Film Review: Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (2023) ★★★

Although Oppenheimer is a solid and historically accurate film, it is overly long – making its missed opportunities all the more glaring – and the key dramatic tension rests on speculation that was considered entirely fictional long before 1945.

Oppenheimer himself was done well and the acting was top notch. The poisoned apple story was new to me, as was him learning Dutch in six weeks. Elite human capital. The “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” quote is famous, but I was surprised how to learn how deep he was into Sanskrit and Hindu mythology (in connection with this, I learned that he named his car after the giant bird god.

Seems to be historically accurate for the most part, down to the Germans taking a wrong turn with a bet on heavy water over graphite. However, the role of Nazi animosity against “Jewish physics” was overplayed. The ideologues were sidelined; they just made mistakes in the calculations, and the Nazi effort was banally never consolidated and lavishly funded as was the American one. This aspect of the story could have been highlighted if the film that done some interactions with the German nuclear physicists in the post-war era (plenty of underused dramatic material there – see the Farm Hall transcripts.

On this note, I would have appreciated seeing more discussion of the geopolitics and arms races (the low profile of von Neumann who had many takes on this was a missed opportunity). The logic of bombing Japan was covered well – it was either that, or losings 100ks of American soldiers (and millions of Japanese civilians in all likelihood). Not that this is a popular position, but it’s the ratpilled one. On this note, it covered the decision to not strike Kyoto on account of its cultural heritage (and Stimson allegedly having spent his honeymoon there) and Oppenheimer’s post-bomb test meeting with Truman were also great.

Many opportunities to reference or lampshade the many amusing anecdotes of the intellectual jockeying and drama amongst the Manhattan Project scientists, my favorite here being Fermi’s estimates of the IQs of his peers: “You know, Herb, how much faster I am in thinking than you are. That is how much faster von Neumann is compared to me” – Enrico Fermi. Speaking of Fermi, rather disappointing that the famous intellectual byproduct of the first nuclear blast – the invention of the Fermi estimate, in which the Italian approximated its strength by noticing the distance traveled by a piece of paper he dropped from his hand during the explosion – was left out. An inexcusable oversight.

There was the whole subtheme around Communist spying on the atomic program, in which Oppenheimer occupied a precarious position due to some Communist sympathies in the 1930s. Happily Nolan avoided going full rightoid on this, as have the weird “anti-Communist” corners of Twitter with their pet hobby of rehabilitating McCarthy. Overall coverage of this is balanced. The anti-Communists come off as fanatical ideologues, but it does have to be set against the fact that there were successful spies. Then again, this very ideological tolerance and diversity does explain why the US was able to concentrate human capital (“atomic bomb as Hungarian high school science fair project“) in a way that authoritarian ideological regimes are incapable of, but considering that elite human capital then often inclined towards Communism, that did inevitably result in some degree of leakage. (Side note, interesting to observe the USSR could attract considerable elite human capital to its service during the early Cold War, quite unlike Putin’s Russia with its champions like Jackson Hinkle and Sameera Khan).

Overall, it’s certainly not a bad movie, probably quite good for screening in school history class. However, apart from its overly long length, missed opportunities, and over-indulgence in moody psychological sequences, my biggest biggest with it was the ending and main plot twist. There was zero concern by 1945 that a nuclear chain reaction would ignite the atmosphere, making Oppenheimer’s film-defining scene with Einstein by the lakeside – meant to contrast the Heavy Moral Burdens of the Great Men of Science with the petty politicking represented by Lewis Strauss – an entirely contrived one, played for emotion. Saccharine, kitschy, pretentious. If it hadn’t done that, I’d have given it a star higher.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.