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Oppenheimer - Prometheus unchained

If you think Oppenheimer is the name of Barbie's Jewish boyfriend, dressed in a pink tutu and wearing a pink headband, then trespass no further, else face the searing heat and wrath of a mushroom cloud blowing you to smithereens. I am too much of a dinosaur to partake of the Barbie-infused Barbenheimer meme-fest that has taken over the cultural zeitgeist. The only way you would catch me in a theater watching that movie would be if Margot Robbie personally invited me, and both of us wore a head-to-toe hijab.

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, needs no such exhortations. When Christopher Nolan, the auteur genius behind The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017) puts forth a new cinematic offering, it's just downright rude to decline the invite. Plus, for me, there's a visceral connection. The world's first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction that formed the bedrock of what was to come in the nuclear age, took place in my adopted city at the University of Chicago under a football stadium on Dec 2, 1942. And J. Robert Oppenheimer, taught and gained fame at the University of California, Berkeley where I send tuition checks every semester for the past two years, and will hopefully for at least the next two as well 😀.

During my school and college quiz team days, one of the questions that would be thrown at us by quizmasters hoping to stump us was, "Where and when was the world's first nuclear bomb explosion?" with the hope that we would answer Hiroshima, Japan on Aug 6, 1945. The correct answer though was Alamogordo, New Mexico (no, not even Los Alamos, which was 200 miles away) on July 16, 1945. That was the place and date of the Trinity test as part of the Manhattan Project, the super secret military program to develop the first atomic bomb. It was developed in the race to beat the Nazis, but by then V-E Day had occurred on May 8, 1945. That still left the Pacific Theater as the active war zone with Japan showing every intent of defending their homeland down to the last man. That was the Sophie's choice that President Truman was faced with - obliterate an entire city full of civilians, or risk sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. As we all know, he chose the former with all its consequences, and ushered in the nuclear world we live in today.

The man in charge of that project to produce the innocuously named Gadget was Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a mild mannered theoretical physicist plucked from academia by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon). The movie goes back and forth in time (and color) with the color portion tracing the pre-detonation timeline and the arc of its making and thereafter from Oppenheimer's viewpoint, while the black-and-white one shows the postwar unraveling of his stardom from the viewpoint of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. There are plenty of characters along the way in Oppenheimer's professional life, a veritable who's who, an Avengers team, of our physics textbooks - Einstein (Tom Conti), Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Heisenberg (Mathias Shweighofer), Teller (Benny Safdie), Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Fermi (Danny Deferrari), Feynman (Jack Quaid), and many more. It's overwhelming at times to see this level of brainpower in such a concentrated time and space. It's like being crushed by the dense gravity of a black hole and being blinded by a supernova explosion simultaneously. There's also the personal side which consists of his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and his mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Much ado has been made about the couple of brief sexual scenes and nudity by the right wing in India, since one of them involves the reading of the Bhagvad Gita and the phrase much associated with Oppenheimer, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds". My advice to them would be, to use the word used often in the movie, to "compartmentalize" and either watch the beautiful Florence Pugh, or chant the shloka "Kaalo asmi loka kshaya kritpraviddho", but don't do both, because they are no Oppenheimer.

There are many scenes that truly deserve the IMAX experience and give you goosebumps, as suggested by Nolan since the movie was shot in that PLF (Premium Large Format), such as the overhead shot in the pre-dawn li9ht of the detonation site being lit up by runway lights, or the vastness of the New Mexico desert landscape or the explosion itself which was not CGI generated, but the bulk of the movie, IMHO, can be enjoyed even in a normal theater. Because the crux of the 3 hour movie is not the technical brilliance of the bomb's making, but the human drama at play, the petty jealousies and ego hassles that plague even the most brilliant scientific minds who are supposed to be driven by facts and objective data not emotion and subjectivity, and the bouts of self-doubt when the incomprehensible comes slowly into comprehension.

The movie is based on the book, "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the God of Fire, who defied the Olympian gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity. As punishment he was condemned to eternal torment by being chained to a rock. He is a metaphor for the quest of scientific and technical knowledge and the risk of its unbridled consequences. AI today has the potential to be the next Rubicon in the human scientific endeavor, the consequences of whose crossing, will be realized only by generations long after ours, like we today, 78 years later, realize about the Bomb and Oppenheimer.

July 24, 2023

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Mandar Dewoolkar
Mandar Dewoolkar
25 de jul. de 2023

Excellent read, as always!

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