Culture

Christian, Here are 4 Reasons to Skip Oppenheimer

David Harris

Was it morally justifiable for the US to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How about fire-bombing Tokyo and Dresden, Germany toward the end of World War II? As far as the Manhattan Project and its immediate consequences, American Christians have debated the ethics of Little Boy and Fat Man since the events of August 1945. The two main camps are as follows:

  • Dropping the atom bombs was wrong, as it is never morally justified to purposely target non-combatants, regardless of circumstances. The end does not justify the means.
  • Dropping the atom bombs was a necessary evil, as it saved countless lives. The Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns demonstrated what the incredible cost of life would be if Japan was physically invaded.

I won’t get into the inns and outs of these arguments, as I would prefer a well-thought-out, interesting, and engaging film to serve as a frame for this question. Sadly, despite the release of Christopher Nolan’s trombone-blasting, rapid scene-switching, dysphoria-inducing Oppenheimer last week, we’ll have to keep waiting for that film, perhaps indefinitely.

As the title indicates, I’m highly recommending you skip Oppenheimer. Regardless of what a winsome evangelical blogger tells you, critics rave to you, or your favorite conservative commentator yells at you. The rapidly accelerating degradation and deconstruction of Hollywood entertainment in the 21st century does not need your financial support to prop it up for 5 more minutes. Let it go the way of the dodo – or at least spend your dollar on something more redeeming.

I’ll start with the most blatant moral issues and work my way down. Here are several reasons not to patronize this future Best Picture Winner.

1) Balancing “think about these things” with “rather, expose them”

Two verses are helpful in assessing whether a Christian should view a particular film. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (ESV). This is a good ruler to hold up to a movie to measure whether it’s worth viewing. With words like, “pure” and “lovely,” it may not seem that a film about the atom bomb fits into this verse, but Paul also says in Ephesians 5:11, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them.”

A good film about a heavy subject will strike a balance between Philippians 4:8 and Ephesians 5:11 – this means “exposing” the evil or darkness of a particular thing or event without glorifying evil in the process. An example of a film that does this well is the 2005 movie Beyond the Gates that deals with the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The film is powerful, disturbing, and devastating, but without being gratuitous or glorifying the violence and evil during that time.

The problem with Oppenheimer is that it doesn’t really qualify for either Philippians 4:8 or Ephesians 5:11. It isn’t true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable… etc., but neither does it seem to try to “expose evil.” The film is supposed to be about the Manhattan Project but devotes a lot of time to the political events that led to Robert Oppenheimer losing his security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission (also by far the most boring part of the film). It feels like we’re being pressured to believe that decision was a ridiculous witch-hunt, but after a torturous amount of screen time discussing his past connection to communists, it sort of makes sense why he lost it, and the attempt to paint him as a martyr falls very flat (more on this in #3).

2) Shameless Prostituting

I won’t go into any detail other than noting that Oppenheimer strays from a typical Nolan film in being sexually explicit. The few scenes do essentially nothing to advance the narrative arc of the story – they are there to prostitute a young actress, as her only role in the film is to essentially serve as a sexual object. It would have been perfectly easy to demonstrate Robert Oppenheimer’s philandering without pornography (as, for example, is subtly and tastefully done in a film like Casablanca). Christians should uncompromisingly reject pornography in all its forms, and that includes the “high art” of “critically acclaimed” Hollywood films.

3) A Disturbing Detachment

There will be some predictable reactions among Evangelicals to Oppenheimer. The typical response in the blogosphere will probably be a recognition that the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII was unjustified and sinful – the movie demonstrates this (by insinuating that Robert Oppenheimer felt guilty for his role in developing the weapons). Unfortunately, this response misses something monumental going on in Oppenheimer.

In the wake of statues and war memorials being torn down over the last decade across the West, many have noted that the “low-hanging fruit” that’s been erased would give way to a wider, more comprehensive attack on our history, and that would one day include WWII heroes. Oppenheimer isn’t quite to the point of ripping history apart, but it is a first step – it’s detached. Any sense or moral of patriotism, responsibility, or even hope in a difficult situation is missing.

 Instead, we get a washed-out world of moral ambiguity – there really are no heroes, but there aren’t really any villains either. Is Oppenheimer a hero or a villain? The only answer we really get is that he’s a victim (because of his revoked security clearance). Even being a victim, he also contributed to the victimization of Japanese civilians, did he not? These are the questions to which no answers are attempted. While introducing character complexity is one thing, complete moral disconnect is quite another.

This nihilistic trend is very common in other movie genres, but WWII has had an idealistic, sacred shield protecting it from deconstruction. That shield appears to have been lowered.

4) By Elites, For Elites

“Critically acclaimed,” contemporary Hollywood films are not made for the average theater patron. Instead, the average American (or to be honest at this point, Chinese) movie-goer is presented with a litany of loud, colorful superhero movies that are, at least in theory, “mindless diversion.” Every once in a while, a film comes along that checks the “profound” box for critics but is heavily marketed to the average viewer. Oppenheimer is that film. You get the sense that this is a film you need to believe is highly important and valuable, and you should be intensely invested in and affected by it.

The problem is that the film isn’t very interesting. The trailers made it seem as if it would be an intense, kinetic thriller, but it’s mostly just a bland political drama that feels incredibly irrelevant to the larger questions at play (for example, the moral justification of the atom bombs). What makes the film dramatic is not so much the events portrayed, but the constant scene-switching, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and weird, abstract “atomic stuff” going on in Oppenheimer’s mind as he considers atomic science.

Conclusion

I was supremely excited for Oppenheimer. I’ve eaten up much of Nolan’s past work, especially The Prestige and Inception. I’m a sucker for the mind-bending, have-to-watch-it-again-to-understand plotlines, and as a bit of a filmmaking nerd, have found his cinematography and out-of-the-box ideas to be enjoyable. Because of my excitement for a Nolan historical movie, I neglected to read any content reviews and went to see it at a late showing on opening night. I wish I hadn’t, but now I am able to relay to you, dear Christian, why you should save yourself three hours, a slightly more polluted mind, and a bit more cynicism. There are many redeeming, hopeful, truthful, moving films ready for viewing that will not grate your soul anything like Oppenheimer.

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