Paulo Rebêlo | August 2023 | Medium
A short synopsis of Oppenheimer (2023) fits into a short sentence: three hours of refined human stupidity.
When military personnel or political stakeholders come into play, the dialogues are so absurd that they seem like fiction. Only problem is, as it turns out, it’s all very real.
We’re dealing with the quintessence of foolishness, the epitome of ignorance. Here’s a mental exercise: try to imagine a public debate between Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, and the late Silvio Berlusconi. You’d listen, but you wouldn’t believe what you’d be hearing.
Don’t get me wrong about Oppenheimer. The production is impeccable, the film is technically perfect, with beautiful cinematography and top-notch actors. An investment of millions in the finest details.
For those who don’t like or follow science and history, the movie might be a bit tedious due to excessive dialogue and attempts at didactic explanations. However, for those who like or follow it, well… the result seems even worse. From a knowledge perspective, Oppenheimer is an atomic-sized boredom. Because it’s a lot of old news presented as a revelation.
Oppenheimer’s boredom comes from trying to “reveal” an already well-known time in History without bringing anything new or unusual, besides the millions of dollars invested in production and cast. I think the true surprise comes only when the movie ends: observing how many people leave the room in awe with the story, astonished at what they’ve just watched, as if it was a great revelation offered by the seventh art.
The Western version of the entire history of the atomic bomb has been studied for 80 years. Circumstances and contexts have been thoroughly examined for at least five decades. Oppenheimer’s script is entirely based on an (excellent) book that is already 18 years old. The book “American Prometheus” was published in 2005, won the Pulitzer Prize and topped “The New York Times Bestseller” list for several weeks. These are not humble credentials or obscure sources of knowledge, like “yo, we found a lost notebook” or “hey, we discovered unpublished documents in an abandoned bunker.”
Nevertheless, nobody needs to read the book (not easy, 700 pages) precisely because, even in 2005, there was nothing new to delve into or present, apart from (mostly insignificant) nuances of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s personal life, his family, friends, and many extramarital affairs. In the movie, of course, these issues are only glanced at, otherwise three hours would turn into three days.
It’s different, for example, from another event that has also been widely studied and portrayed in cinema and literature: the assassination of JFK. To this day, new clues, documents, characters, or at least new hallucinogenic conspiracy theories are still being discovered to write new books and make new films. Because no one knows exactly the details; it’s not a science. And it’s not a coincidence, by the way, that JFK is subtly mentioned in Oppenheimer, opening another gap for conspiracy theories.
Homo quasi sapiens
Oppenheimer opened my eyes to a recurring frustration. Despite finding it boring as hell, I loved watching the movie. It helped me with a sort of mind bug that restlessly haunts me at night.
For ages we’ve been told that knowledge is power, right? That’s the theory. In real life, or at least in most people’s real life, we quickly realize this is BS. In fact, the opposite is generally true. Pay close attention to who holds power and who reaches power. Evaluate their knowledge.
Indeed, it’s true there is a lot of arrogance disguised as knowledge, but you’ll need knowledge to identify that, wouldn’t you?
Years ago, trying to understand a bit more about human behavior, I came across some statements that seemed arrogant at the time: knowledge is a boredom generator. And this boredom usually comes in two interdependent layers: either you become a boring person, or other people will always seem boring to you.
I got quite frustrated because I’ve always thought the exact opposite. I am eager for new knowledge. It may not bring power in the popular sense of the word, sure, but only knowledge allows you to have power over your own actions. It’s psychologically liberating. But Oppenheimer’s boredom helped me finally understand what these philosophizing intellectuals meant by the boredom generator. Precisely: you spend three hours watching something that has been discussed, debated, processed, and analyzed for 80 years, but it’s now presented as a triumph, novelty, or innovation, a revolutionary masterpiece, and a great historical revelation that only “true cinema” could bring, just to mention two common claims I’ve recently read.
Oppenheimer reminded me a lot of the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, a global bestseller from 2015 that still sells like candy. After reading Sapiens, I felt quite foolish for not understanding the global fuss about the “masterpiece”. Quick note: the original version of Sapiens in Hebrew is from 2011.
Sapiens is what we used to call a “summary’s summary” back in the day. A summary within a summary.
It’s the history of mankind in an extremely well-written and didactic version, in accessible language to all ages and intellects, but with so many shortcuts and omissions that ignore all the subtleties, incongruities and inconsistencies of human history to create a book that you can read in three lazy nights.
Sapiens is just one example among hundreds, sure, it’s not the author’s fault and I believe (out of naivety or lack of knowledge) it’s not intentional. In fact, I consider the title to be rather honest: ‘Sapiens, a brief history of humankind’. A more accurate title would be Sapiens, a whole chunk of shortcuts to an extremely brief history of humankind.
Like Oppenheimer, Sapiens brings zero revelations, zero questions, zero presentations of new perspectives, prisms, or interpretations of everything that is already known so damn well. Among the so-called “summaries within a summary” Sapiens feels great because the author is a highly skilled writer (and translator). You’d think you’ve learned something, but you haven’t even scratched the surface.
Again, boring as hell.
about the photo
Roof at Central European University.
Budapest, Hungary. August 2006.
Sony a100 | 1/80 sec | f/8 | ISO 100 | 18mm