By Charles Chandler
I love movies. Well, most of them except the really violent ones like the John Wick sequence and those horror/slasher types. You can have those. I usually like the big “Summer Blockbusters” and this summer we have three to choose from -- Oppenheimer, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and Barbie. Curious minds would like to know -- what is a “blockbuster” anyway? There are two definitions:
Pre-Covid, we watched our fair share of movies on the big screens but during prime Covid periods, we didn’t go to the theaters. This summer we returned with a trip to the AMC Classic 8 theater near Ludington. For transparency, we bribed ourselves with rewards that included a menu of boats, breweries, beaches, the S.S. Badger, lighthouses, and world-famous ice cream joints. All that plus a movie, who could resist?
Oppenheimer is mostly about the complicated life of theoretical physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The plot begins with his early life where he pursues his graduate degrees at various European universities, studying under elite professors. During this pursuit, we see his flawed personality and genius develop. He achieves his PhD and returns to America where he begins researching and teaching quantum physics at the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. In California he meets members of labor unions and the Communist party. These associations will later prove to be damaging to his career and reputation.
During World War II, Oppenheimer’s genius was recognized by the U.S. Military war planners who were desperate to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis. The U.S. Military and various political and security agencies momentarily overlook his prickly personality and sketchy association with the American Communist Party. They seek him out and ask him to head up the clandestine nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Complex and morally conflicted, Mr. Oppenheimer gathers a team of other scientists and similarly flawed individuals and confronts the challenges of building the first atomic bomb. It is at Los Alamos, New Mexico where the chain-smoking, enigmatic J. Robert Oppenheimer became the “father of the atomic bomb” when his team ignited “Trinity”. The first detonation of a nuclear weapon that was heard around the world and changed all our lives forever.
Again, and in my opinion Oppenheimer is a brilliant slow-moving but intense three-hour epic written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It is based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
The Irish born actor Cillian Murphy plays J. Robert Oppenheimer and lets us follow the man, his genius, and moral complications throughout his career. Matt Damon plays General Leslie Groves Jr., military head of the Manhattan Project. Robert Downey Jr. is the Judas Iscariot who despises and betrays Oppenheimer. DC Comics Iron Man shows us his depth as an actor as the perfectly cast vindictive, scheming Lewis Strauss, a senior member of the Atomic Energy Commission. You also get a look at the tragic treatment of J. Robert Oppenheimer after that moment. To his credit, Oppenheimer was quite aware of his responsibility and the consequences of building the atomic bomb. He argued but failed to convince his colleges and the U.S. Government to go no further down that dangerous path.
You heard the Oscar Nominations here first: Oppenheimer will be nominated for Best Picture; Christopher Nolan for Best Director; Cillian Murphy for Best Leading Actor; and Robert Downey Jr. for Best Supporting Actor. After this sobering movie and trip down memory lane, we implemented the reward and I chose a giant root beer float from the House of Flavors ice cream emporium in Ludington.
Going a bit beyond excellent entertainment, I suggest that Oppenheimer is a historically significant movie and recommend that anyone born after 1950 see this movie because it is about a seminal moment in our time. What this movie did not show was what followed the Los Alamos bomb -- the disregard of Oppenheimer’s warning and the reckless and cavalier sprint the world powers made down that dangerous path.
The world's first nuclear explosion occurred at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, quickly followed by a second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Our history states these two events led to the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. According to reliable sources there were at least four active Russian spies working on the Manhattan Project. Initially, only the United States possessed atomic weapons but in 1949 the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb, and the arms race began. By the 1950s both the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a cold war and had enough nuclear power to obliterate each other. Both sides developed the ability to launch a devastating attack even after sustaining a first strike from the other side. “This policy became known as Mutual Assured Destruction: both sides knew that any attack upon the other would be devastating to themselves, thus in theory restraining them from attacking the other.”
In 1952, the United States tested a new and more powerful weapon: the hydrogen bomb. The consequences of this arms race, nuclear proliferation and the radiation and fallout from above ground testing are still in our environment and our bodies.
“These tests in Nevada and the South Pacific produced ionizing radiation, which kills or sickens those exposed, contaminates the environment, and has long-term health consequences, including cancer and genetic damage.
This widespread use of atmospheric testing has caused grave long-term consequences. Physicians project that some 2.4 million people worldwide will eventually die from cancers due to atmospheric nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980.”
See this report, “Estimated Exposure from Fallout Nevada Nuclear Weapons Testing and Thyroid Doses Report (cancer.gov).”
For additional movies about the Nuclear Arms Race, try Fail Safe and Dr. Strange Love or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Having served in the USAF Strategic Air Command during the Hot War in Vietnam and the Cold War with Russia, I found both movies to represent the terror and insanity of those times. For additional sleepless nights listen to this program.
If you do, then you will know how close we may be at any given moment to causing destruction on a global scale.
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