Oppenheimer Review: Thin Man

Oppenheimer Review: Thin Man. By Steve Sailer.

In director Christopher Nolan’s campaign to save moviegoing from technological and social obsolescence, his latest ploy is his most clever yet: to lure grown-ups with three-digit IQs to see his Oppenheimer in numbers that had no longer seemed attainable in the 2020s by making his film outstanding in quality. (Why didn’t anybody ever think of that before?)

When I started reviewing movies 22 years ago, I noticed to my surprise that much of the difference in the quality of movies is really not a matter of opinion: Some films, such as Oppenheimer, are simply much better made than most other films, and practically everybody can see it.

Nolan is an extraordinarily adept filmmaker, as everybody knows. Five of his movies — The Dark Knight and its sequel, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk — have made at least a half billion at the global box office, and Oppenheimer is over $400 million in its first two weekends.

And yet, Nolan has always pushed the envelope in how cognitively challenging a movie can be. Hence, Oppenheimer is three hours long and admirably (perhaps excessively) historically accurate. It depicts enormously complicated events using a gigantic cast. For instance, 78th in the credits list is Gary Oldman as Harry Truman. (And there’s negligible diversity casting: The vast majority of the characters are unapologetically white.) …

Oppenheimer saying, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” ranks up there with the best mid-century comic-book true moments, along with J. Edgar Hoover sending Donald Trump’s MIT physicist uncle to inspect the late Nikola Tesla’s hotel suite in 1943 to see if he’d invented any war-winning death rays and forgotten to tell anybody about it. …

More broadly, Oppenheimer features that popular theme of 21st-century movies, “I’m putting together a team,” as he travels about by train recruiting the best physicists in America to move to a secret town he is having built near his beloved ranch in New Mexico. (“Assemble the samurai” has been a favorite theme of directors like Nolan at least since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, because hiring the best film craftsmen is a big part of their jobs.) …

If anything, the movie is overly critical of Oppenheimer, choosing to probe his contradictions and flaws relentlessly when it could have devoted more time to showing how a theoretician in his late 30s suddenly turned himself into the recruiter and manager of the most famous assemblage of talent in history. What made Oppenheimer the Danny Ocean of physicists, the leader whose judgment of their skills the other sages found nearly foolproof? Oppenheimer was to physicists what Johnny Carson was to comedians: their rightful St. Peter, worthy of judging them.

Oppenheimer wasn’t the greatest researcher of that heroic age—although his finest discovery, the publication on Sept. 1, 1939, of the theory of black holes, got overlooked in that day’s surfeit of events. It would have eventually won him the Nobel if he hadn’t smoked himself to death by 1967. …

Although not endowed with tireless concentration — he lacked what German scientists call sitzfleisch, the willingness to apply posterior to chair until the question is fully thought through — his mind’s quickness and breadth (who else taught himself Sanskrit for fun?) made him the Platonic seminar leader, crisply summing up one man’s rambling presentation of his new idea and then calling on precisely the right next man to extend that insight.

Interesting historical tidbit:

After World War II, Oppenheimer was called upon to play philosopher-king, writing much of the Truman administration’s 1946 Acheson-Lillienthal Report. This proposed committing the U.S. to dismantle its nascent nuclear arsenal, share its atomic bomb secrets with the Soviet Union, and give control of the world’s uranium and thorium mines over to an international body.

How was that ever supposed to work?

During his liberal phase a half decade before, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein had sympathetically tried to anticipate the logic of international control of weapons of mass destruction in a 1941 short story in which the U.S., led by an admirable General Groves-like officer, wins World War II in 1945 by dropping radiation weapons on an Axis city. The U.S. then magnanimously creates an international “Peace Patrol” with a global monopoly on the new weapons under the leadership of the fictional Groves, who finds, to his regret, that he must overthrow the elected president and become the dictator of the world. It’s entitled “Solution Unsatisfactory.” …


The Soviets tested their first fission bomb in 1949, largely due to having (at least) four spies at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer focuses upon Klaus Fuchs, a German gentile Communist who was a particular favorite of the Hungarian Jewish cold warriors Teller and von Neumann, who was arrested in 1950. The other publicized spy was David Greenglass, a blue-collar worker who ratted out his sister Ethel Rosenberg and her husband, Julius.

But the existence of two other Manhattan Project spies was covered up for generations: Teenage physics prodigy Ted Hall, who might have done even more damage than Fuchs, wasn’t revealed until 1995 (his older brother Ed Hall was the Air Force’s top American rocket scientist). The name of Oscar Seborer wasn’t disclosed by the U.S. government until 2019.

The latest trailer:

Btw, here’s an explanation of another Nolan movie, Interstellar: