As ‘Oppenheimer’ triumphs at the Oscars, we should ask how historical films frame our shared future

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Box office receipts for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer had already approached the billion-dollar mark worldwide before the 2024 Oscars ceremony.

To this financial success, along with film awards for Best Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, Oppenheimer garnered Nolan his first Academy Award for Best Picture.

In larger Academy Award history, this raises the tally for historical film wins to 52 over 96 competitions, according to research by film scholar Jonathan Stubbs and records at the Oscars website. There is a reason why people call big-budget historical films “Oscar bait.”

The glossy spectacle of this genre often brings attention to its makers. And yet, as I argue in my new book, Making History Move: Five Principles of the Historical Film,
because the genre has such an outsized effect on spectators and their sense of historical reality, it’s important to think about and understand how historical films are constructed.

With Oppenheimer having received so much commercial, critical and Academy success, we have an opportunity to think about critical criteria for viewing historical film — and what we are owed by historical filmmakers.

Highly influential medium

This genre of film represents much more than a bold quest to win the most sought-after prize at the most celebrated labour union awards in history. These films look to the past to offer us a story and argument in an effort to see ourselves in the present — and to make decisions toward the future.

The cast and crew of ‘Oppenheimer’ accept the Best Picture award during the Oscars, March 10, 2024.
(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

The genre combines a bookish status, conveying data and the sense of learning about the real world. Facts are served up with a wallop of emotion, excitement, adventure, terror and tears, to large and diverse audiences.

Although far from the most trusted medium for history, a recent large-scale survey of Americans published by the American Historical Association found that historical documentaries and films are the top two sources for information about the past for the public.

Unlike with pure fiction, when we watch a historical film (such as other 2024 Best Picture nominees, The Zone of Interest and Killers of the Flower Moon) we have the sense that we are seeing and hearing the past as we learn details about historical people and events.

These films speak to shared intergenerational and foundational experiences and legacies. We interpret historical films in ways that feel personal.

Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy, seen at far left and far right, took respective awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor in ‘Oppenheimer.’ With Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Emma Stone, who respectively won Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress, March 10, 2024.
(Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Partisan cultural bubbles

We are well into the experiment of the internet age when social media platforms sort people into tribes.

In the words of Renée DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, people are living in discrete spheres operating with distinct media, norms and frameworks of facts — their own “bespoke realities.”
These information silos spawn political convictions and perspectives that reinforce separate interpretations of present and past.

The result creates multiverses of meaning. We exist in partisan cultural bubbles, abandoning the tussle over an objective sense of the past in favour of
ever-expanding and contradictory subjective narratives.

As this happens, mass media platforms, like feature films, gain precedence. They cross boundaries impermeable to history books, museums, university lectures and social networks, speaking to a shared sense of identity at vast communal scales.

Just a movie?

Our ability to keep what we are watching at a critical distance is less robust than we may assume. Neuroscience illuminates a central aspect of film’s power to captivate, enchant and convince.

As professor of psychological and brain science Jeffrey Zacks writes in his book Flicker: Your Brain on the Movies, our brains operate by building neural models to understand our direct experience:

“[W]hether we experience events in real life, watch them in a movie or hear about them in a story, we build perceptual and memory representations in the same format [in our brains].”

He further explains that “it does not take extra work to put together experiences from a film with experiences from our lives to draw inferences. On the contrary, what takes extra work is to keep these different event representations separate.”

Now consider what happens when we make models of the past that we code as historical and non-fiction.

Man in a suit sitting at a long table with a microphone surrounded by other men in suits.
Cillian Murphy, centre, in a scene from ‘Oppenheimer.’
(Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

5 principles of historical films

For these reasons it is critical that we engage these films as more than mere diversion and amusement. Drawing on philosophy of history, literary and film theory, I have isolated five key principles to grasp and understand their construction, including:

  • narration, the stories they choose to tell and how they tell them;

  • evidence, the sources and use of data that represents the past;

  • reflexivity, the use of rupture techniques that pull the audience out of their immersion in the story, reminding them of the structuring process of history;

  • foreignness, the extent to which a film shows the richness of differences in ideas, beliefs, and material realities of the past, rather than creating a pantomime of contemporary people in fancy dress;

  • plurality, whether a film presents us a range or new perspectives on the meaning of events through their selection of people as characters.

These principles help us consider the creation, role and impact of historical films.




Read more:
Visiting the Trinity Site featured in ‘Oppenheimer’ is a sobering reminder of the horror of nuclear weapons


About envisioning futures

What makes historical films so compelling and so difficult is they have to fictionalize and imagine narratives around real people and events.

Filmmakers working with realities of the past are charged with making an interpretation of historical data — and a judgment about what it means to us today, in a way that engages and entertains us as spectators.

To be true to that contract, such films should not simply make things up. They need to strive for accuracy and objectivity, while performing a deft sleight of hand to enthrall and captivate.

On top of box office success and critical success, Oppenheimer does an impressive job of translating biographical source material into an engaging and thought-provoking feature film. As such, this functions as a clarion call in the present, sparking real questions about the meaning of the nuclear age today.



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