Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” has essentially finished its box-office run, and while the film fell short of the $1 billion mark—grossing $942.1 million worldwide—a three-hour biopic earning anything over $150 million at the box office globally is an astounding achievement these days and demonstrates how Nolan can “eventize” any subject and make it into an epic.
While its Oscar prospects seem very high—sure to earn a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, among others—the film has its critics and had criticism lobbied at it. One of the chief points of criticism is that the film— the story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his role in the development of the atomic bomb— does not demonstrate or show the Japanese perspective at all, despite one of the climactic elements of the film being the bombing of Hiroshima during WWII (even a filmmaker like Spike Lee criticized Nolan for this choice).
Nolan did his round of press largely before those kinds of questions came up, but in a recent hour-long conversation with Nolan and “Oppenheimer” producer Emma Thomas with Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer who wrote the movie’s source material, the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” along the late Martin J. Sherwin, the question was finally posed and answered.
Bird recalled the context, with critics suggesting that Nolan should have shown what happened to people on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during their respective atomic bomb drops in August 1945 (Japan would surrender six days after the Nagasaki bombing).
Nolan suggested his main reasons not to depict those atrocities was because he was staying true to the book—which tells this story mostly from Oppenheimer’s perspective and does not get into those details—and because, likewise, “Oppenheimer” is told mostly through the lead character’s subjective experience—told in color when the story is told through his viewpoint, as he experiences it, and told in black and white when it’s recalling a lot of courtroom history through outsider’s perspectives. Nolan also pointed to the power of horror movies and what is left offscreen and how that can be just as powerful.
“Looking at it from a script point of view, and taking cues from the book to some degree—because you and [Martin J. Sherman] had already written about Hiroshima and Nagasaki extensively outside the Oppenheimer biography, and reading about his experience, and how essentially once, Trinity was done, he was, to some degree, in the same position as the rest of America,” Nolan explained about how the real J. Robert Oppenheimer was largely kept in the dark about the “when” and timing of when these bombings would occur (the scientist was privy to some meetings about the where any tactical why).
“He heard about the bombing of Hiroshima on the radio as [President] Truman announced it,” Nolan explained, describing how the scientist learned about it in real-time along with the rest of the country. “And that was one of the most remarkable things I read in the book, and that was one of the [key elements] that prompted me to want to tell the story as subjectively as possible. I wanted to experience the realizations that he passes through with him and have the audience do that, and I think that’s largely how audiences have responded to it.”
Nolan then went on to explain some of the choices from a cinematic level and how they can resonate emotionally.
“As a filmmaker, you make certain choices, and you have to have to make them as strongly and as firmly as possible and make your intentions as clear as possible,” he continued. “But, once a film goes out in the world, it’s up to the audience to make of it what they will and get the experience from it what they will.
The author and moderator, Bird, suggested that Nolan made it all the more powerful, forcing the audience to imagine what the bomb and its unthinkable violence and magnitude and ramifications would be like, and Nolan used that as a jumping-off point to continue explaining his filmmaking choices.
“The truth is that everything to do with film and editing, and all the editorial choices you’re making, on a technical level, is as much about what you don’t show as what you do show,” the filmmaker explained. “Horror movies being the obvious example, where if you show too much of something, it’s not frightening, it’s not threatening.”
“But even when you’re cutting a sequence of somebody walking into a room, sitting down and having a conversation, you’re eliminating everything that you possibly can,” he continued. “You’re streamlining, and you’re also allowing for things to have more resonance or more power through what you don’t show, whether you’re talking about an act of physical violence or whatever. There are just certain things—everything in editing is about that, and as a screenwriter, I come to it with a really, with a strong sense of filmmaking, the editing that’s going to have to result. So when I’m writing the script, I’m going through that process. So these are not things that are found in the edit suite… but the big decisions, the key decisions [like this one], for me, have to be made at the script stage and therefore inform the way you shoot the film.”
I will say, as someone who has read ‘American Prometheus,’ I understand the argument and thoughtful answer. In the biography, once the Trinity test is successful, on July 16, 1945, the U.S. government takes over, swoops in, really, takes the bomb, and while Oppenheimer is invited to some tactical meetings about the cities that will be targets (and some conversations about the ethical implications, which the U.S. government isn’t frankly very interested in) and some vague understandings of timeline, he is largely left out of the conversation and decisions, and is unmoored by how kept in the dark he is. Oppenheimer is also deeply disoriented by a kind of whiplash—the exhilaration of celebrating this short-lived scientific achievement and milestone (a day or two)—and the speed at which it all happens (Hiroshima happens all of 24 days later after Trinity on August 9, 1945), leaving no one to truly reckon with what they have accomplished and what horrors it can unleash.
If anything, “Oppenheimer” merits its own separate movie into that exploration, the Japanese POV, and at the very least, the civilian displacement at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which is its own kind of smaller-scale but no less dehumanizing horror story.
The conversation was held at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, of which Bird is the director, at the CUNY Graduate Center. You can watch the full conversation, which took place just a few days ago, below, and it’s definitely worth a watch.