Charged with hindsight and consequence, the origin stories of landmark inventions make up, at this point, a genre of their own (e.g. The Imitation Game, The Social Network, and Hidden Figures). Any film that attends to a STEM breakthrough in particular has to deal with a daunting problem: how do you dramatize an esoteric subject for a general audience?
The STEM movie of the summer, Oppenheimer, seems to decide early on that its audience cannot understand physics, much less evaluate its protagonist’s skill as a physicist. Instead, Oppenheimer’s intelligence is asserted by way of what I can only classify as weird flexes: reading the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit mid-coitus, or giving a lecture in Dutch, later telling a colleague that he had learned the language in six weeks for the occasion. That there are no subtitles during his lecture, that the formulas he writes on chalkboards are shot out of focus and garnished with music, conveys the degree to which the audience is asked to believe in Oppenheimer’s competence but not to worry over the particulars—the particulars, which for me, lay the foundation of pleasure in any great film about craft.
A craft movie, as I’ll refer to them here, is a drama about a person who wants to be great at their trade. Sports movies and workplace movies fit into this category, as would a movie following an artist, chef, dressmaker, musician, hitman, ballerina, or stripper, so long as the work itself is central to the plot. The best craft movies replicate the pleasures of learning a craft yourself. You become conversant with a new world. You begin to recognize its values and customs.Oppenheimer seems to decide early on that its audience cannot understand physics, much less evaluate its protagonist’s skill as a physicist.
Take Whiplash (2014), in which the craft is drumming in a jazz band. The film teaches you to pay attention to tempo, to understand tempo as a contract between the conductor and the drummer. We know it is important because of the way the conductor (J.K. Simmons) will start and stop rehearsal, over and over, until Andrew (Miles Teller) has the tempo just right. Is Andrew playing at the conductor’s tempo? When Andrew’s tempo is off, the conductor tends to throw a cymbal at his head, so we know what the problem is, even if we lack rhythm. Eventually, all the conductor has to do is look Andrew’s way with a certain wild spark in his eye, and we know his tempo is off.
The immersive promise of a craft movie is realized to great effect in the last ten or so minutes of Whiplash, during a high-stakes performance. Andrew goes rogue. He does not follow the conductor’s tempo. The wild spark appears in the conductor’s eyes, but the conductor doesn’t yell because this is a performance, not a rehearsal. There’s something erotic about it, this not being able to yell. “I’ll cue you in,” says Andrew to a string bass player. “I’ll cue you,” he says to the conductor, reversing their usual power dynamic. We hear the song “Caravan,” which we have only heard halted, in segments. We hear it now in full, and underneath it we hear the stored energy of all those halted run-throughs, expressed at last. The conductor hovers over Andrew, nodding, affirming, beginning once more to take charge of the show. Power is seized and surrendered, and all the while the drumming doesn’t stop. For ten—full—minutes.
This is what I love about a craft movie. That by the end of it, I can watch someone drum for ten minutes and it comes to mean all of that. I have rehearsed for the final performance, too. What would this scene have meant had the film not prepared me to understand its significance?
The latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan is a craft movie insofar as its central drama involves talent, work, and the pursuit of greatness, but it doesn’t leave me feeling like I have been brought into the fold. Most notably, I don’t feel prepared, or even invited, to evaluate J. Robert Oppenheimer as being uniquely capable at physics. Instead, I am handed other people’s evaluations of him and asked to accept them at face value. From the outset, the film proclaims Oppenheimer’s status as Promethean, leaving me, as a viewer, with nowhere to go, little to determine.The success of a movie like Moneyball suggests that audiences not only can tolerate, but might enjoy, romp in the weeds.
Oppenheimer is not the first movie about a man in STEM to hurry through the technical stuff. As Stuart Jeffries observed for The Guardian in 2016, math movies often have “a black hole where the maths should be.” So extensive are the precedents that Oppenheimer is not even the first movie with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck to fit this bill. Watching Oppenheimer, Good Will Hunting springs to mind, in which Damon’s Will Hunting develops his skills as a mathematician, yet his most memorable show of prowess, the one that leads his friend Morgan (Affleck) to boast—“My boy’s wicked smart”—concerns not math but early American history, as if expertise in one, conceivably more accessible field of study can stand in for another.
It may seem unfair to compare music with a subject like physics or math. Still, within any subject, there is an art to selecting how much and what to explain.
I have been given a working knowledge of several trades, some of them out of my wheelhouse, through media that is deliberate about unpacking craft. Though the musicians in Whiplash play “double time swing,” I’m neither expected to understand swing nor left out of the story because I don’t. (Asked to define swing, Cootie Williams, jazz trumpeter and Duke Ellington collaborator once said, “Define it? I’d rather tackle Einstein’s theory!”) Instead, tempo, a more accessible concept, serves as the story’s battleground. Watching I, Tonya, I’m taught to fixate on the triple axel, a move defined by Tonya’s mom (Allison Janney) and coach (Julianne Nicholson). “You skate backward, and then take off from a forward position on your left leg and then somehow fuckin’ hurl yourself blindly like three-and-a-half rotations like you’re light as shit . . . land on the opposite foot on the back, outside edge of razor-thin blade.” When Tonya first completes a triple axel in competition, I know to watch because of the announcer’s commentary, and I get to see it a second time, replayed in slow motion. This triple axel tunnel vision, which establishes Tonya’s potential as a figure skater, makes the rest of her story all the more tragic.
These films do not explain everything about their respective crafts. It isn’t the job of a narrative to do so, nor is there time, even if they wanted to, in under three hours. Yet, even understanding the craft in terms of just one criterion, I am able to care deeply. These films, selective and concentrated, teach you a limited lexicon and draw your attention to the relevant context of the hero (Andrew wants to be like Buddy Rich; Tonya wants to beat Nancy Kerrigan).
As is the case with any biopic or adaptation, Oppenheimer makes me curious about the logic governing Nolan’s choices of what’s left out and what goes in. A lot of names and terms populate the movie’s first act: quantum physics, fission, fusion, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman. (A “Sea of Scientists and Soldiers,” Vulture called it.) It leaves me both tired and disoriented, as though I have just read aloud the complete list of rules to a board game but am no closer to understanding how the game is played. We see, sporadically, through Oppie’s point of view, vibrating slinkies that represent the idea of energy. We watch him throw stemware into the corner of his room, where it breaks on the floor. I think we are meant to think something like, “Ah, yes. Physics.” Beyond that, the line between the slinkies and the glass and the bomb remains tenuous, associative at best.Perhaps the intention is to overwhelm, to make the viewer feel small and unable to keep pace with the person whom the movie, and its source material, casts as Prometheus.
Perhaps the intention is to overwhelm, to make the viewer feel small and unable to keep pace with the person whom the movie, and its source material, casts as Prometheus. I find it uncomfortable to be forced into a posture of reverence toward a man whose invention, regardless of its theoretical impact, killed hundreds of thousands of human beings. I’d rather be trusted to make up my own mind.
When it comes to STEM in film, there can be drama in the minutiae. Moneyball, which manages to simultaneously be a STEM movie and a sports movie, offers a good example. The problem that Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) are trying to solve using statistics is made known to the viewer in unambiguous terms; Beane says of his poorly funded team, the Oakland Athletics, “[T]here are rich teams, and there are poor teams, and then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” This film does include a whiteboard full of numbers, but Brand stands next to his numbers and explains what they are: the number of games the team must win, and the number of runs they must score in order to do so. We scroll through spreadsheets showing players scored along columns like BA (batting average) or CS (caught stealing), and get eyes on the source material, the statistician Bill James’s formula for “Runs Created,” the aggregate metric Brand wants to use “to find value in players that nobody else can see.” Thus, we are showered in numbers, but, critically, we know what kind of numbers they are. What a loss it would have been to bypass this moment. The success of a movie like Moneyball suggests that audiences not only can tolerate, but might enjoy, romp in the weeds.
In the case of Oppenheimer, the one salient physics idea we need to hold onto is already there, within the noise: the chain reaction. As Oppenheimer tells Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), “When we detonate an atomic device, we might start a chain reaction that destroys the world.” This “troubling possibility” adds to the already high stakes of the Trinity explosion.
The chain reaction concept is doubly pertinent as a way to situate the Manhattan Project in the fuller context of history. Where does Oppenheimer’s culpability start and end? Is he a demigod, or is he a domino? To what degree was the bomb inevitable, with or without him, after the atom split? The presence of retired Einstein, who says, “Now it’s your turn to deal with the consequences of your achievement,” makes the frame of the story more cyclical and expansive.
Oppenheimer chafes when it uses scientific settings only as texture, when its digressions lean irrelevant, hagiographic, and intentionally showy. But when Oppenheimer lets us in on the work itself, when it lets us assess the goals, risks, and costs of the Manhattan Project, and with that knowledge, reach our own conclusions about the person in charge (that is, if are able to tune out the voices calling him things like “actually important” or “a prophet”)—that’s when the movie finds its groove. When Oppenheimer maps out a town in Los Alamos to be populated by scientists; when, using glass jars of marbles, he visualizes the amounts of uranium and plutonium that have been produced thus far; when, nonchalant, he explains the possibility of total atmospheric ignition: these moments work because of what they accentuate: the collision of the ego and the actual job.
Feynman, who is known for his work at Los Alamos as well as his contributions to the fields of quantum computing and nanotechnology, writes, “[A] kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science is seen by so few others, by few poets and, therefore, by even fewer more ordinary people.” It is this visionary capacity that excites me most about craft movies and especially STEM movies. I want such a film to initiate me, if only for a few hours, into another way of reading the world.