Lost in the Movies: Barbie & Oppenheimer

Barbie & Oppenheimer

I've separated those titles for a reason - this is not exactly a study of the "Barbenheimer" phenomenon which weaves these two radically different films together at every turn. Instead, for the most part I'll be reviewing each film separately and without concern for the combination of their divergent material (aside from this intro and eventually, in a follow-up Patreon piece, some closing thoughts about what does potentially link these movies). At the same time, clearly I'm taking the bait here by writing a single piece to deal with both films. How could I not?! For fifteen years, my online work has been marked by an obsession with duality (even my most singular obsession, Twin Peaks, focuses on that theme). My very first blog post paired two DVDs spanning the history of cinema, and since then I've taken every opportunity to compare and contrast in prose, podcast, and video essay (including a "Side by Side" series devoted to that very theme). These switch between works with blatant connections (like the Sterling Hayden 1950s heist films The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing) - in order to tease out what makes them differ - and works that seemed fundamentally opposed (the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion and the aforementioned surreal murder mystery Twin Peaks) - in order to tease out their rhyming sensibilities. A recently-concluded podcast covered dozens of different films with the hook of comparing them to Twin Peaks; as Kevin B. Lee once noted about my early video work, "interweaving" is a constant theme.

With all that in mind, I took immediate note of the bemusing, tongue-in-cheek "Barbenheimer" trend that overtook Twitter several months ago, following the announcement that Greta Gerwig's whimsical Mattel-sponsored toy movie Barbie would be released on the same day as Christopher Nolan's brooding period biopic Oppenheimer. The genesis of the meme is obvious at a glance - the movies form an almost too-perfect yin-yang in tone, aesthetic, creative development, and especially the gender of the protagonists and presumed audience. Cheeky vs. somber, bright vs. dark, commercial promotion vs. highminded literary adaptation, the ultimate chick flick vs. the distillation of filmbro chic. Alongside this fission, however, exists a sense of fundamental fusion. After all, if the films didn't have a certain consonance, the whole concept would fall flat. If Barbie dropped the same day as, say, Mission: Impossible 7, or Oppenheimer accompanied The Little Mermaid into theaters, there wouldn't be the same reaction. The most obvious parallel emerges in the titles themselves, one-word names of the central characters, lending themselves perfectly to a portmanteau. Both works are directed by distinctive auteur filmmakers working on a grand yet focused scale, making films that feel deeply personal even while addressing much bigger subjects. And those very subjects are both uniquely iconic. If the atomic bomb appears more consequential to human history than a plastic doll (despite what Gerwig's amusing 2001: A Space Odyssey opening tribute suggests), it's hard to argue against their equal ubiquity within pop culture. The Bomb and The Barbie have been wildly popular and deeply controversial, and the idea that they belong in the same conversation says much about the nature of postwar America, a legacy that lingers three quarters of a century later.

All of this was apparent at the outset, from posters and trailers, or even just knowing the basic concepts. Could this potentially long-winded joke ever have an adequate punchline, something which could convert it into a more profound meaning? I've avoided reading or listening to much else on the subject beyond those amusing memes (a follow-up exclusive to $5/month patrons will engage with critical commentary, among other matters). Nonetheless, I have peripherally picked up on some fatigue with the whole double feature conceit, implying a reversion to the idea that these two films are better viewed and discussed in isolation rather than forced concert. Even if that's the approach I'll mostly take here, it's worth noting that without the inspired pairing I wouldn't be reviewing these movies at all right now. I make it to few new releases, hardly ever on opening weekend, and have missed the more recent work of both directors (something I hope to rectify before that follow-up piece). I'm generally quite busy with online and offline work at the moment and it took some effort to catch this double feature last Saturday. The impetus of their complementary-yet-incompatible pairing made such an effort impossible to resist, so I'm thankful to the "Barbenheimer" booster rocket for that. For once I'm not catching up with a zeitgeist long after the fact - but are the movies themselves late to the party?


Perhaps due to a decade in development, as well as the further interruption of Covid-19 grinding the whole film industry to a halt (although Gerwig credits the pandemic with fueling some late-stage innovations), Barbie feels very 2015. The story and its presentation embody a playful but hyper-conscious Tumblr sensibility brought to the big screen, quirky and homemade while also deeply engaged with mainstream cultural products. Not only its pop feminism but its fraught sense of optimism belong to the late Obama era, as does its earnest but rather diffuse political sensibility: a slightly muddled application of cultural identities to material struggles, on the cusp of re-discovering a crystallizing class analysis but not quite there yet. The critiques I've glimpsed in passing, mostly from culture war conservatives outraged at the supposedly stealth political messaging snuck into their daughters' entertainment, also include some left-wing attacks on the movie's "girl boss" sensibility. Without yet exploring these analyses beyond the headlines, that gloss strikes me as not entirely fair. Alongside its peons to professional career-oriented ambitions, the movie is more interested in self-realization based on both authentic human interconnection and painful but rewarding personal rebirth - quite in keeping with Gerwig's previous oeuvre. Barbie is also, of course, quite a lot of fun.

To underscore (and embody) that sense of enjoyment while still articulating the movie's theme, the opening scene depicts a desert inhabited by little girls in drab Victorian dress. Narrator Helen Mirren informs us that there have always been dolls, but for centuries if not millennia they were babies and babies only - positioning the girls playing with them as potential mothers. The girls then discover their very own mystifying, liberating monolith: a giant Barbie (Margot Robbie, not the plastic figurine which appears only sporadically throughout), the sun cresting her blonde beehive. Cue Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra", some violent doll-smashing, and the infant doll hurled into the sky being transformed with a single cut into the pink, curvy Barbie title. Before Barbieheimer was a thing, this standalone sequence - released last year as a teaser - was itself a mash-up and meme fueling side-by-side comparisons with 2001. Maybe this already paved the way for an Oppenheimer connection given that film's own Kubrickian visuals (as much Dr. Strangelove as 2001, with a touch of Eyes Wide Shut when it weaves threads about marital trust and infidelity into its exploration of an outsider trespassing in elite society). Although it's a stretch, whiffs of other Kubricks - narrative, visual, aural - can be picked up throughout Barbie as well: Spartacus' governing decadence and popular revolt (going both ways by film's end), Lolita's distinctive driving scenes and depiction of hapless yet harmful patriarchy, A Clockwork Orange's wacky men's gang fashion and decor, even Barry Lyndon's wry, non-character voiceover. A couple paragraphs in, I'm already diverting from my stated mission to treat Barbie and Oppenheimer separately, but overt and subtle links to the most totemic auteur of all time only further emphasize these films' shared cultural cache.

Following that kickoff, Barbie's credits sequence is an explosion of pink, establishing the cheerful, perfect if plastic baseline which the rest of the film will necessarily subvert (as well as extend). The running gag of this passage is its arch artificiality - Barbie walks on her toes even when not sliding into her heels, she pours invisible drinks into her solid cup and waiting mouth with comical satisfaction, and she magically floats down to her car from the open-roofed Barbie House as if guided by the hidden fingers of a giant, godlike offscreen child. For all its winks at us, the real hook here is the daffy, dazzling beauty of the design, shiny surfaces whose removal from reality is offset by their tangible physicality (like Nolan, Gerwig makes a point to rely on physical rather than digital environments as much as possible). Re-contextualization of cheap, everyday consumer goods marks this summer blockbuster as a piece of self-conscious Pop Art, while also suggesting that the very Barbie (and her accessories) that Barbie places quotation marks around has always been an exquisitely artisanal, if mass-produced, example of creative brilliance and audience engagement. The film's fangirlish admiration for Barbie is evident alongside its affectionately eyerolling mockery of her limitations.

This resonant ambivalence becomes something of a contradiction within the movie, a conceptual stumbling block as well as a motor at times, translating more smoothly in Gerwig's direction than in the screenplay co-written with longtime creative and personal partner Noah Baumbach. In its struggles and triumphs, that script is the essential foundation for everything the film attempts and achieves, sustaining itself for two hours. The wonder of seeing live-action Barbie enact playtime on the big screen can only last so long; naturally, Barbie's world cracks before our first day inside of it has ended. "It is the best day ever, and so was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever!" Barbie declares at a disco dance party before casually tossing off, with the same cheerful grin as everything else, "Do you guys ever think about dying?" Record scratch, shocked reactions, quick backtrack, but of course the rest of the story has now been set in motion. Further accounting for the cultural nerve it's struck, Barbie like Oppenheimer concerns itself with the power and vulnerability of what it means to be mortal, but the death Barbie fears is more spiritual than physical. Or at least, to the extent this process manifests physically (take the film's closing line), this is at least as much a matter of transformation as of extinguishment. Using Pinocchio as a template (with Kate McKinnon's Weird Barbie as a combination of the Blue Fairy and Jiminy Cricket), Barbie twists that classic by making its heroine resist the growth that the wooden puppet actively seeks. Presented with the Matrix-like choice of a high heel or a sandal as symbols of returning to the fantasy or venturing into the human world, she must be forced to "choose" the latter - kicking and screaming, to borrow a Baumbach title, into maturity.

Barbie employs a classic fish-out-of-water conceit which shaped past efforts to bring many a piece of non-three-act IP into a narrative theatrical format, especially in the self-consciously postmodern nineties when Gerwig grew up (think The Brady Bunch movie). Barbie and the desperate, goofy stowaway Ken (Ryan Gosling) voyage from magical Barbie Land to not-so-magical Los Angeles in order to find her corresponding toy's owner and restore the charmed life she enjoyed, re-setting her glitchy programming to factory mode. They arrive in our world, or some closer approximation of it, via a series of archetypal dioramas evoking Wes Anderson (and maybe even more so Michel Gondry): a convertible in the desert, an RV in the woods, a bicycle in Holland, a rocket ship in outer space, cross-country skies in an alpine landscape et cetera. Then the cardboard cutout backgrounds disperse as they step into Venice Beach and discover that the real world isn't actually the place of female empowerment they've been led to expect. Barbie, after catcalls and confrontations that earn her two jailhouse mug shots within minutes, also learns that the "child" whose real world play warped her isn't actually surly teenage Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt). Rather, her inadvertent puppeteer is Sasha's melancholy mother Gloria (America Ferrera), a Mattel employee who's been sketching concepts like "Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie" in her free time. The trio flee corporate pursuers (who want to place Barbie in a giant box) back to Barbie Land only to discover that the film's "B" story has, structure mirroring onscreen action, overtaken the "A". Ken, introduced as a mostly ignored sidekick, has discovered the concept of patriarchy while visiting L.A. and - like Beavis and Butthead being introduced to "white privilege" and taking it as a liberating license to push everyone else around - the previously pathetic loser embraces this empowering concept without a shred of liberal guilt.

The rest of the film sees Barbie's allies, led by real world intruder Gloria, reverse the descent of Barbie Land's matriarchy into the bro energy of Kendom. Due to novelty (one character rather crassly compares the phenomenon to settlers spreading disease amongst low-immunity indigenous people), the women are effortlessly brainwashed to enjoy wearing maid costumes and serving the men in Barbie houses that have been turned into messy man caves. An upcoming election will explicitly establish Kendom as a patriarchy, and part of the Barbie plot to restore the natural order involves setting the men against one another by fueling romantic jealousy. Using their subservient position to their advantage, the women hope to divide and conquer, distracting them from exercising their franchise. I would imagine this whole storyline, more than any other development (well, aside from the inclusion of a trans Barbie played by Hari Nef) has been fueling the predictable conservative backlash. But if the film wears its critique of male chauvinism on its sleeve, Barbie is itself also clearly tickled and even a bit enchanted by Ken's ridiculous swagger. He's at least as much comic relief as antagonist, and the writers (not to mention Gosling's full-throttle performance, which sustains the characters' twists and turns) fuel sympathy for him by establishing Ken early on as the underdog - which begins to get at some of the film's trickier convolutions.

The rules of this universe are whimsical, both clear and hard to pin down at times, deftly navigating between (for example) the desire to make Los Angeles' palette as muted as possible - so that Barbie and Ken can really pop with their cartoonish costumes - and the staging of the Mattel corporate scenes (led by manic CEO Will Ferrell) which are just as outlandish and exaggerated as anything in Barbie Land. Most of the questions that arise can be brushed aside as too literal for a fantasy which operates on Looney Tunes logic. The most persistent of these trivial inquiries relate to the film's tenuous thread between individual variation and mass production. How does Barbie Land's multiplicity of Barbies and Kens (every man or woman shares the same name, aside from Michael Cera's Allan of course) translate to the real world? If characters like Weird Barbie and Robbie's Barbie - dubbed "Stereotypical Barbie" and implicitly the first of her kind - each correspond to a single doll who can be manipulated by a single owner like Sasha (or Gloria), how does this correspond to the fact that there are thousands of copies for each unique model, owned by thousands of children? Are there other Barbie Lands, each with their own Stereotypical, President, Doctor, and/or Mermaid Barbies? Does each Barbie Land correspond to a different child's collection, hence the relatively duplicate-free diversity of the world we see? There must be a lore dump somewhere on the internet but for now we're left to our imaginations.

Of slightly more serious concern is how the symmetrical Barbie Land and human reality crack apart - like Barbie herself - based on the paradoxical thematic burdens they're forced to carry. This ambiguity is rich at its best, but can also feel opportunistic. Initially, and persistently thereafter, we're set up to envision Barbie Land as an amusing but shallow utopia which Barbie needs to liberate herself from in order to experience life at its fullest. From this standpoint, the narrative will be one of growth in which she realizes that human reality, for all its drawbacks and disappointments, is worth more than the Disneyland pleasures of her familiar role. In this way, Barbie relates directly to Gerwig's earlier coming-of-age stories like Lady Bird, Little Women, or Frances Ha (written by herself and directed by Baumbach) in which characters leave behind both the fragility and security of their juvenile identities to become fully-realized women in a complicated world. This butts up against the complicated mythos of Barbie Land itself, however, suggestively depicted as an idealized polity (superior to the real world's male dominance which impresses Ken and worries Barbie). Barbie Land exists - or doesn't exist - as a place where women hold all positions of power while men are reduced to impotent pleading for their attention. This itself further complicates the concept, since Barbie Land reflects the division and subjugation of the real world in a funhouse mirror, lighter and less dangerous but still demeaning (to paraphrase Margaret Atwood, Ken worries he'll be humiliated in Barbie Land while Barbie worries she'll be killed in L.A.).

The obvious way out of this would be to suggest a meeting in the middle, striving to make both places more egalitarian. Barbie flirts with this direction, without quite embracing it, when Ken dons an "I'm Ken-ough" shirt and vows to depart - metaphorically or otherwise - on his own journey of self-discovery which will remain offscreen (this is after all, not his movie, which haunts him throughout). But Gerwig appears understandably hesitant to draw too much equivalence between the all-too-real demonstrations of patriarchal harassment, dismissal, and reduction (deeply felt even within the fantasy world of Kendom) and the purely fictional, exaggerated, and entirely aspirational female empowerment of Barbie Land. At the cost of a tidy conclusion, for motivations which may be both ideological and quite personal, Gerwig avoids the chance to put a bow on the relationship between these alternate universes. This leaves the film open to more interesting conclusions while also facilitating messy if compelling analogies. Separating Barbie Land from the real world severs the film's women (aside from Gloria and Sasha) from the very social status that justifies their objection to men in the first place. This means that Ken's ostensibly reactionary revolt could equally be depicted as a revolution of the underclass against an elite, with the Barbie get-out-the-vote effort a stealth conservative coup to restore the prior status quo. Tempering this cognitive dissonance is one reason that Gloria, rather than the sidelined Barbie, must lead the counterrevolution - the restoration of Barbie Land works as a kind of proxy war against Gloria's own social structure back home (an effort which opens its own rabbit hole in terms of interventionist regime change in the name of humanitarianism).

Even when the satire becomes muddled, the plot generally works as straightforward comedy. The battle of the sexes is a classic screwball trope more up Baumbach's alley than Gerwig's, although one imagines Barbie's bonfire of male vanities being fueled by her origin story as the mumblecore muse (acting, writing, and making her directorial debut amongst that male-dominated movement of the 2000s). Ultimately, this gendered tension is not the film's primary concern; as in Frances Ha (and, I'm led to believe, her adaptation of Little Women which I've not yet seen) Gerwig is far more fascinated by the relationships between women, and especially between a woman and her own complicated self. When Barbie takes a backseat to Gloria on that front, Gerwig is tipping her hand about what matters most in her narrative scheme. Barbie's inciting incident is the discovery of her expanding, upsetting emotional range (essentially the onset of adolescence). She weeps following a warm encounter with an old woman whom she describes as beautiful ("Don't I know it!" the benchsitter, played by Ann Roth, replies). And in a magical moment evoking avant-garde female-focused films like Jeanne Dielman - in terms of ambiance - and Celine and Julie Go Boating - in terms of concept - Barbie breaks from a manic chase scene through Mattel headquarters, allowing her to share a quiet moment with the elderly Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman). We eventually learn that this woman is Barbie's inventor, residing as a ghost in a spacious, open-windowed kitchen concealed impossibly behind a nondescript office door (shades of Encanto and Monsters, Inc. alongside Akerman and Rivette).

The film's true climax occurs after the political machinations, lush, action-packed Ken battle/dance-off and non-romantic romance resolution between Barbie and the man she's come to empathize with but does not love. Having cast aside her "Stereotypical Barbie" persona in an existential crisis that immobilized her for much of the third act, she is now prepared - like millions who once played and fantasized with Barbies - to put aside childish things in favor of wrestling with, and embracing, her own consciousness rather than striving to conform to a predetermined role. In Barbie's own case, this involves a literal shift from a kind of Platonic ideal to a manifest reality ("People die," Ruth warns her, "but ideas never do"), recalling the angels' descent into human form in Wings of Desire. In these moments, the film itself undergoes a similar sort of renaissance, achieving that rare status of fully personal expression within a thoroughly commercial project. Gerwig drags Mattel onto her turf rather than vice versa, with Barbie's triumphant announcement of her full name echoing earlier Gerwigian declarations of independence like Frances' apartment nametag and Lady Bird's reversion to Christine. Although her work isn't as flashy as Gosling's scene-stealing turn, Robbie's ability to play both outer image and inner turmoil, often setting them into juxtaposition before finding their harmony, allows her to express both ends of the Barbie spectrum, concluding a process of evolution as surely as 2001's Star Child.


In the current context, Oppenheimer's most startling quality is its grand conception of twentieth century history as a mass phenomenon, one which can still generate a sense of immediacy and recognition - modernity as a common currency shared among all audience members. This is something American cinema used to take for granted (however dodgy the historical depiction onhand) but which began to dissipate around the turn of the millennium; even in terms of twenty-first century history - or current events - movies no longer seem as interested in connecting to a zeitgeist either past or present. As late as the nineties, there was an implicit understanding that the events of, say, a World War II movie existed within living memory. Even the youngest viewers would have grandparents who experienced and could talk about the era's headlines, personalities, and fads, its catchprases or pieces of totemic art, entertainment, and technology the way we might discuss a viral meme or piece of celebrity gossip. While the passage of time might account for some of this shift in sensibility, there's also a sense that the medium itself has lost some cultural relevancy as well as the tangible texture that enveloped the whole viewing experience in earlier eras, and thus it can't bear the weight of historical recognition in the way it once so effortlessly could.

Oppenheimer opens nearly one hundred years ago, long before almost any viewer can remember and further back than many would even be able to recall speaking to an older relative about. And yet there is little sense of remoteness to its depiction; "This is now," the film seems to be telling us, "or at least the beginning of what it means to be alive now." Quantum physics, modern art, Communism, Nazism - the earthquakes of interwar modernism rumble across the screen with the implication that their ecstatic, terrifying ruptures of reality directly prefigure the atomic bomb, that ultimate signifier of the modern age (even after philosophers declared that the zeitgeist had lapsed into postmodernism, the only possible "post-nuclearism" would be a literal waste land). Nolan is never one for subtlety, and he often handholds the viewer through the most obvious historical beats. Physics students declare that the day their professor J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) publishes a key paper will live on in history and the camera practically circles in red marker the date on the newspaper they're holding (September 1, 1939)...but unable to trust us with even that on-the-nose gesture, Nolan has another student race in to inform the others that Hitler has just invaded Poland. Similarly, near the end of the film, Oppenheimer's nemesis Lewis L. Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) learns from an aide checking his notes that one young senator from Massachusetts switched his vote on Strauss' confirmation to Eisenhower's Cabinet; as if we couldn't already guess where the scene is going, Strauss asks his name and is informed that this apparently obscure politician is one John F. Kennedy. And so forth; Oppenheimer is as about as brash in its references as Forrest Gump.

Nolan gets away with this because his sledgehammer namedropping is accompanied by a vivid, overwhelming aesthetic, powerfully rendering the conceptual as visceral in the same way the Manhattan Project would transform theory into material. If Barbie opens with its own literal teaser, the first few minutes of Oppenheimer feel like a trailer too (for one disorienting moment in the theater, as the coming attractions shifted into the main feature, I was almost convinced that I was watching another preview). Ludwig Göransson's dissonant, hypnotic score spans a dozen scene fragments with overlapping voices bleeding from one moment to another. Flashes of abstraction punctuate the montage as if the Trinity test has torn a hole through space-time and is rippling backwards into the early years of its own creator. One offscreen commentator observes that the young Oppenheimer could see past the illusions of Newtonian stability and understand quantum concepts on an intuitive level, a sensation which Nolan strives to immerse us inside from the jump. As a path into that trickiest of genres, the biopic, this introduction can stand alongside Lawrence of Arabia (which takes the opposite approach, placing us firmly outside its subject and then slowly reeling us in). Each film hinges on a fascination with how its eccentric hero's mind works, as well as the excitement of the alien world surrounding him - an excitement which will eventually offer this brilliant, unconventional outsider a place of centrality in a war effort run by cynical bureaucrats, who will kick him back to the margins once his usefulness has ended.

Despite Nolan's frequent heavyhandedness, the writer/director can hardly be accused of spoonfeeding the film's voluminous exposition; a better analogy for his storytelling method might be the contraption which goes haywire in Modern Times, shoving food into Charlie Chaplin's mouth at a manic speed until he nearly chokes. Oppenheimer cuts back and forth between two timelines and story arcs: the black-and-white recollections of Strauss as he testifies about his exasperating relationship with Oppenheimer after the Bomb (titled "Fission" "Fusion"), and the color sequences tracing Oppenheimer's story from more or less his own perspective, mostly leading up to the Bomb (titled "Fusion" "Fission"). [I mistakenly reversed the two titles at first, which I'll discuss in the follow-up.] The information - political intrigue, personal and professional relationships, casually tossed-off physics equations and experiments - flies at, or past, us at lightning speed. Nolan displays a mastery of getting us to understand the gist of what's going on at any given point despite the complexity of the details. Oppenheimer is depicted as a gifted if troubled genius, traipsing across Europe in the twenties to mingle with some of the greatest minds of the century like Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer) before settling into a professorship at Berkeley in the thirties. There he is as involved in union activism as classroom instruction, much to colleague Ernest Lawrence's (Josh Hartnett's) frustration, mingling with dedicated Communists including his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and his lover and eventually illicit mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) as well as regretful ex-Communists like Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt), whom he marries.

These connections will of course come back to bite this fellow traveler of the Party, depicted as skeptical of its dogmatism but comfortable with its adherents. Even at the outset of his partnership with the U.S. military, Oppenheimer's leftist credentials are an eyesore; General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) is blunt about this blemish on his resume if ultimately accepting that such political deviance comes with the sufficiently knowledgeable territory. The Strauss sequences hinge not just on Strauss' own Senatorial inquisition but the hearing he himself secretly arranged for Oppenheimer, which stripped him of his security clearance during the Red Scare of the early fifties. Though the film leaves one with the impression that Oppenheimer was earnestly speaking his mind about supporting and then opposing the U.S. government's atomic policy, Nolan does occasionally tease us with ambiguity, indulging paranoia both personal (Strauss) and political (anticommunist prosecutor Roger Rabb, played by Jason Clarke). Strauss' assertion that Oppenheimer had a self-righteous martyr complex is interwoven with Rabb pressing the scientist on why his approval-turned-disapproval of the U.S. hydrogen bomb program, developed by friend and rival Edward Teller (Beny Safdie), mapped so neatly onto the status of the American/Soviet alliance. For a moment at least, Nolan hints that perhaps the rug to be pulled out from under us is our faith in Oppenheimer's sincerity. This cultivation of suspense occurs at one of the narrative's most troubled junctures, after the Trinity test succeeds but the movie keeps rolling on and the Strauss framing device begins to seem alarmingly anticlimactic.

The case for focusing so tightly on the confirmation hearing is clear enough in theory; in a story mostly lacking in mystery or tension - we all know the Manhattan Project will succeed and that Oppenheimer will sour on his technological progeny - the tangled, largely unfamiliar Strauss story offers a bit of both. Still, after witnessing the events of July 16, 1945 and subsequent days and weeks, it's hard to invest much energy in whether or not one more cynical hatchet man will get a prestigious post sixty-five years ago. Ultimately, I felt these scenes went to enough interesting places to sufficiently justify their presence (and even more questionable placement) but it was a rough ride at times. The film's central dramatic incident, and ultimately what makes the Strauss material pay off, isn't the successful New Mexico experiment so much as a casual meeting between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) alongside a pond in Princeton. Strauss, who had just appointed Oppenheimer to an administrative position, is convinced that in this brief exchange the new hire said something to turn the venerable elder against him (Einstein gives Strauss a weary look in passing). As the film eventually reveals, their conversation was more substantial than that, with the protagonist's last line leading directly to the final images linking this history to the present - or rather, to a horrible but all-too-plausible future.

The pricking of Strauss' vanity also allows Oppenheimer to indulge a rare, if roundabout, success story for its subject, the closest thing it can find to a happy ending. However, Nolan's heart is really in the ambiguity of Oppenheimer's relationship to his creation, and the trajectory from his passionate but relatively marginal twenties to his troubled if prominent forties. The film's best sequences convey an awe for the central paradox: humanity creating something which transcends and threatens humanity. Particular images and juxtapositions stand out in this regard. The apple which Oppenheimer poisons in a wooden-benched classroom (still rooted in the nineteenth century despite the surrounding accoutrements of modernity) is a Biblically-fraught fruit intended to punish a hated teacher, similar in form to the rounded device of death he'll eventually develop, but on this occasion disaster is averted at the last minute when Oppenheimer's famously fickle conscience gets the better of him. The assembly of "Gadget", its sharp geometrical forms pieced together while men in another room theorize on chalkboards and fill jars with smooth stones to symbolize the acquisition of uranium, feels so much like science fiction that it's a shock to remember this is exactly how it happened seventy-eight years ago, perhaps twenty, thirty, forty or more years before we in the audience were born - sixty-five in the case of a teenage viewer, equal to the age of a senior citizen. And the presentation of Los Alamos as a desolate desert in Oppenheimer's youth, where he gets drunk in a tent and discusses leftism and love with his brother, makes a stark contrast with the location of perhaps the most significant moment in the history of mankind - chosen precisely because of that one individual's personal connection.

The Trinity test itself provides Nolan with a seemingly insurmountable gauntlet. Six years after David Lynch's definitive depiction of that first mushroom cloud in Twin Peaks: The Return, how can one possibly top such an iconic immersion in an explosion? Nolan successfully answers the challenge by running in the opposite direction. Lynch's sequence opens with a sustained single shot closing in on the cloud from a distance while Nolan fragments and repeats the fireball into a Cubist portrait of imminent destruction. No human figures are present in Lynch's depiction (only a man's voice enunciating the countdown suggests that this is an engineered rather than natural occurrence) and eventually he reveals spirits within the nearly abstract forms of the conflagration, but Nolan anchors the sequence on the reactions of the people we've followed throughout the whole film, overwhelmed by what they've unleashed. Perhaps most importantly Lynch accompanies his dread-inducing approach with the soundtrack of Krzysztof Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" whereas Nolan cuts out the film's nearly wall-to-wall music in this moment, allowing first a silent visual display to awe the spectators onscreen and in the audience before indulging the sonically delayed boom that hits each group in turn. Like Lynch, who allows the bomb to go off in slow motion, Nolan extends the experience but he does so in jagged pieces rather than one smooth flow. This contributes to the sense that the atomic bomb can't quite be captured by our limited senses even if those limited senses created it in the first place.

Oppenheimer's most famous words, a quotation (from one of David Lynch's favorite spiritual texts), are introduced in one of the most admittedly cringeworthy moments in Oppenheimer. In the midst of a sexual encounter, Jean Tatlock pulls his copy of the Bhagavad Gita off the shelf, notes that it's in Sanskrit, and "randomly" just so happens to point to a passage and asks him to read it. "Now I am become death," Oppenheimer intones as she lays on top of him, "the destroyer of worlds." (The line in this context has provoked controversy among Hindu fundamentalists not because it's a goofy bit of quasi-fanservice but because it combines religious invocation with eroticism; never mind that no objection is lodged to it being used in conjunction with a weapon that annihilated tens of thousands of Japanese.) Tatlock's tragic suicide underscores the stakes of Oppenheimer's work and is, if I'm not mistaken, the only death depicted in the entire film about the greatest weapon of mass destruction. If I rolled my eyes at the deployment of this dialogue, I do find the underlying thematic purpose fascinating and resonant. Nolan, who has often gestured at pathos in purely mechanical terms (think the unmoving backstory of Inception, which exists just to set the puzzle pieces in motion), is able to craft a series of convincing relationships in Oppenheimer which genuinely serve to complement and color its grand themes. The depiction of history succeeds because it captures the granular human experience alongside the titanic, earth-shattering moments, and convinces us that they are all part of the same tapestry - a tapestry that threatens to tear itself apart.

One of the film's best sequences, second only perhaps to the test itself, shows Oppenheimer inside a Los Alamos compound building, delivering a speech to celebrate the decimation of Hiroshima. The very location is surreal, a wooden cabin with oddly-placed basketball hoops above a stone fireplace and over the entryway. There's a very particularly forties homey feel here, combined with the bizarrely impromptu decor of a makeshift community. As the triumphant but doubtful leader of the atomic bomb program celebrates what they've all wrought, he envisions a fire sweeping through the building and melting the cheering spectators' flesh from their bones. Outside, he watches someone vomit into a trashcan, presumably fueled by excessive drinking but implicitly linked to guilt and grief over the consequences of their mission. Even when Oppenheimer sits in the audience of a slide show depicting the devastation of innocent people as a direct consequence of his work, the film remains fixated on him and does not show us the images he's reacting to. Nor does it cut to the Nazis whom Oppenheimer is obsessed with defeating, nor the Soviets whose rivalry transforms into the Cold War. The point, or one of them anyway, is that the result of his and his peers' efforts is now entirely out of his hands. "Do you think the Japanese care who made the bomb?" President Truman (Gary Oldman) sneers when the "crybaby" Oppenheimer visits him in the Oval Office. "They care who dropped it on 'em." In the end, the film tells us, Oppenheimer was as much a tool as the weapon he created, but a tool who had a choice - and made it. Nolan is less interested in judging that choice than observing that it was made, and letting us make of that what we will.

 Pt. 2 of this essay
(exclusive to $5/month tier patrons)

Original outro/preview for pt. 2: Further thoughts on both films will follow within the next week eventually on Patreon for the $5/month tier. This will include engagement with other responses to both films and hopefully incorporation of other recent Gerwig and/or Nolan films I haven't yet seen.

UPDATE 7/28: I didn't want to bog down the introduction with lots of links, so here are the earlier pieces I mention in that first paragraph:

My previous Greta Gerwig coverage:
Nights & Weekends (actor, co-writer, co-director)
Greenberg (actor ... written & directed by Noah Baumbach)
Frances Ha (actor, co-writer ... co-written & directed by Baumbach)
Lady Bird (writer, director)

My previous Christopher Nolan coverage:
The Dark Knight Rises focused on the film's "muddled message"
brief discussion of Dunkirk, which I've not yet seen, as historical context for Twin Peaks

...Speaking of which, my video essay on Twin Peaks: The Return Part 8 combines David Lynch's depiction of the Trinity test with Jeremy Irons' reading of The Waste Land - a good way to end this journey for now.

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