Recently I watched Oppenheimer. So, apparently, has the World. Such is the suggestion of the media at least. Oppenheimer has unleashed an explosion (my apologies) of commentary. It is understandable. The picture is dense, sophisticated, and slick. Compared to the slop we are usually fed, a film of substance is refreshing.
However, a film is not a theme. A theme does not make a character, a plot, or a story. In these respects, Mr. Nolan’s latest project is troubled. Dull in some regards, and cold in others, Oppenheimer engenders a grand sublimity, bringing light to bear on the insignificance of Man and the vastness of the Universe.
But this is not a review.
At the moment I am more interested in commenting on the commentary.
For some of the more conspiratorial on the right – not to name any names – the release of a sophisticated blockbuster is an opportunity to ask the leading question: ‘Why did the elites release and promote this film?’ The framing is not subtle.
Nor is the cast of the mind who asked the question. Elites set broad policies. They need to debase themselves with the minutiae of the institutions they control.
The levers pull like this, using ESG as an example: Larry Fink institutes ESG; ESG’s precepts pressurize businesses; some businesses implement ESG’s precepts wholesale, some reluctantly, and some not at all. The establishment favors the former, and the latter is criticized.
The central concept of ESG is to coerce businesses into enforcing progressive ideology throughout their corporate structures. Those who do not, the mechanism supposes, will be disadvantaged. This is typical of modern elite policy, who rule by soft power. They do not, as a rule, curate every media project as it is created.
Saying this, an elite of sorts influenced Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan himself. He is not Bill Gates or George Soros but remains an influential figure in Hollywood. His motion pictures have generated at least five billion dollars and have – perhaps more importantly – enhanced their prestige.
Mr. Nolan is a heavyweight; The Dark Knight alone ensures his legacy. Yet he is no titan, at least within the murky, insular political corners of filmmaking. His pictures whiff of the political right; they exist in that crossroads of violence and harsh morality the left seeks to banish from the mainstream. If elite control were absolute, rather than coercive, The Dark Knight trilogy, regardless of Mr. Nolan’s intentions, would have never been made.
I suspect the Covid pandemic was the beginning of Mr. Nolan’s personal motivation behind the picture. The idea of a biological apocalypse, perhaps, cast his mind back to other, alternative doomsday scenarios already crystallized in our world outlook. Supporting this supposition is the portrayal of Oppenheimer himself as a lonely figure – mirroring the loneliness we shared not too long ago, cut off in our household islands.
Oppenheimer’s cold mien also mirrors the logic of the theory his project birthed: MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction, is a concept that has penetrated our culture so deeply that I need not explain it. Only the antiquity of its origin is unfamiliar.
As far back as 1862, Richard Gatling posited his namesake firearm as a solution to war. Alfred Nobel speculated the same as he invented dynamite. The practical implementation of MAD was completed in 1959 with the launch of the USS George Washington in 1959, ensuring a nuclear-armed portion of the United States would survive a first strike by the Soviet Union.
Washington’s second strike would destroy the world.
Thus for decades, we imagined the world ending with a bang, though more recently we have summoned the specter of God’s wrath – incarnate in the weather – and even more recently the silent killer of microbiology. Y2K fits somewhere between them all.
It is intriguing to note this succession of eschatological horrors. In the past, the fear of the End Times only arose at moments of great stress, caused by catastrophic events, or dread-inducing signs. The fall of Rome and Constantinople to name two of the former; the dates 1000 and 1033 AD to recall the latter.
In the wake of humanity’s continued survival after these after moments, popular fear thereafter subsided and the archetypical millenarian nightmare receded to the subconscious.
This pattern of rising and receding terror has not replicated itself in the modern day. The educated, media-consuming modern lives in a perpetual, quiet fear which, rather than rising and falling, reaches tepid crescendos whose emotional stress leaks into politics.
To blame for this is a phenomenon that might be called cultural fossilization. The all-seeing camera lens has calcified the spirit of every decade since the Second World War. History is the past no longer; and fear, the strongest of emotions, lingers in each frame of every nuclear-themed picture from Doctor Zhivago to Oppenheimer. This is to say nothing of newspaper articles, every news piece, and – most importantly – every gossiping conversation between housewives and men in pubs.
In turn, as one might imagine, we are now struggling to comprehend the vast disunity of our inherited culture. Each generational attitude fights tooth and nail for hegemony, constructing and betraying alliances as necessary. Worse, this battle rages inside each of us, as we have all integrated into ourselves the spirit of each generation. This consequence of cultural fossilization might be termed cultural overburden.
Even the death of the Internet and the broader breakdown of international communication would not entirely solve this burden by virtue of its psychological underpinning. We can only hope that the unworthy artifacts of recent cultural history are slowly ejected from the public consciousness, leaving the true, good, and beautiful behind.
Back in the material universe, America, Russia, Britain, France, and China all possess nuclear weapons enough to annihilate the world many times over. No one has dared use them. How rational is the fear of nuclear war? It is certainly a frightful concept; vast detonations killing millions instantly, firestorms burning countries, dense clouds of smoke turning the world to twilight for years unbroken.
Yet still, we all feel that sensation, that shared prophecy; war is coming. If not nuclear, then what? And how could a significant war begin if the potential major players are too frightened of each other pressing the button?
The Russia-Ukraine conflict provides the first stage of the answer. This is a proxy war beyond all proxy wars. NATO overlordship of Volodymyr Zelensky’s regime is almost undisguised like Gary in Team America gluing pubic hair to his face to become ‘Hakmed’ (how’s that for cultural overburdening).
Russians know what America is doing. America knows what Russia is doing. America knows that Russia knows what it is doing… and vice versa. Neither is seriously considering pushing the button – because pushing the button isn’t winning, it’s losing. There is no victory in the ashes.
In this framework, is it difficult to imagine a scenario in which a proxy war slowly slips into conventional war, without either side recognizing the emerging conflict until it is already live? For instance, imagine a war breaking out in South America or Africa, with NATO taking one side and the Russian-Chinese alliance on the other. Beginning with weapon shipments, each side slowly escalates its aid to achieve victory. Tactical air support, then military training, then mercenary support, then artillery support…
And eventually, Russians and Americans fire on each other in some distant place, and no one thinks to fire a nuclear warhead – officially, it is still a proxy war. That first moment would be the most dangerous – yet after it is gone, MAD is too. Only if a nuclear nation were to face total defeat would the issue once more arise.
One concern yet remains. The serious chink in this theory, the man who has loomed over this article like an overweight Frankenstein’s monster (not cultural overburden this time!) is Kim-Jong Un.
And he is mad, isn’t he?