During its third and final act, Nolan shows J. Robert Oppenheimer in the midst of McCarthy-esque security hearings whereby a tormented genius’ integrity is stripped away by a society he worked to save, reminding me somewhat of Alan Turing.
While Turing’s death came from a cyanide-infused apple, coincidentally or not, Oppenheimer’s first scene shows the titular character trying but failing to kill his lecturer with, yes, a cyanide-infused apple.
Like Turing’s death, Oppenheimer tells the story of humanity biting into the forbidden fruit of nuclear power as its brazen characters march toward an event horizon, unsure of the consequences and unwilling to reconsider. Oppenheimer is a flawed masterpiece: a dizzying, gratifying, and at times cumbersome historical document that asks complex moral questions and gives few answers.
Christopher Nolan’s motifs are etched unmistakably on Oppenheimer. Set pieces are built up for what feels like hours as Ludwig Goransson’s heart-pounding soundtrack imbues scenes with toe-curling anticipation. None more so than the lead-up to the Trinity Test detonation. The scene almost reminded me of the Endurance spacecraft journeying through the wormhole in Interstellar, except Nolan was grappling with a historical event that was already filmed and presumably well-known to a Youtube-savvy audience, making the element of surprise all the more difficult.
Of course, Nolan blows every preconception away, stunning even cinematic agnostics into silence as fire enveloped the 50ft screen, enrapturing over 700 people in my cinema, all before the 25-kiloton shockwave jolted me from my seat as if I’d just been electrocuted.
Oppenheimer is every explosive adjective you hoped it would be, but at its core, the film is unlike any Nolan has made previously. It’s a character study of a womanising, fragile, tortured genius whose influence will echo for centuries to come. Nolan shows J. Robert Oppenheimer as a confluence of opposing forces: a diminutive man of towering stature, a scientist turned political figure, and a man who created something that may one day destroy us. The weight of this man could not have been shouldered better than Cillian Murphy.
Murphy’s face throughout the film is wrought with the suffering of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. His near-permanent, pensive, thousand-mile stare needs only one frame to be felt. Oppenheimer will surely be the crowning achievement of his career, a slam dunk for a Best Actor awards sweep next year. Although DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon, Cooper in Maestro and Phoenix in Napoleon may have a say in that.
Murphy’s towering performance however doesn’t overshadow the rest of the cast, in particular, endlessly watchable performances from Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, Alden Erenreich as the belligerent Richard Feynmann, and (spoiler alert) Gary Oldman’s cameo as President Truman. Oppenheimer is a smorgasbord of acting brilliance with Oscar winners appearing in blink-or-you’ll-miss-it roles, emphasising Nolan’s inimitable pull in the industry. Each film is a cinematic event, and with Oppenheimer morphing into Barbieheimer, there may never be a bigger one (genuinely).
Visually, Hoyte van Hoytema crafts Oppenheimer into an art experience of Tate Modern proportions. Vibrating molecules and nuclear elements dance across the screen in visual effects that represent the beauty of science and the terror of military might. Interspersed throughout the film, these moments felt similar to Terrence Malick’s scenes of nature in The Tree of Life – they were a calming presence on an otherwise frantic film.
Unlike Nolan’s only other historical escapade, Dunkirk, the story of Oppenheimer is told mostly through dialogue. In fact, the final act comprises almost entirely of McCarthyist men in side rooms accusing Oppenheimer of communist ideologies at the height of the Red Scare of the 1950s. All the while, Oppenheimer’s on-screen antagonist, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a Senior U.S. Atomic Energy Commission member tries to dismantle his reputation while attempting to be sworn in as Secretary of Commerce himself.
If you thought the previous paragraph was convoluted, it’s during these sequences that you realise, sometimes painfully so, that this film has been adapted from American Prometheus, a nearly 1,000-page book with 25 years of research behind it. Aside from the almost overwhelming amount of side characters, talking and political accusations bandied about in the last hour, Nolan’s experimentation with Oppenheimer’s timeline and the concurrent hearings considerably softens the punch the film had in the first two acts.
Although Nolan spent time articulating the moral weight of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings, Oppenheimer‘s courtroom procedural occasionally detracted from, and was detached from, the larger moral questions. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer examines quandries such as why the U.S. dropped two bombs instead of one and the cultural significance of its target (a line about a honeymoon got a macabre laugh from the audience). The film also sees Oppenheimer and his scientists in Los Alamos weighing up the remote possibility of an atomic bomb setting fire to the atmosphere as Oppenheimer says to Einstein: “I thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world”. Devastatingly, Oppenheimer follows this up, saying, “I believe we did”.
Oppenheimer demands, deserves, and frankly requires multiple viewings. Although it reaches unprecedented heights of character development and introspection on the moral compass of humanity, it sometimes falters through its fear of ever being reductive.
Oppenheimer stands as a titanic filmmaking achievement destined to live long in the minds of anyone with a conscience and even longer in those desperate to answer its questions.
The film shows that we all still live in the shadow of the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer will undoubtedly stand as its seminal film. Although in my opinion it’s not Nolan’s most enjoyable film, it is surely destined to be written into historical significance, changing the minds of students in classrooms and reminding everyone of the ubiquitous threat of nuclear war.