.Barbie vs. The Bomb

A pink geyser of money (Barbie) and the story of the A-bomb’s father (Oppenheimer)

So intense has been the publicity/advertising run-up to the Warner/Mattel candy-mobile Barbie that less wary members of its prospective audience may wonder what makes it worth the hype. What’s so special about a loud, energetic, ultra-colorful summer movie devoted to a plaything for girls (and of course, boys too) that’s been in toy stores since 1959? 

Director Gerwig, co-writer Noah Baumbach, actor Margot Robbie, the film’s producers and platoons of flacks have devoted reams of copy and an avalanche of images to this particular product, clogging up the internet and media outlets so thoroughly that a visitor from another planet – a Barbie-free planet – might be convinced that nothing else taking place on Earth is half as important. 

The significant factor that presumably separates Barbie from the similarly heavily merchandised antics of Marvel/DC comics super-heroes, Transformers, Toy Story holdovers, rubbery mega-monsters and horny hotrods is that the thing herself, Barbie, seems to be suffering from a crisis of confidence, a psychological/philosophical predicament. “What does it all mean?” wonders the insanely happy, gadget-and-wardrobe crazy, anatomically impossible, best-selling figurine. 

Despite her never having to drink a glass of water or take a shower, a few cracks are starting to show in Barbie’s sunny, carefree demeanor. In common with thousands of fictional protagonists before her, the otherwise flawless blond (Robbie) is plagued by doubt. She even admits to herself a fear of death. None of the other inhabitants of Barbie Land offer our doll any remedy.

The Barbies – they’re all named Barbie – still throng to the beach en masse and have a slumber party every night, and Ken (Ryan Gosling), the ur-type conspicuous-consumer male designated as “Barbie’s boyfriend,” is shrink-wrapped in harmless machismo. All his fantasies revolve around horses and a man cave called the Mojo Dojo Casa House, mostly because he and Barbie have never had sex. Barbie is left alone with only her insecurity to keep her company.

On the way to her epiphany, though, Barbie discovers unexpected kindred spirits, among them harried mom Gloria (America Ferrara), Gloria’s wised-up teenage daughter (Ariana Greenblatt) and surprisingly, Ruth (Rhea Perlman), a character modeled on the creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler. These grounded avatars awaken suppressed feelings – the suppression was designed into her by the Mattel CEO (a frothing Will Ferrell) – that surge to the surface in Barbie’s key dialogue scene. It’s a show-stopper, a rousing declaration of her humanity.

But even that mission statement rings a little hollow in the face of the bumptious spectacle of life in Barbie Land. Barbie’s spiritual odyssey – featuring a few political barbs on the subject of equal rights – is a bit corny, especially when pasted into the gaudy explosion of plastic “fun” all around her. Gerwig fans would probably like to believe that if she really had her way, the frantic carnival would be dialed down to make room for Barbie’s “awakening,” which is very basic and personal. 

Gerwig and Baumbach are intelligent creators. They’ll recover from this. And Mattel will most certainly move millions of units behind the manic spritz. But this film is not going to either reassure curious audiences about the facts of life, nor entertain casual viewers trying to connect the dots between Robbie’s live-wire sensuality and the apologetic tone of the movie’s denouement. Barbie was doomed from the start. 

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a fine excuse to study the workings of power in the U.S. Nuclear physicist Oppenheimer is generally credited with orchestrating the development of the first atomic bombs, which were deployed in air raids against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, killing some 220,000 men, women and children and effectively ending World War II. But how much more about the story does a movie audience want or need to know? 

Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer of the drama Oppenheimer, opens the historical tale in the late stages of the war. The government is in a hurry to develop a nuclear weapon before the Nazi Germans do, and brilliant scientist Oppenheimer is drafted into the effort despite his apparent conflicting convictions. As a former communist sympathizer and a Jew, Oppenheimer — in a magnetic performance by Cillian Murphy – is already a question mark for the military brass and jingoistic politicians. But he’s still America’s foremost physicist, and he chooses Los Alamos, New Mexico as the headquarters of the new Manhattan Project for weapon development. 

“Oppy” is a bit of a romantic dreamer in addition to being a genius. His love life is complicated – his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) is weary of enduring the presence of the scientist’s longtime leftwing girlfriend, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) – and his professional career is a minefield of academic argument and intellectual snobbery. Oppenheimer’s chief detractor is government think-tank wonk Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., almost unrecognizable in makeup), forever ready to challenge his rival’s leadership.

And then there’s the task of getting a bunch of quirky, insecure eggheads to work as a team. The film’s hectic pace, goaded along by Ludwig Göransson’s penetrating string music score, keeps Nolan’s three-hour screen saga moving in high gear. It’s a pleasure to see a movie about intelligent people.

In addition to the pressures of his national security task, nutty professor Oppenheimer has an inner dimension that’s as morally complicated as it is photogenic. In his quiet moments, which are many, his thoughts drift off into classic Hindu religious texts, particularly the Bhagavad-Gita, which he reads in the original Sanskrit. As his doubts multiply amid mounting political and military pressure, so do Oppenheimer’s moral qualms about unleashing the “destroyer of worlds.”

In one especially frightful scene, he faces an auditorium of howling citizens overjoyed that “his” A-bomb has punished the Japanese. All he can think about is the loss of life, and the inescapable realization that he has let loose a terrible curse on humanity. The crowd is fixated on vengeance. Meanwhile, fake-jovial President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman, always prepared to disappear into a character role) instantly recognizes that Oppenheimer is not his type of Cold Warrior – a commie peacenik who thinks too much. 

Explicit in Oppenheimer’s point of view is the idea that heading off the threat of nuclear annihilation should be the prime determinant of America’s Cold War policy, an opinion decidedly not shared by the country’s leadership. And so Oppenheimer must pay the price for acquiescing to the hardball military-industrial playbook in the first place. His assigned role has its limits even when his conscience does not, and he is ultimately banished from the establishment amid the postwar Red Scare.

Oppenheimer, a film energized by the life-and-death consequences the scientist deals with every day for years, is a bracing argument in favor of anti-war activism that paradoxically uses the bomb’s awesome firestorm as a spectacularly ironic punctuation mark. Nolan’s film is some degree of masterpiece.

In theaters

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