On the silver screen: Agony and ecstasy: “Maestro” and “Oppenheimer”

By Bill Simons

Now available on streaming platforms, “Maestro” and “Oppenheimer,” are two of the most acclaimed films of the past year, the latter receiving the 2024 Academy Award for Best Picture. They dramatize the agony and ecstasy of Jewish American geniuses. Both are cinematic biographies of 20th century titans who found their gifts a source of exhilaration and despair. “Maestro” highlights conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein. “Oppenheimer” confronts the conflicts that beset physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb.

Destined to rank as a cinematic classic, “Oppenheimer,” running three hours, tells an epic tale of a momentous milestone in human history – the unleashing of the universe’s primal power, as well as being an intimate story of love, friendship, betrayal and conflicted conscience. As the protagonist, Cillian Murphy conveys the painful intensity and fierce brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film, grounded in history, finds its source material in the opus biography of Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Given the importance of the film and the reputation of director Christopher Nolan, major stars enlisted to take supporting roles for less than their usual stipend. Casey Affleck, Emily Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Matthew Modine, Gary Oldman and Florence Pugh deliver memorable performances. 

Framed by the 1954 federal Personnel Security Board hearings, the film examines the major episodes in Oppenheimer’s life through non-linear scenes: his fascination with the explosive energy generated by a star as it compacts and dies; his unhappiness amongst the beakers and tubes of lab work at Cambridge; discovering his gift for theoretical physics and bringing it back to the United States; his involvement in leftist politics; his friendship and intimate romance with Communists, despite refusing to join the party; recruiting and leading the extraordinary team of scientists at Los Alamos, NM, that developed and tested the atomic bomb; his directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study; his great fame and prominence at mid-century; his becoming an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission; and his postwar opposition to developing a hydrogen bomb, while advocating for negotiations with the Soviets to place atomic energy under international controls. 

“Oppenheimer” is adamant that its protagonist was a loyal American, a patriot and supported use of the atomic bomb against Japan to avoid an invasion and thus save American and Japanese lives, as well as to frighten the world against any further use of such a destructive weapon. However, the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the specter of the bomb’s fearsome fireball haunted Oppenheimer, leading him to call for arms controls through diplomacy. To Albert Einstein, famed for the theory of relativity, Oppenheimer confided the terror of setting off a chain reaction that could consume the world. Twice, the film depicts Oppenheimer reciting Hindu text: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” President Harry Truman dismissed Oppenheimer as a “crybaby.” The movie argues persuasively that the personal vindictiveness of AEC Chair Lewis Strauss, Cold War tensions and the distortion of his politics led the Personnel Security Board to deny Oppenheimer renewal of his security clearance, depriving him future voice in the debate about nuclear weapons.

No reference is made to theological or institutional ties to Judaism in “Oppenheimer.” However, Oppenheimer says pointedly that it is his people the Nazis are taking to the concentration camps. And his pre-surrender impetus for committing to the Manhattan Project was to drop the atomic bomb on Germany. 

“Maestro” is not a musical – rather it employs a biographical canvas to explore the complex, loving, volatile and painful relationship between Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, a beautiful, accomplished, cultured actress. Though not religious, both were Jewish: Lenny (his preferred name) by parentage and upbringing, and Felicia by paternal lineage and conversion. 

Felicia went into the marriage knowing that Lenny was bisexual, but hoped his discretion and their shared love would leave enough of what she needed. For a time that worked. Both were good parents to their three children, shielding them from much of the drama. The love between Lenny and Felicia never died. However, enveloped by surreal, homoerotic fantasies, Lenny’s love for people knew no boundaries. 

In middle age, Lenny’s sexuality, as depicted in “Maestro,” was no longer circumspect. Bernstein’s sexuality even turned predatory in his seduction of the student conductor of his Young People’s Concerts. Increasingly dissipated, sometimes under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and suffering from emphysema that was worsened by constant smoking, Bernstein was tormented by his failure to meet the exalted expectations ignited by his bravura debut conducting the New York Philharmonic at age 25. Conducting the works of others had taken precedence over original compositions. In a “Maestro” scene of anger and disappointment, Felicia accuses Lenny of hiding behind depression and insomnia for not doing more with his genius. Finally, the couple separated, but when cancer ravaged Felicia, Lenny returned to share her final years. 

As their craft dictates, critics raise caveats. “Maestro,” given its focus on the Lenny-Felicia relationship and his sexuality, fails to give Bernstein’s music, which after all is the reason for his cultural and historical significance, sufficient attention. Even “West Side Story” gets only a passing glance. The trajectory of chronology is broken by ellipses and gaps. The elongated proboscis-prosthesis donned by Bradley Cooper’s Bernstein drew cries of “Jew-face” stereotyping despite its resemblance to Lenny’s actual nose. Most secondary roles receive cursory development. Sarah Silverman, better known for comedy, offers a notable exception in her observant take on Bernstein’s sister, Shirley. Bernstein’s hosting of a fund-raiser for Black Panther leaders, despite their antisemitic rhetoric, at his home and other aspects of his controversial radical chic politics are omitted. The film’s commentary on Bernstein’s Jewishness is largely confined to his refusal to anglicize his last name, wearing a shirt with Hebrew lettering and an ethnic circle of friends. “Maestro” does not explore Bernstein’s association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the motivation for naming a composition “Kaddish.”

Bottomline, the core of “Maestro,” the portrait of Bernstein’s brilliant, enigmatic, ebullient, tortured self, is superb. As Lenny and Felicia, Cooper and Carey Mulligan deliver remarkable performances. And scenes of Bernstein conducting – soaring and descending while summoning transcendent physical and psychic energy – are memorable. A wunderkind, Cooper also directed, co-produced and co-scripted “Maestro.” Moreover, costuming and cinematography capture the mood and nuances of period and personality. 

The following words, attributed to Bernstein, appear as prologue to “Maestro”: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them, and its essential meaning is the tension between the contradictory answers.” Serious cinema is art, and “Maestro” and “Oppenheimer” raise questions about the boundaries between genius and madness, euphoria and despair, creativity and destruction. For secular, assimilated American Jews, yet still carrying the resonance of ethnic sensibility and history, tradition no longer synthesizes creativity and purpose. For Bernstein and Oppenheimer, this quandary was compounded. In “Maestro” and “Oppenheimer,” the musician and physicist, both Prometheus in their fields, birthed creations that exceed their capacities to control. View these two biographical films – better yet, watch them in close tandem.