Reviews of Films I Haven’t Seen: The Barbie Movie and Oppenheimer

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of reviews of films I have not seen. It may seem presumptuous to offer reviews of films I haven’t watched, but I am taking inspiration from the great Russell Baker, who remarked of Apocalypse Now in 1979, “It is incredible. It is breathtaking and awe‐inspiring. Sensitive, moving and inspired, it is beautiful, brilliant, acute, brooding, magnificent, spectacular and stupendous, but also wise, witty, a monument to human dignity, an eternal testament to man’s inhumanity to man. I look forward to seeing it someday.”

Kidding aside, Baker was onto something. You can understand the essence of a film and its relevance to American life just by the hype, advertising, and critical response it engenders. You don’t actually have to watch it to get all of that. If anything, the film itself is a distraction from its associated cultural phenomena. To badly mangle Marshall McLuhan, who I fear is standing behind a nearby sign, the movie is the message. Besides, I have an excuse. As an orthodox Jew, I had to sign a contract with my kids’ school that I would neither have a TV in the house nor watch movies.

Today, I want to talk about two major recent releases: The Barbie Movie and Oppenheimer. On the surface, they do not seem similar. One is about an odd-looking American icon that’s caused untold suffering for millions of people. The other is about a doll. Going deeper, the two films share a number of common themes, even if they are expressed radically differently.

Both films offer interpretative takes on uniquely American stories. Only in America could a doll that embodies an unattainable beauty ideal become a decades-long cultural touchstone and multi-billion-dollar business. Barbie is the tall, thin, blond American icon of femininity that no actual woman can ever be. It’s a toy that girls love, and many mature women hate, perhaps because they once loved Barbie so much.

The fact that Ruth Handler figured out that there was a business in this concept is a testament to her brilliance as an entrepreneur. She embodies a remarkable American success story. So does Robert Oppenheimer.

Like Ruth Handler, Robert Oppenheimer was the child of Jewish immigrants. Perhaps due to this outsider status, that endless American/Not American tension that drives so many first-generation Jewish Americans, he was ideally poised to lead the world’s most famous “think outside the box” science project.

Oppenheimer’s creation, the atomic bomb, has certain things in common with the Barbie doll. Like the doll that is to be enjoyed but not emulated, the bomb was presented as a weapon that should exist, but never be used. It’s this paradox that underscores the absurdity of the Strategic Air Command’s motto: “Peace is our profession.” Yes, a military unit with enough explosive power to blow up the world a dozen times was all about peace. Barbie, a doll that inspires eating disorders and body dysphoria, is a little girl’s best friend. The bomb is also an enduring multi-billion-dollar industry.

Both films thus mine the rich vein of American duality. We are the envy of the world, but we are also one of the only countries that can unquestionably destroy the world. Americans love their Barbies, but they also understand that her pink dream world is an escape from life’s more depressing realities. Robert Oppenheimer was hailed as a genius and a hero, until he was destroyed by people who found it politically expedient to do so—an experience that is the hallmark of America’s distinctive talent for building, and then tearing down, people in public life.

Oppenheimer offers a reminder that Americans were also once capable of real greatness. (As opposed to some elusive, ill-defined greatness that many Americans feel a need to return to.) Setting aside its destructive outcome, the Manhattan Project was one of the most remarkable achievements in science and engineering the world has ever seen. Nothing occurring today can even come close, with the world’s most brilliant scientists coming together to solve a seemingly impossible problem in record time. If only we could do the same now with a challenge like climate change.

Barbie offers a reminder that Americans can and should enjoy a great deal of culture unity. Barbie’s world is pink, not red or blue. Every American girl wants a Barbie doll, regardless of whether her parents are issuing death threats against drag queens who read stories at the public library. Maybe if we could focus on what we have in common, versus what drives us apart, the country could calm down a little and get off the track to self-destruction that it’s on.

Both films also demonstrate that the country still likes itself a good movie. There is room in the marketplace for well-made movies that take on serious subjects, or which offer serious ideas in the guise of bubbly entertainment. We should keep this in mind as writers and actors strike for a fair deal. Technology will never replace the kind of talent that these films are putting on display.