Sometimes close-ups of people’s faces are punctuated by flash cuts of events that haven’t happened or have already happened. There are also images of recurring small chain reaction explosions resembling fire, debris, and firecracker blasts, and non-incendiary images that evoke other terrible personal disasters. (The film is full of gradually expanding flashbacks, first a glimpse of something, then a little more of it, and finally the whole thing.) But these aren’t just about the big bombs Oppenheimer’s team wants to detonate in the desert, or the little bombs that explode constantly in Oppenheimer’s life. Sometimes it’s because he personally pushed the big red button in a moment of anger, pride, or lust, and sometimes it’s because he made a simple, thoughtless mistake. When you offended someone long ago, the wronged person retaliated with the equivalent of a time bomb. In the language of physics, a “fission” cut is also a metaphor for the domino effect caused by an individual’s decisions and the resulting chain reaction of other things. This principle is also visualized by the repeated images of ripples on water, beginning with the opening close-up of raindrops, foreshadowing both the demise of Oppenheimer’s career as a government adviser and public figure, and the detonation of the first nuclear weapon at Los Alamos (the observer sees, then hears, and finally feels all of its terrifying impacts).
The interest and meaning weight of the film is carried by the faces of Oppenheimer as well as other key characters, including General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the military overseer of Los Alamos. Robert’s anguished wife Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt); If her husband had just listened, she could have avoided many disasters with her tactical ingenuity. And Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Louis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who despised Oppenheimer for many reasons, including his decision to distance himself from his Jewish roots, spent several years trying to derail Oppenheimer’s career after Los Alamos. The latter constitutes its own adjoining long story of pettyness, mediocrity and jealousy. Strauss is Oppenheimer’s Mozart’s Salieri, regularly and often pitifully reminding others that he too used to study physics, and that he is a good man, unlike the adulterous and communist sympathizer Oppenheimer. (The film alleges that Strauss leaked FBI files on ties between progressives and communists to a third party, who wrote to Director J. Edgar Hoover.)
The film frequently mentions one of the principles of quantum physics: observing quantum phenomena with detectors and instruments could change the results of this experiment. Editing explains it by constantly reframing our perception of an event and changing its meaning, and scripting does so by adding new information that undermines, contradicts, or expands our sense of why a character did something or whether they knew why they did it.
That, I believe, is the true theme of Oppenheimer, far more important than the atomic bomb itself and even its effects on the war and the civilian population of Japan, which are talked about but never shown. The film shows the effects of the atomic bomb on the human body, but does not recreate the actual attack on Japan. An anguished Oppenheimer imagines what it would be like for Americans to experience the atomic bomb. The decision to make the film is likely to antagonize both viewers who wanted a more direct view of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those who accepted Strauss and others’ argument that the atomic bombs had to be dropped because otherwise Japan would never have surrendered. The film does not indicate whether he believes that interpretation is correct, or whether he stands with Oppenheimer and others who argued that at that point in World War II Japan had yielded and would have eventually given up had it not been for the atomic bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. No, this is a film that allows the freedom and indulgence of novelists, poets and opera composers. It does what we expect it to do. Dramatically portraying the lives of Oppenheimer and other historically significant persons in his orbit in an aesthetically bold way, while also allowing every character and every event to be used figuratively and symbolically, becomes a pointillist element within a much larger canvas of the mysteries of human character and the unforeseen consequences of decisions made by individuals and societies.