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'Oppenheimer' Conjures Comparisons to Stone's 'JFK' 4 min read

'Oppenheimer' Conjures Comparisons to Stone's 'JFK'

Both three-hour epics are masterpieces and the visions of singular filmmakers.

By Cary Littlejohn

One of the best parts of the #barbenheimer phenomenon has been the countless articles and podcasts discussing the films. I've consumed more on the Oppenheimer side of the equation thus far, and I've repeatedly heard that the film would be a nice double-feature with Oliver Stone's 1991 classic JFK.

I couldn't remember lots of details from JFK. And after revisiting the film, it was obvious why. It's one of the most exposition-heavy films you're likely to encounter, an unrelenting download for almost the entirety of its three-hour runtime. So many details and tidbits of information that mean something to the characters, who've been steeped in the case, but quite a lot to take in for the average viewer.

Oppenheimer doesn't get bogged down with, say, the minute details of creating an atomic weapon. Its three-hour runtime is taken up by the process of building the thing, not its science, and then the political aftermath in Oppenheimer's life. Through masterful editing, the film flies through its runtime with a layered temporal structure, a la Nolan's other World War II masterpiece, Dunkirk.

The biggest similarity between the two is the subjective feelings of its main characters. It's their world, and we're just dipping in for a little bit.

Oppenheimer is a man's conflicted mission, to create a weapon to end not just the current war but hopefully all wars, the struggle to make something where there was nothing before, and then grappling with the devastating effects. JFK is a nation's angst and uncertainty and sadness, all rolled into one, and expressed through a singular avatar, a New Orleans district attorney.

After watching JFK, I listened to The Rewatchables podcast, and it added so much to the viewing experience. The discussion about what mattered in the storytelling (and what didn't) and how it was approached by Stone was genuinely interesting conversation when it comes to the creative process.

‘JFK’ With Bill Simmons, Chris Ryan, Sean Fennessey, and Brian Koppelman - The Rewatchables
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, Chris Ryan, and Sean Fennessey are joined by Brian Koppelman to discuss a movie that is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. We celebrate the 30th anniversary of Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK,’ starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, and Joe Pesci. Produce…

They touched on the absolutely amazing performances (all too brief) from Kevin Bacon and John Candy. They both came out of the bullpen throwing 101.

But mostly they have long, digressive conversations about the feeling that Stone captured, ripped from his own trauma in the Vietnam War. It's a hodgepodge of theories, held together just barely (and arguably not at all most of time), but, my god, it's compelling. Bill Simmons at one point said, "It's like if Alex Jones had Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic talent."

It reminded me of the Letterboxd review I almost left, which was: "The Loose Change guy wishes he had this much juice, this much vision, this much scope," harkening back to the conspiratorial artifact that defined my college experience.

The conversation at one point turned to Roger Ebert's review, and I pulled out my new Kindle and opened my copy of his The Great Movies. After describing how he was chastised by none less than Walter Cronkite for his favorable review, Ebert went on to say this:

I have no doubt Cronkite was correct, from his point of view. But I am a film critic and my assignment is different than his. He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions. My notion is that JFK is no more or less factual than Stone's Nixon—or Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Amistad, Out of Africa, My Dog Skip, or any other movie based on "real life." All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made, and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth. Given that standard, JFK is a masterpiece.