Opinion

Oppenheimer is loud – but there are more potentially explosive biopics

Christopher Nolan's new blockbuster tells the story of the birth of the atomic bomb, but who would a biopic about climate change focus on?

Close up of Cillian Murphy in black and white

Cillian Murphy plays ‘father of the atomic bomb’ J Robert Oppenheimer. Image: Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer is a string of events contained in a box called a cinema. The Hollywood character they made of Oppenheimer was beautifully played by Cillian Murphy, a product of the Old Country, of Cork where my parents came from.

At moments it is louder than anything I have ever heard in a film, although the director Christopher Nolan did also make Dunkirk, which was a surround-sound shell and bomb-dropping beanfeast. Oppenheimer though is not, like Dunkirk, an optimistic film. It is pretty much about all the wrong done by technology in the hands of government; Oppenheimer himself the potential facilitator of the demise of the world through bombs and explosions.  

It is a film about cleverness and the nature of threats, with Oppenheimer the only consistently reliable character in the film. Explosive and loud, as you would expect in something about the man who put all the bits together to create the first atom bomb.  

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Did I like the film? Would I praise it or recommend it?  

You would have to be on your toes for a full three hours, and make sure you didn’t get distracted by crunching popcorn, or coughing, or people treading on your toes in the dark.  

This is concentration time. Yet largely it is not a film to inform you. There are no lessons to be got from the film. And it’s not three hours of somewhere to hide. It is a peculiar film that, if it does anything, introduces you to noise. Noise is the biggest thing about Oppenheimer. And I therefore wonder if it serves any other purpose.  

I saw the film in a cool cinema on a coolish day, and I had cycled to the cinema and made sure I had enough water. Yet the newspapers and video footage that passed for news that day were largely about circa 10,000 Brits – as the papers like to call us when we are on holiday – needing an airlift away from wildfires. In the world of today, it seems, the holiday spots of Europe have caught fire and we are seeing the most tangible indications of the disastrous effects of climate change.  

Could one have made an Oppenheimer-type film, a trawl through the life of a clever man who changed so much, about climate change? Is there one person, or a group of persons, who could be identified as the major player(s) in the climate crisis?  

Someone like Carl Benz, or Henry Ford, who invented or perfected the internal combustion engine? Who got us rolling along roads and lyrical country lanes over 100 years ago?  

Or Rockefeller, once the most famous millionaire in the world, who exploited the growth of the oil extraction industry? Could you make an Oppenheimer-style film about him and all of the uncertainties about the future that flowed out of the wells he created?  

Or go back earlier to the pioneers like Stephenson of the steam engine, which drove us to new depths – coal-mines – and new places, via trains.  

Possibly, if there is a lesson to take away from Oppenheimer, it is that quite clever people produce quite lethal things in the pursuit of some just cause. Yet that cause can be yoked into being something that is destructive and not at all useful to a future world.  

So who would you make your film about if it were an Oppenheimer not of nuclear proliferation, but of the destructive power of carbon emissions? Who was the greatest emitter who deserves the biggest bang of a Hollywood film about him?  

Difficult – there are so many creators of coal machines and products. So many oil industry products. Plastic out of coal and oil. Thousands beavering away and making goods that leave a nasty taste in the mouth of the planet, but bring a product to our table for consumption.  

Perhaps Adam Smith would be the boy, he who created a kind of rule book for capitalism to function by. To explain markets and the division of labour so that capitalists could check if, in their myriad ways, they were prioritising profit before climate, or before the world’s wellbeing.  

Perhaps Smith was the rallier of business first and foremost, although he did warn against the excess and improper use of people. Yes, a movie about Adam Smith, the supposed father of capitalism, Scottish-born in 1723, dying in 1790 and laying down the ground rules, or the philosophical justification, for capital’s expansion.  

And you could have all the big explosives you wanted. Of wars since the time he laid out his ideas, of the hot flowing steel and the vast factories and extraction industries. Even the smartphone – a distant child indeed of Adam Smith’s imagination.  

Even Oppenheimer himself could be described as a product of Smith’s imagination.  

Could all the modern works of the world and its fires and earthly delights be seen as a result of a Scottish thinker who helped orchestrate our current woes? What a movie that would be. A cast of thousands.  

But then, what about a movie that showcases those who can save us from our fate? Those who will rally to head off the even greater destruction of our future times? 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here 

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