Synopsis: The life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), focusing on three particular periods – the lead up to the Trinity test where the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945, the security hearing that revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954, and the Senate confirmation hearing of Oppenheimer’s erstwhile boss and nemesis, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.).
1. Somewhere around the twenty-minute mark, I started chuckling. Not because of a joke in the movie (Oppenheimer is dedicated to being unfunny), but because of the situation I found myself in. A sold out IMAX theatre (with every subsequent screening also sold out) on the second day of Oppenheimer‘s release. A hype cycle raised to fever pitch, partially thanks to the memetastic appeal of ‘Barbenheimer’. 1 One of the most anticipated films of the year, with healthy box-office receipts driven by a massive filmgoing audience expecting another The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) or Dunkirk (2017). And all I could think to myself was ‘holy shit, has Christopher Nolan scammed a whole bunch of people into watching an arthouse film?’ Because a crowd-pleasing blockbuster Oppenheimer is not. It is a three-hour long biopic of the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ that weaves in and out of multiple time periods and takes a decidedly ambivalent approach towards its subject matter and protagonist. It rattles off a laundry list of scientists, politicians, soldiers, and historical events at a frenetic pace, with little to no handholding for the audience. And, at least in the film’s early stages, it’s edited like a late period Terrence Malick movie, with artsy match cuts and hyper-stylised shots of abstract colours and patterns inserted in the narrative. And while Oppenheimer eventually settles into a slightly more familiar rhythm, it never leaves the realm of subjectivity and impressionism. And it is this elevated style, along with the maturity with which it presents its themes and characters, that makes Oppenheimer the most unique of Christopher Nolan’s movies. Because let’s be clear, while the man is a great filmmaker, he is no artist – and there’s nothing wrong with that! Someone (other than Jordan Peele) needs to make mass-market blockbusters that don’t talk down to audiences and actually try to smuggle in thought-provoking themes. The multiplex needs a figure like Christopher Nolan, because without him, it’s Transformers and capeshit all the way down. But at the same time, it is thrilling to see him swing hard for the fences, to cash in all that accrued commercial and critical goodwill to gamble on something borderline experimental and unimaginably ambitious. For the first time in his career, Christopher Nolan has attempted to make art.
And it turns out he’s pretty fucking good at it.
2. No discussion of Oppenheimer can start without discussing its editing. Nolan’s entire career has been defined by non-linear storytelling, going back to his first breakthrough in Memento (2001) 2 In his weaker moments (see all of Tenet), this approach can be nothing more than a crutch to goose uninspiring narratives. Oppenheimer thankfully avoids that trap, with its non-chronological structure firmly wedded to its themes of accountability and judgment. It is hardly accidental that the two post-Trinity timelines comprise largely of hearings, of grubby bureaucrats and politicians attempting to make sense of a chaotic and difficult time and trying to impose some sense of order and reason over it. But not for nothing does Oppenheimer begin with an image (which turns into a motif via repetition) of rippling water, for this is a film that deals with unforeseen consequences, and how seemingly minor details can create major ramifications. A tossed off suggestion to get the British involved in the Manhattan project results in Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham) joining the Trinity team in Los Alamos, which results in him providing information about the atomic to the Soviet Union, which results in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, which results in the denial of Strauss’s cabinet position. Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame do a superb job of tying events spanning decades together without ever losing track of cause and effect, and while this approach to editing might be confusing at first, most viewers should get quickly accustomed to the way in which the story is told.
3. Other than non-linear editing, the other aspect of filmmaking most associated with Nolan is sound design, for better or for ill. I can thankfully reassure you, dear reader, that most of the dialogue for Oppenheimer is audible, which is a massive improvement over the aforementioned Tenet. 3 However, while the dialogue mixing is far more traditional this time round, Nolan skews in a heterodox direction with the other aspects of sound design. There are numerous audio motifs (the stomping of feet in particular) that are repeated in multiple scenes, with their symbolic meaning only becoming clear much later into the film’s running time. In particular, the climactic detonation of the Trinity gadget and Oppenheimer’s subsequent victory speech are mixed in a manner that is borderline avant-garde, contrasting moments of almost total silence with blaring bursts of sound. The latter scene even intersperses multiple moments of ambient noise like screams and thumps that call into question whether they arise from the raucous triumphant scientists or Oppenheimer’s guilty conscience. Much digital ink has been spilled about Nolan and DP Hoyte van Hoytema’s filming on IMAX 70mm, and while the sheer scale and resolution of the visual image is undoubtedly impressive, it is the sound fidelity which has seemingly benefited the most from the IMAX format, thanks to the way it amplifies the sonic dynamics of its soundtrack. Trust me, you will feel that explosion rattle your bones.
4. But Oppenheimer is not just about the enormity of the audio-visual experience, for there is a lot of story, blitzed through at supersonic pace. Yet the constant barrage of scientists and historical figures never feels exhausting or confusing, largely thanks to Nolan’s screenplay making each character distinct by impressing on the viewer their primary characteristics. For such a long (3 hours on the dot) film, there is little fat in Oppenheimer, with an almost machine-like efficiency in the way that it establishes its massive supporting cast. It also helps when you can call on such a deep bench of ringers, from David Krumholtz’s avuncular Isidor Isaac Rabi to Benny Safdie’s antisocial Edward Teller to Josh Harnett’s charismatic Ernest Lawrence. One might say there is even a Disney-level obviousness to the casting of the film’s minor antagonists, with actors like Dane DeHaan and David Dastmalchian alluding to previous roles as creeps and weirdos. 4 But special mention must go to three supporting actors in particular, beginning with Matt Damon, who lends a grumpy decency to his General Leslie Groves, and his bantering scenes with Oppenheimer are some of the highlights of the film. Next comes Florence Pugh, who by this point could probably turn in an electrifying performance just by reading a set of terms and conditions. There are few more exhilarating screen presences today, and Pugh’s Jean Tatlock is a nervy, energetic delight whenever she appears. The tragedy of Jean Tatlock’s death 5 is the fulcrum of both Oppenheimer the film and Oppenheimer the protagonist, and so it is an absolute necessity for Tatlock to make a deep impression – which she obviously does because she’s played by quite possibly the best young actor in Hollywood. But the best supporting (and maybe the best overall) performance in this film comes from Robert Downey Jr., shedding all traces of Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chaplin to play a small, insecure man cursed with enough self-awareness to be all too conscious of his failings. This is Downey the actor, not Downey the movie star, digging into a character far outside of his usual wheelhouse and delivering a performance of immense subtlety and nuance. He is absolutely brilliant. 6
5. And yet, with all the talent above and below the line, and with all the grandiosity of its sound and vision, Oppenheimer perversely dedicates much of its running time to rumination and debate in drab, anonymous meeting rooms. Furthermore, the Trinity test, while one of the most astounding scenes of this year, takes place at the end of the second hour of the movie, which means that there is another hour of film proceeding its explosive (literally and figuratively) climax. Traditional three-act structure this is not. This is a film that is not content with simply showing what led to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, but is far more concerned with grappling with the thorny ethical quandaries that follow. Every decision is pored through in excruciating detail. Should the US drop the bomb? Should the US let everyone know they have it? Should the Japanese be warned to evacuate? Which city to drop the bomb on? Was Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? Who deserves credit or blame for the death and destruction that occurred? Should the US continue developing a bigger, better bomb? Should the secret of atomic energy be shared with the rest of the world? So on and so forth, with each decision (or lack thereof) seemingly etching another line into Cillian Murphy’s haggard face, for not since The Master (2012) has 70mm film been used for so many close-ups of a single visage. His performance is a work of genius that carries the film, especially considering how so much of it is so fundamentally internal, as he wrestles between doubt and conviction, idealism and pragmatism, and selfishness and altruism. If there is one major criticism I have of Oppenheimer, it is that Nolan’s trust in his audience falters in a key moment at the end, where he makes Emily Blunt’s long-suffering Kitty Oppenheimer essentially spell out her husband’s motivations for not defending himself against the US government’s attacks against him. We don’t need her to tell us that sitting through their character assassination is a self-flagellation for the guilt he feels for ushering in the Atomic age. It’s right there in every facet of his performance. Why underline what is already obvious?
6. It’s not the only misstep I would say Nolan makes. An undertaking of such ambition and scale was never going to succeed at every aspect, and Kitty’s statement is not the only time where the film lacks trust in its audience. Take for example the scene where Oppenheimer admits to having carried on an affair with Jean in front of the security hearing and Kitty. The cut from nude Oppenheimer in the hotel room to nude Oppenheimer in the meeting room – yeah sure, a little surreal splash of style that conveys his shame. To have a nude Jean straddling him while making eye contact with Kitty? Too much. Furthermore, the third hour could have been trimmed a little as certain motifs and ideas start to get repetitive. I get (and deeply respect) Nolan’s commitment to anticlimax, especially considering how it fits in with the theme of the way in which institutions of power discard individuals who are no longer useful to them, but there is no denying that certain moments in the final act do not carry as much weight as the rest of the film. In particular, it seems awfully strange to make David Hill (Rami Malek), an exceedingly minor character, the deliverer of the killing blow to Strauss’s cabinet chances. Some cursory research suggests that this does hew somewhat to historical fact, but in the interests of a more satisfying narrative, could that role not have been given to a more prominent character? Frankly, the character barely makes an impression in his tiny number of scenes, and was only noticeable due to being played by an actor of Malek’s stature.
7. But to a degree, I do feel a certain churlishness at nitpicking a film like this. It’s akin to going to a spectacular ten-course meal and complaining that the butter is frozen. 7 Plus, aside from the expected technical and formal quality of the film, there is no question that Oppenheimer elevates itself over the rest of the Nolan filmography due to its maturity and thoughtfulness in the way it deals with its themes. I’ve said this before, but a Nolan movie generally deals with abstract Big Ideas in a way that tends to be unchallenging and obvious. Those are not descriptors that apply to Oppenheimer, which is ruthless in refusing to untangle its moral Gordian knots. Does Robert Oppenheimer deserve the treatment he gets after the Trinity test, both the good and the bad? Is the atomic bomb a triumph of scientific innovation or a weapon that has hastened the demise of the world? Should Oppenheimer’s genius allow him to run roughshod over everyone else? Are his feelings of guilt a justified offshoot of his actions or a pointless act of martyrdom? Both and neither, Oppenheimer seems to say, as befitting of the way in which it embraces its protagonist’s discipline of quantum mechanics as an organising principle. At a subatomic level, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, and we can only rely on probabilities. Uncertainty is in the core of the stuff we are made of. Oppenheimer says this, and so does Oppenheimer, as it takes the scientific principle organising the smallest things and expands it to the biggest. History, politics, ethics, humanity itself – all comprised of little things crashing into each other, forming unpredictable chain reactions that eventually result in catastrophe. Oppenheimer aims to do nothing less than capture the entirety of this process, and though its reach may exceed its grasp, it is still stunning to see a film like this, brimming with so much ambition, thoughtfulness, and technique. For the first time in his career, Christopher Nolan has attempted to make art.
And my god, does he succeed.
Verdict: Highly Recommended
- The review for the other part of this portmanteau will come out on Wednesday.
- Possibly still his best movie.
- Just as well too, because Oppenheimer is a talky film.
- To this list we can also add Casey Affleck, who, ugly allegations aside, reminds everyone what a fantastic actor he is by giving a hell of a performance as the conniving ideologue Boris Pash.
- Another in the list of Nolan’s dead wives and lovers.
- To answer the obvious question – Emily Blunt is as good as she always in, but the role is a thankless one, barring one triumphant scene at the end. This is a broken record by now, but Christopher Nolan is not a good writer of women.
- Shoutout to my fellow Conheads. P.S. Succession review coming soon.