Before I write anything else, I want to say that I am genuinely a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. as an actor. I think he’s great, and he’s been in a lot of great movies.
This isn’t meant as an insult to him or his acting ability, please don’t misconstrue it as such. 🙂
Getting to the point, I watched “Oppenheimer” today, and if I were given the “Oppen-tunity” (sorry, couldn’t resist) to re-cut the film, I would limit his presence to the scene where he invites Oppenheimer to come to his retreat or whatever for physics geniuses, the one where Albert Einstein is living, and maybe one or two quick scenes toward the end.
A quick thought on that:
When Robert Downey Jr’s character — a politician who (according to the film) was behind a McCarthy-era smear campaign against Oppenheimer some years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — watches Oppenheimer approach Einstein (who is childishly tossing rocks or something into a pond) we the viewers see the two cinematic representations of these two physics icons from a distance. As Einstein turns to greet Oppenheimer, the wind blows his hat from his head, and causes his — that is to say, the actor portraying Einstein’s — hair to blow upward, momentarily reminding us of any number of photographs we have all seen of Albert Einstein, with his notoriously unkempt white hair going every which way.
As I watched the film I felt I was (perhaps) being condescended to: I mean for example instead of a few quips about relativity or (God forbid) a little more explanation about why Einstein didn’t endorse quantum mechanics (other than a reference to the famous “God does not play dice” quote), all we the viewers are given to identify this actor as Albert Einstein is a quick shot of his hair (which was probably a wig) blowing in the wind.
But with regard to that scene, as well as the one at the end where the conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein is revealed, I think that if I were given the Oppen-tunity to re-cut this film — not remake, not recast, not redirect, merely to re-cut — I would leave both those scenes in, and leave in most of Robert Downey Jr.’s parts in those scenes, but remove most of the rest of every other scene he is featured in.
His character in the film provides a frame through which we the viewers can see J. Robert Oppenheimer, in that Oppenheimer is being interrogated and asked to justify many aspects of his professional and personal life, and (as we learn near the end) Robert Downey Jr.’s character was (according to the film) the reason Oppenheimer was being interrogated.
In that sense, his presence is necessary, and I wouldn’t remove him from the film entirely… just mostly.
And again, this isn’t meant as an insult to Robert Downey Jr., I am a fan of his work.
But what happens is that the center of focus of the film’s narrative arc is shifted from the sense of guilt we might imagine Oppenheimer feeling at being responsible for the deaths of a couple hundred thousand people to some vague, poorly executed pissing contest between Oppenheimer the political figure (as opposed to the physicist) and some McCarthyist politician who (according to the film) held a grudge against Oppenheimer, and because of that grudge tried to smear Oppenheimer in the political sphere in order to advance his own career.
The reason you lost interest in that last long, convoluted sentence is the same reason I honestly almost got up and left the theater midway through the post-Trinity test anticlimax of the film, one which lasts somewhere between half an hour and ten thousand years, as cliched “suspenseful” music builds and builds in the background, getting louder and louder until the characters (most of whom aren’t even physicists) have to scream in order to be heard over it.
That reason being, it’s flipping boring.
If I were given the Oppen-tunity to re-cut the film, all of this would be removed, because (in my opinion) it transforms what could have actually been a very good film about the moral implications of inventing the atomic bomb into a political pissing contest.
That said, visually (Albert Einstein’s hair included) “Oppenheimer” is a stunning film. It’s just way the hell too long.
There is a scene where Oppenheimer is making a speech to Los Alamos scientists and employees after the bombs they built were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and during the speech Oppenheimer imagines that a bomb has been dropped on this crowd, and he envisions a pretty woman in the crowd having layers of skin being peeled back off her face, in the way that an atomic bomb blast might (presumably) affect someone within the blast radius.
After this vision, he finishes his speech and goes outside, where he sees one of the scientists who helped build the bomb vomiting uncontrollably, presumably because of guilt related to his participation in research that led to the horrific deaths of a couple hundred thousand Japanese people.
This is the climax of the film. What comes after is the frame of the story attempting to become the story itself, and (spoiler alert) other than the final scene where the conversation between Einstein and Oppenheimer is revealed, about 90 percent of all of this should be cut out, because it ruins the film.
And, to repeat, it shifts the moral question regarding guilt at having “become death, destroyer of worlds” to a political pissing contest between Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr’s character, whose name I don’t remember or care to look up.
The film could have been very good, and indeed is very good, in places. But there’s too much political bickering and too many shifts between time periods — and regarding that, the use of black and white for one time period is a tad esoteric, as the only reason I can guess it might have been used is to make this time period look like black and white television, i.e. to mimic news footage of McCarthy-era hearings?
I mean, black and white is often used to indicate that something happened in the past, right? In “Oppenheimer,” the black and white portions of the film take place in the middle of the overall timeline. To be clear, things that happen both before and after the black and white parts of the film are in color.
So it’s like, in terms of overall timeline:
Color —> black and white —> color again.
Why? I don’t know.
But like I said, the film is visually stunning, in places. In the first half of the film, the surround sound of the theater is also used to amazing effect, with the sounds of explosions happening unexpectedly from time to time.
But to give a completely honest assessment of the film, these unexpected explosions actually woke me up a time or two, when the film went much, much too far into the “political pissing contest” frame story of the film and abandoned both the interesting scientific discoveries briefly mentioned as well as the actual moral conflict of J. Robert Oppenheimer as a historical figure.
If I were allowed to re-cut the film and remove 90% of its extraneous bullshit, it would be an excellent film.
But honestly, I don’t think I could stay awake long enough to do that.
Apologies to Robert Downey, Jr., you are an excellent actor, in my opinion. 🙂