Friday, August 25, 2023

bombs and dolls and american-made tragedies

In a tactic to beat the heat of my apartment yesterday in its A/C-less state, we decided to go spend as long as we could at the movies, which meant we went to see Oppenheimer, the longest run-time film we could find.  While I am always game for a biopic, this one probably would have been something I just waited to come in streaming were it not for all the #BARBENHEIMER summer madness. On one hand, the length would normally have worked against it under theater-going normal circumstances. It also seemed really sad and depressing, which seemed unnecessary in a world where if you really want sad and depressing, just turn on the news or look around. But since we'd already seen everything currently in theaters horror-wise we wanted these last few weeks, Oppenheimer it was. 

So we found ourselves, after a leisurely burger and cocktails at the bowling alley that shares space with the theatre, settling in for the 3-hour mid-century jaunt in the dark. What first struck me is that it's a rather moody beautiful movie, which like much of Nolan's other work, maximizes color and shadow to its best advantage.  The performances are commendable and the storytelling was, while confusing in a couple spots, innovative. 

I say confusing largely too because of the men. So many of them. With similar looks and names and all wearing suits and cool mid-century eyewear and making the most irresponsible decisions with deadly human tolls. When Florence Pugh's character is nakedly prompting RO to read the famous Bhagavad Vita line RO is famous for, it crossed my mind that this may be the nerdiest bit of porn I've seen. It's a movie that relishes its theme of brilliant people making brilliant discoveries and inventions that they know only as evidence of their brilliant egos and nothing of their impact.  Not knowing a lot of the history and names specifically, it was hard to keep the men straight beyond RO himself and the women, while well cast with A-list actresses, not as fleshed out as I would have liked. (and an exact example of what the film's bright pink-clad sibling was making a statement against. The women were kind of set in scenes like dolls or, worse, like Kens. 

The scenes of the meetings and the congressional hearings were juxtaposed in my head with the all-female leadership of Barbieland.  The lawyer who said that her logic and her feelings made her a better leader. The one woman scientist on the Manhattan Project who the men worried about her delicate lady parts and radiation. Men in identical rooms in identical suits making decisions that killed hundreds of thousands of people and may one day kill more. Or all. 

My favorite scene was the reckoning when RO himself at a podium horrifically imagines his cheering audience incinerated by the weapon he helped create.  Or when we discover his discussion near the pond with Einstein and the consequences of his quest for knowledge. It's interesting that they begin with the poison apple scene,  which I think is based on RO's own conflicting accounts later in life, records of therapy undergone as punishment at Cambridge, and a detail discounted as fully true by his grandchildren. A detail possibly wrong or inaccurate or less dire than it seems. However true in real life, in the film it sets a parallel between how jealousy and insecurity led him to do and make terrible things. 

Which is to say, he's a lot like Ken and his horse-loving patriarchy in that case, except the word is flipped and the men are in charge and making the decisions with no one else to set parameters and boundaries of compassion and good sense. By the end of the film, it was just a film full of Kens with silent Barbies who endured and drowned themselves in bathtubs with no real power or control. The same things that ultimately take down Ken's burgeoning empire, the warring of the men, and allow the Barbies to regain control, are the same circumstances that lead to weapons of mass destruction. Except this isn't Barbieland and no one can restore order. 

While at first, it seemed merely like a release-weekend coincidence and social media-inspired enthusiasm, these two movies seem to really go together somehow,. They are very much about America and the things we create. Good or bad. Symbolic and real.  Constructive or destructive. While Barbie was meant to be a symbol of feminism and womanhood, it came with the unsavory aftertaste of body image issues and commercialism. While the A-bomb was intended to be a brilliant scientific discovery that proved our global leadership in the scientific and military world, it turned out to be the key to mass extinction. The creators, whether it was tiny Ruth Handler or towering RO, were caught in the middle. While Barbie wants to make meaning--to not be the thing that is made. Oppenheimer's creation, the thing that is made, destroys it.  

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