The Big Picture
- Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer explores themes of unchecked bureaucracy, science run amuck, and the societal reckoning with a creation we were not ready for.
- The Social Network and Oppenheimer share similarities in their approach to history, highlighting the genius of their central figures and examining the detrimental effects of their creations.
- Both films employ similar framing devices and quick-cutting editing, creating a rhythm that enhances their thematic connection and reveals the consequences of their protagonists’ actions.
Christopher Nolan has made history with his acclaimed and commercially successful new film, Oppenheimer. While society has been stricken with Barbie Fever, and the dual release of Greta Gerwig‘s delightfully pink, crowd-pleasing hit alongside Nolan’s hefty, three-hour biopic has taken the world by storm, there is another great film to consider as a double feature with Oppenheimer. Nolan circles around themes of unchecked bureaucracy, science run amuck, and how the world reckons with a creation we were not ready for; one we maybe should never have been trusted with in the first place.
The atomic bomb is an extremely destructive and definitive example, but another far less dramatic but still Earth-shattering invention of the modern world has been social media. In 2010, David Fincher made a movie about Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, The Social Network. Although we did not understand the extent of Zuckerberg’s influence over our culture at the time, he has come to be known as a man who moved the Earth in his own way, making Fincher’s film a perfect pairing with Oppenheimer.
‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘The Social Network’ Deal With Similar Themes
Oppenheimer can be viewed through the lens of a specific approach to history known as the “Great Man Theory.” This concept posits that history can be understood largely as the stories of a few individuals who disrupted, reshaped, and created industries and movements which have guided our growth as a culture. The Social Network traverses similar ground, contextualizing the genius of Mark Zuckerberg as something which blossomed into an entirely new and unforeseen behemoth that became Facebook. The films almost feel as if they are in conversation with one another, with Oppenheimer being the answer to a question The Social Network asks about whether their particular subjects did something that was ultimately detrimental to our society.
Additionally, both films rely on a nearly identical story structure. This is an interesting connection as the thematic overlaps are apparent, but the movies are even framed similarly. This may feel like a more superficial connection, but the films being in rhythm with one another in this way makes their thematic connection even more evident.
‘The Social Network’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ Employ Similar Framing Devices
The Social Network is framed around two different depositions which are occurring at different periods of time. One involves Jesse Eisenberg‘s Mark Zuckerberg in a legal conflict with the Winklevoss twins, played by Armie Hammer, over the intellectual property theft of Facebook. The other involves Zuckerberg facing a suit from Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield, who claims Zuckerberg unlawfully diluted his shares of the company.
Oppenheimer follows two different proceedings by the US government involving Cillian Murphy‘s Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr.‘s Lewis Strauss. Oppenheimer meets with attorneys and goes through something of a trial of character as the Atomic Energy Commission considers whether to revoke his security clearance due to his left-leaning ideologies and anti-war sentiments. Strauss sits in a senate hearing which will confirm or deny his pending status as the Secretary of Commerce. These two perspectives are differentiated in the film through Oppenheimer’s being depicted in full color while the perspective of Strauss is shown in black and white.
Both films feature a lot of quick cutting across different character perspectives and timelines. Oppenheimer is masterfully edited by Jennifer Lame, and those who are familiar with Nolan’s work know that editing his films seems like no easy feat. Nolan likes to rely on non-linear storytelling in order to create a rhythm based more on thematic parallels than a conventional, sequential plot. It may feel harder to follow in the moment, but both of these films become more rewarding on a repeat viewing when audiences can better understand how every sequence is related.
What Do ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘The Social Network’ Tell Us About the “Great Man Theory?”
Nolan’s film offers a devastating look at a man whose greatness was weaponized into something which may have torn apart the fabric of our reality. The characters were unprepared for the consequences of what they were doing, and this is reckoned with directly in the film’s final hour, which has been criticized by some but is vital to understanding the internal fallout of Oppenheimer’s Promethean Act. Cillian Murphy’s powerful performance emphasizes a mental struggle to cope with the immense power of what he has done, a feeling which will linger forever.
Watching The Social Network when it was first released, audiences may have felt good about the position Zuckerberg finds himself in by the end of the movie. However, given how social media has grown into a seemingly untamable beast in the years since, the film leaves us with a lot more dread about the ramifications of Zuckerberg’s work. So much has shifted in the public consciousness about what Facebook means that even the film’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, has discussed making a sequel. Zuckerberg is positioned as something of a tragic hero, a character who, as Rashida Jones‘s Marylin Delpy says in the final moments of the film, is trying so hard to be the cutthroat industry killer that he knows he is not. Facebook’s influence on our political world, as well as its status as one of the largest advertising platforms in the world, has changed how many feel about the website and the man who created it. Maybe he is a killer after all.
The two films center on a singular figure who became an icon of their respective times. Oppenheimer was hailed a hero for his contributions to what many at the time considered a necessary end to a devastating war. Zuckerberg, as seen in the film itself, was portrayed as a bit of a rock star in the tech world, albeit an awkward one. Each movie leaves us in a place of reflection, where will these men go from here? What will they do with the influence they have garnered? Was their work worth all the collateral damage, both personal and on a broad scale? Time has changed and complicated the way we view both of these men, but they will no doubt go down in history as two of the “Great Men” who built the world as we know it for better or worse.
Perhaps great men did build the world, but Oppenheimer and The Social Network show us they can destroy it just as quickly.