Oppenheimer – A Biopic

Scientific Opportunity And Moral Dilemma 

During World War II, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. appointed physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer and a team of scientists spent years developing and designing the atomic bomb. Their work came to a seemingly inevitable conclusion on July 16, 1945, as they witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion, forever changing the course of history.

Many of us seeing this film for the first time might have been persuaded by its dialogue that the scientists thought the the achieving of the science might have been the objective, but many others seeing this film for the first time snd perhaps learning this story for the first time might not have been so persuaded.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist who was professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and is among those who are credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb” for their role in the Manhattan Project – the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer was among those who observed the Trinity test in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on July 16, 1945. He later remarked that the explosion brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In August 1945, the weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The cast of this film is star-studded indeed, with Cillian Murphy in the title role, with Florence Pugh and Robert Downey Junior. Emily Blunt and Jack Quaid. 

It was showing tonight in Arrecife and we had been alerted to it by our friends Larry and Liz Yaskiel. It was in the 250 seater room of a complex that holds several smaller studios, and it was shown in English, unlike  previous films we have seen here such as Respect, the story of Aretha Franklin, West Side Story and Elvis. 

The multi-complex cinema stands at one end of Charco San Ginés, with its hundred or so rowing boats, canoes and small fishing boats laying at rest at low tide or dancing merrily and throwing colourful reflections as they take to the ocean at high tide. Built around the semi-circle of one side of the lagoon, there are twenty or thirty classy restaurants to dine at before you get back to your car. There are several ice cream parlours too, and there’s nothing more romantic than criss-crossing the water’s network of bridges, beneath a moonlit, starlit sky, with a wonderful ice cream to serve as a walking dessert after your meal.

I can remember the chats and differences of opinions we held as we enjoyed discussing the previous films we had seen here and as I reported then in Lanzarote Information that the real life Aretha might have been a bit of a handful, but her voice was wonderful. After seeing those films I mentioned earlier, I wrote on these pages that the newer Sondheim version of West Side Story benefitted hugely from the improvements in cinematic technology since the first version had been made. I wrote, too, that we had been invited by the script to dislike and even distrust Colonel Parker, but I, particularly, felt that Elvis should have stuck up for himself and his own choice of music.

Tonight’s mealtime post-picture discussion was all about the moral dilemma Oppenheimer had faced and whether the world has been a safer, or simply more scared,  place, ever since.

There were certainly pros and cons a-plenty to consider from a film that lasted three hours and had taken us not only to many different global locations but also had moved us backwards and forwards through time.

The recently released film Oppenheimer, showed a couple of weeks ago at this waterside cinema. This glass fronted 20th century multi plex cinema stands on what must be one of the most beautiful sites in the world for a cinema. 

Yes it is in the centre of a capital city, Arrecife, the centre of government and commerce on the island of Lanzarote. Look out about a mile from its front doors, across the fishing boat harbour only fifty feet or so from you, and you can see a newly created port that receives some of the biggest cruise liners in the world. This new development has been a huge revenue-boost to the area over the past couple of years and appears now as  a fascinating juxtaposition of small, white-washed fisherman’s cottages and the cruise liners that are bigger, certainly in population, than many towns on the island. 

Just outside the front doors of the cinema a craftsman pitches up daily to work on, and put out for show, whatever crafts he is working on at the moment. There are brightly painted model boats and as we went in to the theatre for the 5.00 pm showing of the film, he was just beginning to pack his tools and artefacts away. Such is the beauty of this circular promenade around the large lagoon that the tide ebbs and flows under small stone bridges, from the  sea at the other side of the main road round the dockland area.

The lagoon is I guess around a mile outside the city centre’s fabulous reducto beach, a host of a number of music festivals and celebrations throughout the year, at which resídents and tourists from a score of nationalities enjoy the vibe in perfect harmony, a reassuring thought after the film we had just watched. Those of us who left the cinema and headed for harbour side meal did so bathed in the glorious bell tower light from the church of San Gines keeping a beatific, spiritual and benevolent eye on us all.

Three hours or so earlier we had parked our car on  the hard stone field, where reliable young entrepreneurs promised to look after the vehicle for a euro. As we walked to the cinema we took the opportunity to step into our favourite restaurant to reserve a table for two for 8.15 pm and the stroll back to our table when this pretty disturbing film ended took us a very leisurely ten minutes for a hundred yard distance.

We have dined several times at the Divina Italia Restaurant with its varied and affordable menu, excellent staff, well-spaced seating inside and out and its view and genteel atmosphere,  as young (them) and old (us), mingled and marvelled at the view.

Sometimes it is a book that sends me to its film, but tonight I had left the cinema determined to find a book that would shed more light on what I had just seen.

As I poured chilli oil on my pear pizza, and savoured the only pint I would be able to have before driving home I said to my wife, Dee,  that I was definitely going to read an Opperheimer (auto?) biography to solve some of the puzzles I was confronting after seeing the film.

I’m not sure that Dee was paying a lot of attention to me, preferring to attend to her massive tuna salad and a glass of dry white that wasn’t much smaller.

In the end she said, “leave it until we see Larry and Liz, next week. Larry will either already have a book or placed an order since seeing the film!”

When we met Mr. & Mrs Yaskiel on the lunch time of the following Wednesday at Café de La Plaza in Peurto Calero, the conversation flowed freely and we learned that they had actually seen the film four nights earlier than us in one of the smaller studios. I said that the film had left me with more questions than answers. So, too, with Larry it seemed, who said he had rushed on to his computer as soon as he had arrived home form the film to do further research  on Oppenheimer, the man and the film, as soon as possible.

´It was the longest Wikepeadia entry I have ever seen´, he told me.

As it happened I had noticed that too, but I had been able to extrapolate from its density that the film Is actually based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a 2005 biography of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project which produced the world´s first nuclear weapons. The book was written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin over a period of twenty-five years. It won numerous awards, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

The book has now served as inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s 2023 biographical film, Oppenheimer

Several days after seeing the film, we four discussed, over our incredible carrot cake and coffee or coke, America’s seemingly isolationist stance at this period around the second world war. Larry was more aware of that than was I, thought the film resonated that fact and the USA was, at the time, a very communist-wary country Their identification of Robert Oppenheimer, and the plentiful platitudes of their sleazy seduction of him, hit at the very heart of the moral maze that Oppenheimer must have faced. He knew he was mistrusted and despised by these politicians and allies who wanted him to split the atom. He must, himself, therefore have felt torn apart by his desire to be not only the man to conclude the great scientif quest of the era,  but also to be the man to constantly warn the world  of the good and evil that such a ´success´ might unleash on Mankind.

Of course, he achieved his scientific goal just as the aim of the pilots was true as they rained Hell on Japan. This effectively ended the war but America felt a backlash of global public opinion, that asked how had we (the world) come this far.

The America that had sought out Oppenheimer simply deflected the world’s questions to him personally and set up what can only be called an inquisition that, although it actually cleared him of intent, actually left him almost a pariah for the rest of his life.

The film made excellent use of black and white and colour sections, contrasting hope and fear perhaps. The film echoed even The Nuremburg Trials. The dialogue was often low and terse, as plotters gathered around Oppenheimer like Romans around Ceasar.

Those of us not familiar enough with the story were perhaps surprised that although Oppenheimer was relieved of his duties the agent-provocateur  of all this, who had been planning to step into Oppenheimer´s shoes, was brought down by a man mentioned in the film only once, and that in passing, in the penultimate scene, when someone said that a young politician had spoken so badly of Oppenheimer´s nemesis, Strauss, played by Robert Downey Junior, that he would face being ostracised simultaneously with the man he despised.

We learn, in one brief line, that the man behind Strauss´ downfall, was ´some young guy called Kennedy trying to make a name for himself´.

There were so many whispered echoes of the treatment of Alan Turing  by Great Britain, during the same time period

Alan Cowell wrote of Turing in The New York Times that ´Turing’s genius embraced the first visions of modern computing and produced seminal insights into what became known as “artificial intelligence.” As one of the most influential code breakers of World War II, his cryptology yielded intelligence believed to have hastened the Allied victory.

But, at his death several years later, much of his secretive wartime accomplishments remained classified, far from public view in a nation seized by the security concerns of the Cold War. Instead, by the narrow standards of his day, his reputation was sullied.

On June 7, 1954, Alan Turing, a British mathematician who has since been acknowledged as one the most innovative and powerful thinkers of the 20th century — sometimes called the progenitor of modern computing — died as a criminal, having been convicted under Victorian laws as a homosexual and forced to endure chemical castration. Britain didn’t take its first steps toward decriminalizing homosexuality until 1967.

Only in 2009 did the government apologize for his treatment.

“We’re sorry — you deserved so much better,” said Gordon Brown, then the prime minister. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was, under homophobic laws were treated terribly.”

After his death, when political and public opinion became more tolerant, Turing’s name became more loudly celebrated, after his own posthumous biopic had been released.

Our conversation about the Oppenheimer film had been intense, but we gradually turned back to the music of the sixties from whence Larry and I came. We were back into a past where memory runs neither truly nor chronologically.

¨Do you remember Gallagher & Lyle´,  asked Larry

´Oh yes, I do´, I enthused, ´they had a couple of great single hits in the UK. There was, oh God, what was it. and that other one, you knows, called,…no,.. that´s gone now as well´!

´Well Gallagher wrote that great song for Tina Turner,….no, no, not Simply The Best, it was ,…oh, it was on the tip of my tongue´. Larry said, and smiled

We both agreed that our memories no longer file in alphabetical or chronological order, giving Dee the final word on the film Oppenheimer.

´Í had kind of forgotten¨, remembered Dee ´that Álbert Einstein (spoiler alert — he plays a key role in Oppenheimer) was alive through so much of my life time´. 

I publish a series in my own daily blog called ´we´re gionna need a bigger bookshelf, and I know what the next book on my shelf will be, …. it will be the biography of Oppenheimer, and perhaps even of Einstein, and while I’m making this bigger bookshelf I might as well make room for My Love Story, the official biography of Tina Turner and maybe that piano guitar book by Graham Gallagher called Something Beautiful Remains.

There are however just to a couple of more things to tell you about this Oppenheimer film, though, before I forget.

The casting is incredible. Every single character has the right actor. The photography is close up and intrusive and somehow obtrusive when secret whispers are taking place, but wide and expansive of landscape and the world, and of course the bomb blasts across the screen in a way that avoids obscenity.

It is a film that makes you want to know more about every character we remember, and it might make you think of the morality of the use of the weapons, you might ask why countries worked agint each to develop ´their weapons´´ but better to ask, perhaps, who the hell writes our history?

And the answer to that question might reveal why countries wanted to work alone.

Referencing Einstein again, there is a scene at the start of the Oppenheimer film that shows the two in a muted conversation but we are left in doubt as to what had been said. In a reprise of that scene near the end of the film, we hear Einstein warning Oppenheimer that the Americans will shun him and blame him for the genocide his work will unleash on the world. They will besmirch his name and repoutation and only then, Einstein said, would they release him from his effective exile and personal hell, lavishing him with praise only when the world had forgotten America’s own role in this infamous piece of history.

As with Turing, Oppenheimer would be feted in his dotage years, and only after his death would revisionists seek to give these men, and others like then, their proper place in History.

Living here on such a small island it is easy, tempting even, to think that the world has no interest in us, and on our long blue-sky days we are living in a paradise,….in fact I live on a complex called ShangriLa Park, originally a place from beyond Robert Hilton’s Lost Horizon  that carried its own moral conundrum.

This film makes audiences think about and re-evaluate. what is important to us.

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