Saturday, May 25, 2024

Oppenheimer (70 mm)

Christopher Nolan: Oppenheimer (US 2023) starring Cillian Murphy. Poster from Ghana. Photo: IMDb. Please do click to enlarge the poster.

Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin : American Prometheus : The Triump and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 721 pp. First edition cover, photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Photo from Wikipedia.

180 min
    Distributed by Finnkino Oy Teatterilevitys.
    70 mm event screenings at Bio Rex Lasipalatsi: 18 May, 19 May, 25 May, 26 May, 1 June, 2 June 2024
    Viewed without subtitles at Bio Rex Kulttuurikasarmi: Bio Rex Lasipalatsi, Helsinki, Saturday 25 May 2024

AA: I saw Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer for the first time on 21 July 2023, the international premiere day, the "Barbenheimer day" and blogged about it. It was my film of the year.

Inspired by the movie, I bought the book on which it is based, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005). It became my book of the year. I also read the new biography of Oppenheimer's friend George F. Kennan, Frank Costigliola's Kennan: A Life Between Worlds (2023).

Christopher Nolan does justice to the book. It is amazing how much he can fit in three hours. For those who like the film I recommend the book also. There is not a dull page.

A complex film rewards multiple viewings. Last year, I saw Oppenheimer on digital, but Hoyte Hoytema's magnificent cinematography was conducted on IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm, the ideal screening formats of which are IMAX and 70 mm. Finland's first five 70 mm screenings are now at Bio Rex Lasipalatsi. There are only two cinemas in Helsinki with 70 mm projection: Kino Regina and Bio Rex Lasipalatsi.

The screening is sold out. The audience is committed. During the screening I never glance at the watch.

Random remarks:

The cast feels even more impressive now. Familiar actors are convincing in roles unusual for them like Matt Damon as Leslie Groves and Matthew Modine as Vannevar Bush - or even unrecognizable such as Robert Downey, Jr. as Lewis Strauss and Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman. It is a pleasure to see Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, David Krumholtz as Isidor Rabi and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein.

The women feel more important also. In the movie, Oppenheimer feels even stranger than in the book, a man who is hardly ever at ease with himself. He is "a man who knows too much" as the builder of a doomsday machine. Women keep him grounded, and they are well cast. Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) is rock solid during the witch trials. The significance of Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) grows in a repeat viewing. During the Manhattan project Oppenheimer is under extreme pressure and incessant surveillance. He risks everything to see Jean for the last time. Why? In order to be himself for once. Why two women? Oppenheimer is "too much for one woman".

My recent reading, including American Prometheus, Frank Costigliola's Kennan and Anna Reid's A Nasty Little War: The Western Intervention into the Russian Civil War, helps me make better sense of the complexity of world history during the beginning of the Nuclear Age. 

Oppenheimer and his team were building a nuclear weapon against the Nazis. But there was another war in secret preparation: a war against the USSR. The pre-preparation started already in 1918 as US, British and French forces put their boots on Russian ground to oust the Bolsheviks - long before the USSR even existed. Churchill always reminded us about that piece of unfinished business.

Kennan and Oppenheimer warned against overdoing the Cold War, particularly escalating the nuclear arms race, because it would legitimize Stalin's terror. This aspect is not explicitly discussed in Nolan's movie, and leaving it out is justified. But that background would help understand the extreme viciousness of the kangaroo court against Oppenheimer, who was denied a security clearance during the Cold War.

Oppenheimer was a hero when WWII ended, a suspected villain in the witch hunt years, and a redeemed hero since the Kennedy presidency.

The most engrossing aspect in Bird and Sherwin's book is the focus on team spirit. Oppenheimer was not the greatest genius; he never got the Nobel Prize. But he had unique talent in bringing out the best from everybody. He was an electrifying and charismatic leader. Out of complex debates, he was able to crystallize the essence, what moved the project forward. I miss in the film more emphasis on this talent of Oppenheimer's. But there are memorable exchanges:

Niels Bohr: Algebra's like sheet music, the important thing isn't can you read music, it's can you hear it. Can you hear the music, Robert
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Yes, I can.

The final dialogue:

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Albert? When I came to you with those calculations, we thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world...
Albert Einstein: I remember it well. What of it?
J. Robert Oppenheimer: I believe we did.

Followed by the end of the world. We see the Earth from outer space. The atmosphere is burning. 

The 70 mm experience is highly gratifying. The colour footage is vivid and glowing with photochemical glory. There is a special solid sense of reality in 70 mm. I wonder about the black and white. It did not convince in digital, and it is inferior also in this film screening. Full black is missing. It looks like the black and white sequences have been printed on colour stock.

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