Oppenheimer – my most anticipated film of the year. Of course, I had to write about it! Not only because I am, in fact, a historian of science, but Oppenheimer had been one of the prominent historical figures featured in my work.
Let’s deviate from the sci-fi genre and talk about this fantastic biopic.
Maybe a SPOILER ALERT is in effect?
This is the science of fiction.
I’ve heard many saying this is the best picture in Christopher Nolan’s filmography, which is quite the compliment, considering this is the director that gave us Inception, The Dark Knight, Memento, and many other great movies. However, I think the most striking praise Oppenheimer receives concerns its historical accuracy.
Biopics are notorious for fictionalizing history and romanticizing characters’ lives to make the story more appealing to the audience. And while many do it in a way that infuriates historians, Oppenheimer blended fiction and reality just right.
A biopic cannot get better than Oppenheimer.
There’s something enticing about depicting the life of a historical person on the big screen. For one, it places the audience in the protagonist’s shoes and makes us, if not empathize, at least relate to them. We get to experience their feelings, morals, troubles, and triumphs, knowing these were based on actual events.
Portraying real-life events in a stylized, overly-condensed narrative has its appeal. But time constraints, history editing, and the director’s vision can distort a true story beyond recognition. History is a powerful source of moral narratives, but biopics are not supposed to be documentaries. Still, many understand them as historical sources, ignoring the inaccuracies required to make the story fit into the film’s timeframe and chosen narrative.
For biopics, first comes the narrative, then the historical clipping. The exact opposite of a historian’s view. And in this case, the order of action affects the results.
A biopic happens when someone (director, writer) sees a story that deserves to be told. The main goal of a biographical movie is to send a message. And if faithfulness to history must be sacrificed, so be it.
That being said, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster masterfully conciliated history and fiction. Oppenheimer is as faithful to history as it can get, considering the restrictions mentioned above. It has instances of anachronisms and poetic license, sure. But anachronism and poetic license are expected (and forgivable).
There is this one scene in which Oppenheimer’s students announced, for example, that his papers on “black holes” had been published. The term “black hole” wasn’t adopted until decades later, derived from a metaphor that didn’t even make sense in 1939. It is a minor detail, of course, and necessary for the audience to understand that his paper on the “continued contraction of stellar cores” was, in fact, about what would later be called black holes.
Also, the scenes with Einstein did not occur in real life. They served purposes other than historical accuracy. It was a way to establish the undertone of the story, and it would take longer to achieve it in any other way. Not to mention that the Einstein cameo thrilled the public. My friends were riveted by the famous scientist portrayed on screen.
Nolan wanted to tell a cautionary tale about the moral dilemma people yielding destructive power face. He saw in the American Prometheus the perfect symbol to do so. At the very least, it drew attention to Oppenheimer’s story. It inspired people to learn more about this very somber episode of human history.
And, let’s be honest, Nolan could have manipulated the narrative in ways that could easily make this attempt cheap. He could have focused on the “genius” Oppenheimer and ignored the collective effort necessary to make science. He could have forced a redemption arc over the troubled-mind scientist who built a bomb that decimated two cities and took too many lives. Or go in the opposite direction and condemn him for the blood on his hands.
Yet, Nolan followed a sensible historical approach to the subject, one that neither condemns nor redeems its subjects but tries instead to remain unjudgemental about the facts and draws conclusions from the events themselves. In this sense, it can be said it is indeed a historically accurate movie.
That's it for today, folks!
Have you watched the movie? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.