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Thank you Christopher Nolan for creating a movie that will encourage people to understand, to explore the truth and find history, looking to connect the past with the future.
As I left the theater after seeing “Oppenheimer,” I expected people to say things like, “it was too long,” and “I didn’t understand that much.” But what I heard was the opposite, people wanted to know more, I heard them talking about visiting Trinity Site next time it’s open and saying it was fantastic.
It was here in Southern New Mexico, on the Jornada del Muerto just west of the Tularosa Basin, the first atomic bomb was tested in July 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer led the team creating and setting it off in our backyard. This movie, based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is not glorious, not a tribute to the man who invited in the “atomic age.” It is many things though – a snapshot of a time of war and fear; a portrait of an egomaniac who changed the world; a story about the future?
This movie is not packed with action, jump scares and Hollywood hullabaloo. Rather, it contains scientists, politicians, rivalry, bitterness, intrigue and – yes – romance. But it also contains an untold story behind almost every line.
Every scene has so much behind it I would recommend seeing it, learning about it more, then seeing it again. Marvel, Disney, “Star Wars” and many other movies contain “Easter eggs,” little things that refer to other things in other movies and other stories, imaginary things. But in “Oppenheimer” the Easter eggs are truths, entire stories in themselves.
For example, when Oppenheimer leaves his home in Los Alamos to drive south to the bomb test site and perform the actual test, he can’t tell his wife, Kitty, where he is going because of the top secret nature of the project. Instead, he looks at the laundry, as it is blowing in the wind and tells her to take it in. Later, when the test has been done, he leaves a phone message for her, again to take the laundry in. This is code between them, first telling her where he is going, then telling her that it has happened.
But that single line is also the whole history of the people of Southern New Mexico who were in the vicinity of the test. It meant Oppenheimer understood there might be dangerous fallout that could settle on the laundry out on the line. It echoed the lives of people, communities, close to the Trinity Site – people who had their lives, their laundry, their cattle, their farms and their cisterns right there where the ashes, and the radiation, could settle on them. It meant he knew it and didn’t consider it more important than his mission.
All that in one line, and just as much in other lines and scenes. The people, scientists and others, were real people, each with their own story and importance, not in the movie, but in the background waiting to be understood. The actress who played Kitty, Emily Blunt, has said this was the most layered part she ever played. This is because Kitty was a real person and real people are layered.
Nolan tells a layered story in this film, so layered one could dig into it and find fascinating people and history underneath. But even on the surface, the film works. You don’t have to know what lies beneath to be captivated, lost in the characters and their dilemmas both moral and scientific. It can be hard to follow at times because there are so many individuals involved and Nolan works to make their personalities distinct in the little time they have on screen. My favorite, I have to admit, is Albert Einstein and the twists he brings.
The performances are amazing, the sets accurate and detailed, the shots into Oppenheimer’s mind startling, and the ghosts in his dreams believable. Most important, the devastation begun with the atomic age that day in July 1945, is not trivialized and the relevance to the current world is terrifying.
Bulletin staff writer Elva K. Österreich is also the author of a book about the Trinity Test, “The Manhattan Project Trinity Test: Witnessing the Bomb in New Mexico.”