by Nicholas Russell.
We love a functionless note. In the case of the piece below, Russell gives us the Oppenheimer part he would have put in his essay about the cinema of nuclear bombs if he had waited to publish it until it came out. You should read the original Baffler essay. It makes some sage points:
Nine nations possess, together, just over nine thousand active warheads. And yet, dwelling upon the cinematic landscape in which nuclear weapons and their fantastical offshoots exist, any insistent, pressing sense of urgency continues to be absent.
For someone like Tom Cruise, the bigger the danger, the better the spectacle. Over the course of the never-ending Mission: Impossible franchise, the threat of nuclear war is present but never bears out—thanks to the heroic efforts of Cruise himself.
You can't really pitch this specific of an idea twice, and editors don't let you put notes at the bottom of the article saying you've second thoughts. But it's pretty common to want to. If you have addenda of your own, submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you, Nicholas.
This is an afterword of sorts to a piece entitled “By The Bomb’s Filmic Light” which I wrote for The Baffler in December 2022. —Nicholas Russell
The Western cinema of nuclear destruction is a mixed bag. In an article I wrote for the Baffler at the end of last year, “By The Bomb’s Filmic Light,” I talked about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic book movies in general, and Hollywood’s cavalier use of the nuclear as plot device. Nuclear weapons are in and of themselves no different than, say, smallpox, or mustard gas, or a bullet. The real-world corollary may give us pause, may bring up strong negative associations, but they do not necessarily reflect the thing itself. Oftentimes, a nuclear bomb in a film merely occasions a ticking clock, a race with little to no time to think of much else but the consequences. Less than a year ago, I was of the opinion that Western mainstream cinema’s interest in the legacy and reality of the nuclear age had severely diminished. I can’t speak for the future, but I do want to speak from the current moment, which would situate Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer as an exception to the rule.
The problem for any filmmaker who wishes to take the subject of nuclear destruction seriously is a question of scope and specificity. What, who, where does one choose to focus their attention? What should be mentioned, or left out entirely for the sake of clarity? Cinema is, among other things, an art of omission. What is out of the frame, what does not fit into the script and the edit, can be as meaningful as what is. Film analysis premised solely on this idea comes dangerously close to prescribing narrative content as the only valid metric with which to judge a project. It’s fair to say that, in the context of history, especially history involving the deaths of tens of thousands of people, getting key facts straight is not insignificant, and the feeling one comes away with is necessarily bound up in how those facts are dramatized.
Preceding the film’s release, what the director of The Dark Knight Rises and Tenet could have to say about the Manhattan Project and its terrible legacy was deemed suspect at best. Casting announcements showed an almost entirely white, male group of actors, which prompted pointed questions, more like accusations, about Nolan’s disinterest in the response and reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the Japanese perspective. Setting aside the absurdity of these suppositions, which are premised on a kind of representational thinking that cannot apply to every subject, I’m not sure even Nolan himself would want to see his version of Oppenheimer featuring such a clumsy attempt at self-conscious inclusion. The film that he has made is knotted, elliptical, conflicted, and blunt. Following the decimation of theaters during the pandemic, at a runtime of exactly three hours, at a budget of $100 million, at a nationwide IMAX and 70mm release, which, during its opening weekend, has seen most screenings sold out, Oppenheimer is unprecedented. Whether interest in the subject itself outweighs the spectacle of the film—and the attendant factors of its much-hyped release the same weekend as Barbie, during the summer, following a dearth of worthwhile moviegoing opportunities—is uncertain.
The film itself is, for Nolan’s sins, one of his most interesting, if not one of his best. Few subjects could make such a deliberate auteur bend the stubborn consistencies that he brings to every one of his films (bombastic music, not-quite-there, often suicidal female characters, elongated third acts, reductive emotional arcs, clunky dialogue) to their sheer weight and scale. What makes Oppenheimer compelling is how it challenges its filmmaker. For one, never before has Nolan dealt with a protagonist whose ethnicity was not a given. But the film contains a lack of moral, ethical optimism, which, for many Western filmmakers, posits that nuclear weapons are acceptable in the right hands, a necessary evil to maintain peace, and that the American military is the rightful power to wield it. If Nolan can’t help but be enamored by Oppenheimer’s genius, if he can’t help but admire the sweeping triumph of loyalty and trust within and against the American imperialist project, he seems at least equally troubled by, if not contemptuous of, the curdling of Oppenheimer’s motivations, his narcissism, his cowardice, the political hysteria and callousness of post-war American politics. Even Nolan’s attraction to the male martyr archetype becomes complicated by Oppenheimer’s own attempts to fashion himself as such after the war.
As ever, there is minutiae to give one pause, if not entire skeletons to pick over. One doesn’t need to be a scholar of Oppenheimer or the Manhattan Project to notice how cleanly and succinctly certain events are presented, how straightforwardly good or bad certain supporting characters appear. I’ve noted before that, because Nolan is an artist who paints with a hammer, the complexity and nuance of his films comes down to the edit, to the juxtaposition of what came before, what comes later, how time re- and disorients an audience’s understanding of what is taking place. That Nolan is translating history, and specifically history as told through one book (American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin), means there is the sense that he is operating on a self-imposed limitation, which allows him to evade a final judgment on his protagonist, who was far more complicated than any three-hour epic could capture. Instead, all of Nolan’s formal pirouettes left me with an inescapable feeling. Really, Oppenheimer is a film about feeling, sonic, thematic, existential. The very fact of the bomb and its subsequent use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inspires emotion first and foremost. It is nearly impossible to intellectualize such evil and anguish. Nolan tries, illustrates his endeavor to do so through spectacle, even triumph, and ends where every person with a marginal conscience should: abject horror.