Friday, July 21, 2023


I escaped from the expected 94F temperatures this afternoon by sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater and watching a film about an explosion at some 50 million F. It was, of course, Oppenheimer which opened today, and despite my intense interest in the subject I found it a less enticing three hours than Mission Impossible.

Especially the early part. I've never enjoyed wide-spanning bio-pics, which jump from this significant scene to that significant scene, and this started out as one of them. Eventually, once we get to the Manhattan Project, the story begins to cohere, but it's less about the bomb than it is about security issues. The bomb finally gets a look-in with a long sequence about the Trinity test, and after that it goes back to security issues, focusing on the two things that have framed flashbacks all along, Oppenheimer's 1954 security hearing and Lewis Strauss's 1959 Senate committee hearing for his cabinet nomination. And these move along quite briskly, thus making a movie that gets significantly less boring over time, a rare phenomenon.

This is, however, a Christopher Nolan Auditorily Obnoxious Special. Except when making a speech or giving testimony, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) mumbles to show how diffident he is. Only about half of what he says is audible. Meanwhile Nolan blasts you with the subwoofers any excuse he can, from the sound of nuclear bombs exploding to the sounds of an applauding audience stomping its feet on stadium bleachers. They're equally loud.

I knew that the movie co-stars Matt Damon, a rather more genial General Groves than descriptions of the original, and Robert Downey Jr. as the malevolent (from an Oppenheimer pov) Strauss, and I knew of some of the more cameo appearances, from Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr to Gary Oldman doing one scene as President Truman. But nobody had told me that one of the senators at the Strauss hearing was Harry Groener, whom old Buffy fans will remember.

At one point in the movie, Groves says he's appointing Oppenheimer as "project director," and that may be the reason behind the frequent appearance in articles about the movie of false statements that Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project, leaving Groves - who was the actual director of the Manhattan Project - as the military liaison or some other side character. No, no. The Manhattan Engineering District, which was the official name, was so titled to classify it as a unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, though it operated directly under the authority of the Chief of Staff. It was a military operation, and Groves, an experienced Army engineer, was its commander.

This included a vast array of operations - the huge uranium and plutonium processing plants in Tennessee and Washington state, uranium mining sites and procurement offices, labs for radiation and chemical and metallurgical research in Chicago and at Iowa State and elsewhere, intelligence operations, and much more. That's what Groves was in charge of. Oppenheimer had nothing to do with those. Under Groves as his superior, he was director of the Los Alamos laboratory, which was one small unit of the project, charged with designing, manufacturing, and testing the bomb. Clear?

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