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Opinion: What Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ leaves out of the story


Opinion by Aanchal Saraf and Rebecca H. Hogue

(CNN) — It started with the memes.

Audiences came in droves to see the cinematic event of the summer: Barbenheimer. This portmanteau of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” arose not just because they were blockbusters set for release on the same day, but also because the films seemed diametrically opposed — technicolor pinks and plastic fantastic vs. a desaturated and moody biopic. (The distributor of “Barbie” and CNN share a parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery.)

Upon closer analysis, the juxtaposition resonates precisely because it relies on a visual language as old as the IPs it is mining. Barbenheimer has crucial predecessors, cultural moments that combined sex and nuclear weapons to convince the world that we should “learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.”

Bombshells and Bikinis

Universal Pictures released “Oppenheimer”  on the 78th anniversary of the Trinity test in New Mexico, and two weeks before the 78th anniversary of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These three detonations, their devastation immense and ongoing, were just the beginning of the US nuclear detonation program.

Between 1946 and 1992, the US detonated over 1,000 known nuclear devices across the Marshall IslandsKiribati, Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone lands in Nevada, Aleut lands in Amchitka, Alaska and many other places across US-occupied lands and waters. These geographies were further complicated by the spread of radioactive fallout, which impacted communities well outside of the “testing” locations.

One such test series was Operation Crossroads, in which the US detonated bombs Able and Baker over Bikini Atoll. Stenciled onto the Able bomb was an image of “bombshell” Rita Hayworth in a strapless black gown. The bomb was nicknamed Gilda, after a movie Hayworth had starred in that same year. Hayworth was, unsurprisingly, horrified by the gesture.

Hayworth’s gown was not the only French fashion statement to be attached to Crossroads — Jacques Heim’s revealing Atome swimsuit made its debut on the Riviera that summer. His competitor, Louis Réard, debuted an even scantier design he was sure would be “explosive:” the bikini swimsuit.

Scholar Teresia Teaiwa famously critiqued the bikini as instrumental to depoliticizing and concealing the effects of nuclear weapons in the Pacific. While Europeans gathered on beaches at last free from war, bombs inspiring their swimwear were being dropped by the Atomic Energy Commission in the Marshall Islands. Britain and France would later begin their own nuclear weapons programs on Indigenous lands and waters in Australia and French Occupied Polynesia, among others.

The US began detonating nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site in 1951, garnering nearby Las Vegas the nickname Atomic City. Las Vegas businesses turned the detonations into a tourist attraction, serving themed cocktails and holding “Dawn Bomb Parties.” The cultural proximity of showgirls and atom bombs led to the creation of Miss A-Bomb contests. The most famous of the winners was Lee A. Merlin, who stuck cotton balls in the shape of a mushroom cloud onto her swimsuit.

Today, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Merlin welcomes visitors to the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. The museum also displays an array of nuclear-inspired paraphernalia that proliferated during the Cold War, including toys, comic books and games.

This popularization of bombs for all ages still haunts our present, with post-apocalyptic landscapes in children’s shows like “Adventure Time” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” echoing Cold War films such as “Duck and Cover” (1951), whose animated icon Bert the Turtle taught children what to do in the event of a nuclear blast; not to mention Walt Disney’s fascination with atomic power, immortalized in his “educational” programming of “Our Friend The Atom” (1957).

From Playthings to Playboys

In an effort to assuage growing concerns surrounding Operation Crossroads, Vice Admiral William Blandy assured everyday Americans: “I am not an atomic playboy.” But the archive of atomic pin-ups and nuclear war games begs to differ. Atomic playboys have aestheticized nuclear weapons as sexy — but still safe — since their very existence.

In fact, if Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” were to have another title, “Atomic Playboy” would be well-suited. The film’s women exist as plot devices for the development of great men — topless, flasks in hand, a quick and dirty way to show us that “Oppie” (Cillian Murphy) had rizz in the lab and at parties. But saying that Nolan is bad at writing women is not revelatory. And the issue here is not one of passing the Bechdel test — we’d rather less women be involved in the making of weapons of mass destruction.

Rather, it is the film’s aesthetic commitments that underscore its ideological hang-ups. The Marvelification of the Los Alamos scientists is one of the cornier examples. Oppie has his own “suit up” scene and Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) introduces himself in a line delivery that presupposes applause. Against this A-Team starting lineup, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) are more archetype than character.

In one of the many ”wildly over-the-top” full frontal sex scenes with Tatlock, she wanders over to Oppenheimer’s bookshelf and pulls out a copy of the “Bhagavad Gita.” She asks Oppenheimer to read aloud what becomes his infamous quotation, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

The sex that follows is embarrassingly mechanical. The second time we hear him say these words, it is non-diegetic, his voice the only sound during an otherwise silent detonation of the Trinity bomb. Nolan prolongs the time between the flash and the blast, allowing Oppenheimer’s words to hang in unnerving suspension. The audience is made to “wait for it,” our sonic desires fulfilled by Nolan’s fetish for cinematic release.

The viewer gets nothing that puts Oppenheimer’s quotation in context — he did not speak these words until an interview in 1965, 20 years after the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nolan rips the quote from its historical framing and places it in two different kinds of sex scenes, both of which emphasize Oppenheimer’s omnipotence. One can’t help but think of Hayworth’s “Gilda,” a femme fatale riding the side of the A-bomb.

From the moment Tatlock arrives on screen, two things are immediately clear: She, too, is a femme fatale, and she will be a fatality. Her death by suicide is the only death we are shown that is not thrice removed (us watching Oppenheimer watch a film about the bombings in Japan) or part of a dream sequence (Oppenheimer imagining stepping on a deracialized, charred body during his victory speech). The film situates her demise as risk management — specifically, neutralizing the threat her involvement with the Communist Party poses to Oppenheimer. In positioning Tatlock’s psyche and politics as dangerous, and Oppenheimer’s security clearance as what is ultimately at stake, the film argues that a threat to the American Nuclear Family is as serious as the atom bomb’s threat to the world.

Birthing the Bomb

Nolan bifurcates “Oppenheimer” into two parts, the “subjective” fission and the “objective” fusion. The collision of the fission and fusion timelines implies that the film’s formal arc mirrors a chain reaction. Beyond the visceral grossness of modeling one’s film after a nuclear detonation, the “chain reaction” also persuades the viewer to accept Nolan’s narratives of inevitability and absolution. Oppenheimer merely “births” the bomb, which sets off wide ranging consequences both unavoidable and out of his control — so much so that the third act is entirely removed from the scene of the blast. Like the mythical figure, and the book that inspired the film, “American Prometheus,” “Oppenheimer” shows that the problem of playing with fire is neither playing nor fire, but the failure to master incendiary effects.

All of this brings us back to Barbenheimer’s collaging of bombs and bombshells. In a scene that opens on Barbie (Margot Robbie)’s first moments in the “real world,” she explains to a group of leery construction workers that neither she nor Ken (Ryan Gosling) have genitals. Barbie is the ideal icon for atomic playboys: fun, harmless and free. Barbie’s reproductive organs even become part of her arc to personhood — and her departure from iconicity. The film ends at Barbie’s first appointment with a gynecologist.

When the US dropped the first H-Bomb “Mike” on Enewetakese lands in 1952, its designer Edward Teller sent a telegram to the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico that read, “It’s a boy.” Like Teller, who became known as the “father” of the H-Bomb, Oppenheimer was similarly characterized by his paternal virility — birthing the orgasmic blast of the bomb, first in life and now on screen. The form and content of “Oppenheimer” may try to persuade you that its protagonist is the daddiest of daddies. But if the lowest bar for healthy masculinity is not conflating weapons and women, “Oppenheimer” will never be “kenough.”

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