Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan
Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Detonates Moviemaking’s Limits

Christopher Nolan’s latest juggernaut Oppenheimer is an earth-shattering study of modern politics and governance that redefines what filmmaking can be.

Christopher Nolan
21 July 2023 (US & UK)

With great hype come great canonizations in both senses of the word, or however the saying goes. More importantly, with great canonizations come great mischaracterizations. In the case of Christopher Nolan, the mischaracterization is the hype itself, most notably about how inventive, grand, or purely bonkers his next film will be.

The much-worshiped Brit, whose name is synonymous with contemporary filmmaking itself, is perpetually under pressure to deliver or, in the most ruthless film industry, to “outdo himself”. Taking into account that his opus flaunts works as diverse as The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, Memento, Dunkirk, The Prestige, Inception, and Tenet, one would be foolish to expect that this streak of creative genius (despite Tenet not being as good as its forebears) could last infinitely, let alone expand and grow, not to say explode. Yet here we are. 

In Oppenheimer, perhaps the most anticipated film of 2023, Nolan has miraculously hit a home run yet again but has done so, amazingly, exclusively by subverting our expectations, reinventing himself – and detonating the scale and scope of what we thought was possible in moviemaking. Based on the 2005’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan’s latest release features no science fiction, no action sequences, and essentially no massive set pieces. 

What Oppenheimer does feature is a brew of historical drama, political thriller, biopic, romance, and psychological horror, with an ensemble of more than 60 recognizable faces deftly chewing through the fabric of the world’s political reality over 180 minutes and 44 seconds. The cast, lead by Nolan’s long-time collaborator, first-time leading man Cillian Murphy, supported by an awards-eager Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, and countless more, is uniformly brilliant. Industry legends such as writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and most recently The Card Counter) have already described Oppenheimer as “the best and most important film of this century.”

It is a drama about the creation of the atomic bomb that’s not much concerned with the bomb at all. It’s a character study of a man whose character was and to this day remains impenetrable. It is a relentless examination of ethical and moral decision-making in a situation where no outcome could possibly be ruled ethically or morally right. More than anything, Oppenheimer is a tale of selling global domination as utilitarian benevolence by (heaps of) men posing as “patriots” but essentially uninterested in anything except their own position in the new world order. 

As a story, Oppenheimer is a paradox, buried under nearly 200 pages of snappy, theatrical dialogue but finding its emotional footing in the many silences, visions, sideways glances, hallucinations, and wordless neurotic tics. As an experience, it is a multi-faceted, three-hour, relentless sensory overload annihilating the viewer with the sheer force of its chops. Multiple timelines, dozens of expeditious, sharply cut scenes, tens of dangerously forceful, protracted closeup deliveries, Jennifer Lame’s kaleidoscopic editing, and especially Ludwig Göransson’s apocalyptic soundtrack that literally imagines a nuclear reaction as melody all blend together into a chest-tightening viewing – much like the way Oppenheimer himself was said not to have breathed a minute before the Trinity test in Los Alamos.

There’s a good reason why few filmmakers of the past 50 years have touched the life, work, and consequences of J. Robert Oppenheimer: the entire ordeal, a political blowup that triggered a chain reaction leading to the post-truth nightmare we all live in today, is too nasty to be called entertainment. It’s also too complex an account to tie up successfully in a single feature.

Never the one to shy away from the most formidable of challenges, Nolan tackles the Oppenheimer conundrum head-on using the aforementioned creative arsenal, but also by simply staying laser-focused on the (excellent) script and the general politics surrounding the physicist’s career both before and after the Manhattan Project. After superhero trilogies, time-and-space bending endeavors, and excursions beyond the event horizon, both fans and general audiences alike might be surprised to see that Oppenheimer is mostly a drawn-out series of conversations and plots between various teams, committees, and boards. Its enormity lies in the juxtaposition of personal ambition against its public display and the toxic residue of those two. 

Prior knowledge of 20th-century American history, and especially Truman and Mccarthyism, will come in handy for the viewing, though it’s by no means essential. In fact, one’s familiarity with the topics surrounding Oppenheimer might do more harm than good in terms of spoiling the general story arcs, hence the deliberate vagueness of this review. We will be analyzing aspects of this release for years to come anyhow; for now, I can suggest heading straight to the nearest cinema and, in case you don’t already know the historical details, saving the research for later. Nevertheless, for those interested in the potentially spoilery impressions, read on. 

Before Sherwin’s death in 2021, he and Bird had read several movie scripts based on American Prometheus, none of which, they believed, did justice to the complexity of Oppenheimer’s personality and work, let alone its broader results. Then Nolan came along and presented his mammoth idea, a deliberately overwhelming, totalizing view of everything the physicist’s life was and lead to. Mental health issues, affairs, neuroticism, standoffs with other scientists, ethics, bureaucracy, destruction of worlds, the fame beast, the Red Scare, and much more were crammed in there, just like the authors of the book intended. It was a good enough starting point. 

As a result, Oppenheimer spans nearly four decades, beginning with the physicist’s early days of postgraduate study at Cambridge in 1924 and ending, more or less, with his acceptance of the Enrico Fermi award in 1963, the “highest honor” of the Atomic Energy Commission. Cillian Murphy is simply fantastic as the charismatic, opaque, chain-smoking genius who brought quantum mechanics to the US.

In fact, with awareness of Oppenheimer’s notorious emotional and ideological closedness, it’s practically impossible to imagine anyone else but the reserved Irishman in the role. In the words of Murphy’s co-star Emily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer’s capricious, intelligent wife, Kitty, Nolan “trojan-horsed a biopic into a thriller”, something Murphy seems acutely aware of. His performance carefully, wistfully avoids reductively painting the “father of the atomic bomb” as an “eccentric”, a “dreamer”, a “tortured genius”, or a “misunderstood soul”, and is all the better for it. 

In Murphy’s and Nolan’s vision, just like in American Prometheus and history itself, J. Robert Oppenheimer is a real man, smart, ambitious, and vain. He dismisses Albert Einstein as a has-been (!!!), flippantly mocks his superiors, and isn’t afraid to speak about unions or drop the “c” word (communism). At one point, he even poisons his mentor’s apple. He also hallucinates, constantly imagining the end of the world, and at a very inconvenient time, since the Nazis are on the rise in Germany. After much hectic university-hopping and heated scientific polemic with the other brightest minds of the 20th century, WWII begins and Oppenheimer temporarily settles as a – people manager, i.e., the director of the Los Alamos laboratory, where the US atomic bomb was designed between 1942 and 1945.

The war rages, the Allies defeat the Nazis, but the Japanese don’t seem willing to surrender. Then the Trinity test works, the atomic bomb is deemed ready, and seemingly within the blink of an eye, the decision is made to obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then, the real focus of Oppenheimer begins. 

Lewis Strauss (a never-better Robert Downey Jr.) enters the picture in 1947 with his newly-founded Atomic Energy Commission. The world is in smithereens and Harry Truman (the one and only Gary Oldman, in an eviscerating, nightmarish cameo) is high on power. The formerly impressed public is starting to question the morality and legitimacy of the bombing while Cold War paranoia permeates every pore of individual and collective existences. Sure enough, a scapegoat is needed to redeem the glorious US of A, and who better than the man who dared to play Prometheus and then even kind of enjoyed being the world’s most dangerous man? Better yet, the man who had affiliations with known communists, you know, the guys who took the place of Nazis as the Great Threat to American Liberty™.

All of the above doesn’t cover half the story told onscreen, but now you get the idea of what Nolan tried to accomplish with this film. Throughout Oppenheimer‘s 181-minute runtime, he runs parallel narratives and multiple storylines, of which perhaps the most “important” one, that of Strauss’ and the establishment’s ruthless takedown of Oppenheimer the hero, is shown in black-and-white (for the first time in IMAX). Endless scenes of bickering, petty insults, and scheming are made all but unbearable by the editing and soundtrack I already mentioned and the enormous cast itself can hardly be praised enough. Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, Josh Hartnett in a strong comeback as Ernest Lawrence, Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, and Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr all shine as brilliant but egotistical men whose main priority is their own image. 

Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, two of the few women in the feature, both impress as Oppenheimer’s two important women, his wife and (former) paramour, the centerpieces of the biopic aspect of the tale. Blunt is vicious as the “biologist who graduated to housewife”, Kitty, a woman aware that she deserves better but utterly incapable of securing any solace except in alcohol. Pugh, in contrast, is cunning but vulnerable as Jean Tatlock, the clinically depressed psychiatrist and an outspoken member of the Communist Party of the United States of America, over whom Oppenheimer obsessed for years.

If there is any fault to Oppenheimer at all, it is that Blunt and Pugh could have been given more room to breathe and develop their own and Oppenheimer’s personal histories as the biopic portion of the experience feels at times sped through and glossed over. Still, I do understand the difficult editing decisions and the sheer impossibility of merging several characters’ stories 100% successfully within a single feature. I would have, however, enjoyed a more thorough mention of how Oppenheimer named the Trinity Test after John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and likely in Tatlock’s honor, as she was the one to introduce him to the Englishman’s poetry. It was a sublimely morbid act of a perilously self-absorbed man and a great illustration of the depth of outlandishness of this account. 

As for the bomb itself, we, thankfully, see it only once in the film, in a jaw-dropping scene presented as the opposite of what you may expect. No spoiler regarding its staging would be appropriate except to say that it marked a spiritual but also literal transition from one epoch to another, one sense of these men’s and their country’s relevance to an entirely new and unchecked height. This unique level of arrogance is, we (now) know, what eventually brought about Oppenheimer’s humiliation and ostracization from the public eye and the scientific inner circles. As much as he stoically insisted on the many security hearings and paranoia-driven conspiracies against him being farcical, the end result, both for Oppenheimer and us in the general public, is undoubtedly tragic. 

Ultimately, the big reveal is that Oppenheimer is not a film about the atomic bomb, not even about J. Oppenheimer himself, but is, in fact, predominantly a cautionary tale about the atrocity of egos running rampant and boys in suits running the show behind closed doors. Nolan’s insanely ambitious and bold venture into the uncomfortable territory of political/historical drama succeeds on every conceivable level, not despite a departure from his traditional themes and gimmicks, but precisely because of it. By playing all of the many historicities straight but on technically superior steroids, Nolan shows what a pervasive, enduring sense of doom, destruction, and delusion looks and feels like. The neverending twist is that all this actually happened and literally reshaped the world, turning it into whatever it is we’re grappling with today.

Despite a blockbuster-light budget of $100 million and relatively modest marketing efforts, the film’s release date coinciding with that of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie sparked the Barbenheimer Internet phenomenon, which saw Oppenheimer becoming one of the most memed events of 2023. It is a curiously humorous development for a project whose primary focus is inducing the feeling of the end of the world and reminding us of the political and material cost of “freedom”. 

Though its pre-production started even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war that sees a global revival of the fear of nuclear conflict, no aspect of Oppenheimer could be more timely. Generations before us grew up with these perfidious narratives and backdoor confabulations on the “necessity” of the atomic bomb and the nobility of “patriotism”, a word that’s meaning is less stable than the climate change temperatures. It was high time someone (unsurprisingly, a filmmaker) confronted today’s young with the deeply devastating legacy of the mid-20th century US establishment. Seeing Nolan be the one to do it, elegant but also unflinchingly, all while pushing the boundaries of cinema (again), is a marvel. The takeaway is clear: first, we must learn to unlove the bomb. 

RATING 9 / 10