Two months ago, I watched a Hollywood Reporter Q+A with some of the best directors of the last 20 years. The directors were asked, “If you could put one scene in a time capsule for aliens so they could understand what cinema was all about, what scene would you select?”
Each director had their own response, but two had personal connections to the scenes they selected. Danny Boyle, director of ‘Steve Jobs,’ picked the moment in “A Space Odyssey” that depicts an ape’s use of bone as a weapon to smash a corpse’s skeleton and then quickly cuts to a space station. It was humankind’s first use of tools.
Tom Hooper, director of “Danish Girl,” picked a scene from ”Lawrence of Arabia” when one of the main characters blows out a match, leaving the screen in darkness. An instant later, we see the vast and blank Arabian desert right at sunrise. In the background, Maurice Jarre’s monumental score plays behind the main characters as the audience follows their silhouettes through a very wide shot across the desert, foreshadowing a great adventure ahead.
These two scenes were very different but had one thing in common: they only lasted a few seconds. Neither of these scenes involved epic fights or action sequences but were fleeting moments combining two unique pieces of imagery.
There are plenty of remarkable scenes that I have witnessed as a fan of movies, but as soon as I heard their impassioned descriptions of their favorite moments, I knew I couldn’t relate.
Meanwhile, I had been anticipating the release of “Oppenheimer” for years. My excitement for “Oppenheimer” mounted in the weeks leading up to the release when my favorite director, Christopher Nolan, told stories about making the biopic. Nolan said his depiction of Robert Oppenheimer’s ‘Trinity Test’ where he tested the atomic bomb was done without CGI. This anecdote put my brain into a pretzel heading into “Oppenheimer,” wondering how he was going to depict an atomic bomb without CGI successfully.
Nolan beautifully told the story of Oppenheimer’s early life in the first 90 minutes of the film, but as entertaining as the movie had been, nothing compared to the suspense and tension that was built during the Trinity Test sequence, in which the main characters had the stakes of a lifetime. Oppenheimer and top American scientists couldn’t rule out the bomb being a dud, or even worse, the ignition of the atmosphere and destruction of life on Earth.c
With the use of one of the greatest scores in recent cinema history and a promise of unforeseen visual effects, Nolan put audience members across the world on the edge of their seats over an event whose outcome was already known.
As the clock hit zero and the button for detonation was pressed, silence and bright orange light illuminated the screen. Oppenheimer’s bomb was very much not a dud. I forgot for a moment about Nolan’s visual effects, and like a great dream, I was simply in the moment. I, too, was a scientist in Los Alamos, witnessing the greatest display of power and destruction mankind had ever seen.
The silence breaks after a minute, with Oppenheimer’s iconic line, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The sound of the bomb finally traveled miles away to where the scientists were standing. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up at the loudest sound I’d ever heard in a theater.
Nolan’s promise was fulfilled: I could feel the gravity and consequence of Oppenheimer’s achievement. In five seconds, Nolan perfectly represented the conflict that defined the rest of Oppenheimer’s life and loomed over the next generations.
Oppenheimer brought nuclear physics to new heights with the atomic bomb, but he was partially responsible for the death of tens of thousands of innocent Japanese citizens. Even worse, Oppenheimer still couldn’t rule out the nightmare scenario for his creation: it would spark the end of humankind.
I drove home from the theater that night in silence. I spent the next week replaying Nolan’s juxtaposition of Oppenheimer’s fateful words with the sound of the atomic bomb before I realized what it meant from a cinematic sense. I could finally relate to what Hooper and Boyle were talking about: Oppenheimer’s biggest scene was the cinematic moment of my lifetime.
Bobby Gorbett is a senior studying journalism. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Bobby know by tweeting him @GorbettBobby.