing it with a particular version of Soviet utopianism. Were such filmmakers still with us today, we might imagine from them a “Leninist equivalent to VeggieTales.” Nauseating though the infamous “both sides” trope may be, I am inclined to agree. This phenomeon was one of the reasons why Western Marxists, especially the Frankfurt School, became disillusioned with the Soviet Union. Not only bourgeois ideology and western ideals but also culture entirely was eradicated, wiped away “as if with a sponge,”[^4] and, from there, the reinstatement of culture–-and ideology–-was just one step away.

However, we can, and must, distinguish ideological content, regardless of its truth content, from how it is transmitted, which is ultimately the dangerous thing. It therefore becomes the very premise of criticism to not focus on ideology, content, or message, but appraise the particulars through which such things are transmitted. A moralizing leftist would be hard-pressed indeed to find thematic bourgeois principles in Oppenheimer. But merely observing and describing the techniques and elements in the story and film like a list of ingredients (ahem) is enough to know what’s being served, and ultimatley make the judgment that it isn’t good for you. The excellence–-and therefore horror–-of Oppenheimer is that while it is devoid of ideological or moral content, it tries to transmit such content anyway. The film’s Oppenheimer is therefore exposed, much like the emperor in his new clothes. In the same way, the audience, much like the emperor’s townspeople, are made to go along with the charade for anywhere from three hours to indefinitely. From there the empty interpretations of moralizing content follow, whether it be an evangelical right warning us against satanic–-or it’s new synonym, “woke,"–-messaging, the left warning us of bourgeois ideology, or the general goodness of or fascination with reality in between.

If at the end of the day that makes no difference from a so-called moralizing critique, then, fair enough, guilty as charged. However, I must insist on the difference in object: form, not content, is the object of critique. If the question then becomes why this critique matters, it is because the sort of critique Kotsko longs for–-one focused on pure aesthetics-–is no longer possible. Likewise, the creation of films that must be appreciated in said manner is no longer possible. We cannot imagine a film entirely stripped from the context of the modernity in which it is created, and insist that it be judged in a vacuum based on our vague aesthetic intuition. To do so is to ask not only the barbaric but the impossible. Our aesthetic intuition, however sensible and even sublime it may be, has never and cannot exist outside of reality and history, which must be suspended if not eradicated outright for this fantasy. It is just another way of “wishing to wipe away the whole as if with a sponge.”

[^1] I am well aware why Nolan didn’t, and in fact couldn’t do much more with respect to women in a film about scientific and political professionals in the mid-20th century. As the reader will see by the end, that is precisely the point.

[^2] French Socialist and Anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s infamous slogan “Property is theft!” is misattributed to Marx’s Capital. Marx was in fact one of Proudhon’s harshest critics, and would later criticize his work in a volume which ended any correspondence between the two.

[^3] Strauss was denied confirmation by a vote of 49-47.

[^4] Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society”