This exploration of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is now available for subscribers who support Give Me Some Light over at Substack. It will eventually be published in full here. This post is just a preview — a selection of excerpts from that two-part post.

Excerpt #1:

Oppenheimer: another passionate scholar on “Divine power” who looks good in a fedora. [Image from the Universal Pictures trailer.]

Contrary to popular opinion, no — not all religions are the same. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a movie about very religious men, and we can see just what a difference their chosen religions make — for themselves, for their communities, for the world.

Before I go on, I should clarify my terms. When I refer to “religion” in this review, I’m talking about the beliefs that shapes a believer’s values, guide their decisions, and influence their practices and routines. As Bob Dylan famously sings, “You gotta serve somebody.” The choices that you and I are making this year, this week, this hour — they are influenced by what (and by who) we hold sacred. As my friend and counselor David Dark has wisely said,

We reveal our religion in so many ways every day. It’s in the way we drive during rush hour. The way we dispose of a plastic bottle. The decisions we make about who we date, who we marry, and how we treat them. The way we respond when someone of a different culture moves into the house next door. The way we choose some sources of news over others. The measures we take — or don’t — during a pandemic. The way we spend our time when no one is watching.

The future of the world can turn on one person’s choice in a moment of crisis. In those moments, that person’s beliefs really matter. Do we serve our egos, reputations, and legacies, or do we serve those who are vulnerable and in need? Do we love power, or do we love Love — the “Greater Good”?

I’m speculating here, but David Dark might think of Oppenheimer as an audit — or at least a study — of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s receipts.

Excerpt #2

Some phenomena that are best left in God’s hands. [Image from the Universal Pictures trailer.]

In Nolan’s multi-faceted mise-en-scène, these players — and many more — move about the blazing furnace of Oppenheimer’s busy mind and the flares of his conscience like planets orbiting the sun. Oppenheimer’s religion is evident in his passionate pursuit of knowledge through science, and Nolan illustrates these scientific speculations with abstract images of electrical and chemical reactions that recall the cosmic tangents of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life far more than the simplistic gimmicks of Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. They are at once literal illustrations of the forces Oppenheimer is investigating and manipulating, and a visual poetry representing the forces and pressures expanding and contracting within Oppenheimer’s head, heart, and soul.

Excerpt #3

The U.S. government assures Indy that the Ark’s awesome power will be responsibly managed by “top men.” [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Surely the parallels between the two films are obvious, but I think they’re profound. What’s more, the distinct contrasts between the two are revealing.

Oppenheimer is a dark and despairing variation on the same story. Or is this a chicken-and-the-egg problem? Oppenheimer may have been influenced by Raiders, but I suspect that Spielberg and Lucas might have been thinking of the Manhattan Project when they dreamed up Indy’s first adventure. (It’s worth remembering that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens with Indiana Jones on-site at the Manhattan Project and surviving the test-blast of an atomic bomb.)

Oppenheimer is a story of scientists — not archaeologists — in America and Germany racing to uncover the secrets of an explosive power that more than one character will refer to as “Divine. ” President Truman will call it “the greatest power in the universe.”

Our conflicted hero will engage in battles of wits with Nazi enemies even as he proceeds in deep distrust of his own American government superiors. (Note: When government agents approach Oppenheimer, seeking his leadership on the Manhattan Project, he helps them understand what they’re asking by standing in front of a chalkboard and lecturing, just like Professor Jones.) He accepts the assignment, but why? What is really driving him? Is he compelled primarily by a desire to end all war? Or is it that he is competitive and jealous in his desire to be the one who solves the mystery and seizes the power?

Sallah and Indy discover the Ark of the Covenant. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

To read my detailed examination of the correlations between Oppenheimer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and to access the full archive of posts there, join the team of subscribers who donate some dollars to support my work at Give Me Some Light.