“It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.”J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1962
“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”Blue Öyster Cult, 1977
Oppenheimer is a suitably unsubtle story about the suitably unsubtle subjects of atomic annihilation, political condemnation and moral revulsion.
An early monologue outlines the process of dying stars — cooling and collapsing before consuming everything in their gravitational demise … even light. Through text slapped onscreen and spoken aloud, writer-director Christopher Nolan wastes no time invoking the fire-stealing, rock-chained Prometheus as a progenitor for the brand of punishment visited upon J. Robert Oppenheimer — whose successful development of an atomic bomb hastened the end of World War II in horrific fashion, introduced a million-fold multiplier to the planet’s military-industrial complex, and affixed itself as an albatross on his anxieties for the remaining two decades of his life. Neither does Nolan tarry in dispatching the many hungry eagles of Washington, D.C., eager to metaphorically feast on Oppenheimer’s liver — regrown perhaps not overnight as in the myth of old but certainly during convenient moments of political expediency.
Doesn’t exactly sound like the escapism you’d presume from the impresario who made three good to great Batman movies, time-, space- and mind-bending works like Tenet, Interstellar and Inception, and the raw-nerved, race-against-the-clock war reenactment of Dunkirk.
Nolan is certainly aware of the uphill battle faced by an R-rated, three-hour historical biopic … that is also partially in black and white … and which boasts atypical scientific density, a real-world nuclear act of war and arguably the greatest ethical reckoning of the 20th century. As such, Nolan approaches it like an elegy played on electric guitar — hitting the whammy bar so often it might fall off but also so skillfully that you recognize: The excess emphasizes the essential, and frighteningly enduring, nature of this story.
The filmmaker’s traditional time distortion has been deployed to a more delirious effect than you’d expect in a film far more concerned with conversation and interrogation than detonation. Naturally, it chronicles Oppenheimer’s swift rise and seemingly endless fall, embodied here in a career-best performance from Cillian Murphy. His piercing blue eyes plumb perpetually fascinating depths of vulnerability, virility and vacancy within the mind that moved the Earth. Note also how his entire physical countenance shifts when he arrives in Los Alamos, the site of atomic testing and a fabricated town where he fancies himself founder, mayor and sheriff. It echoes how T.E. Lawrence was seduced and swallowed by a different desert — the same lanky frame, the same certainty of purpose, the same lost way. Nolan’s insistent closeups convey the harried, hollowed husk left behind in the wake of Oppenheimer’s success, and the peaks and valleys of Murphy’s impeccable cheekbones are sized like monuments you expect to see Tom Cruise skittering across.
Nolan dovetails Oppenheimer’s story with the political aspirations of U.S. Navy Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), whose post-WWII association with Oppenheimer included a shared stint on an advisory committee of the United States’ Atomic Energy Commission and his appointment of Oppenheimer as director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study. It’s enthralling to see Downey dig into something different after his retirement as Tony Stark (even as Strauss’s real-life arc tips the slightest cap to Iron Man 3), and Nolan affords him no end of dynamite dynamics; this may be the most satisfying purely dramatic part that Downey has yet played. Plus, after Good Night, and Good Luck, it’s a treat to see a face made for black-and-white once again infuse monochromatic schemes with such vivid emotional color.
Oppenheimer tracks these men’s inverse fortunes across nearly 40 years — from the title character’s days as a doctoral candidate drifting into recklessness to his 1963 receipt of the Enrico Fermi Award. Amid various stages of his own political career, John F. Kennedy plays a pivotal role in the final word on each man’s story. Unsurprisingly, Oppenheimer shares the DNA of Oliver Stone’s JFK. The editorial rhythms similarly skitter about while always providing seamless service to the story. Each and every swerve from the ecstasy of inspiration to the agony of inquisition cuts to the quick. This is simply masterful work from editor Jennifer Lame, reuniting with Nolan after Tenet and infusing the film’s final hour — nearly all of which finds people being grilled by one committee or another — with all the urgency of the Caped Crusader trying to save Gotham City. It also musters the same roaring anger at what the historical record hath wrought for the rest of mankind, with arguably even more famous faces popping up onscreen.
Indeed, there are five Academy Award winners here and three more Oscar nominees. For most, eight such actors would be (more than) enough, but that list doesn’t even encompass Emily Blunt, Josh Hartnett, Benny Safdie, David Krumholtz, Dane DeHaan and Jason Clarke — all contributing top-flight work. Nolan even gets Rami Malek to shed the bugging-and-mugging crutch on which he’s leaned since winning his Academy Award, which helps a pivotal third-act scene soar. (Two of the Oscar winners constitute what feel like surprise reveals. One is a chaotic-evil self-own given the performer’s problematic past. The other is a lawful-evil cameo of two minutes that is more believable than his work in the movie that finally won him an Oscar.)
But Oppenheimer isn’t just a three-hour expansion of the DiCaprio-leaning-forward meme with these performers, either. Countless more deliver meaningful work in even the most minor of roles. That’s largely because Nolan’s screenplay is also generous in its regard for scientific discourse and divergence among so many luminaries … while also remembering that even the most brilliant people on the planet are still human and can thus be carpetbagging trolls, disloyal partners, self-serving reprobates and shitbirds with grudges. Oppenheimer finds himself in opposition to all of these types … and indeed to those own tendencies within himself.
Not for nothing are the scientist’s fascinations with Picasso and Stravinsky invoked; this man craved a similar mantle of inspiration at a cost unclear to him until he incurred a debt he could never resolve. Wielding his formidable intellect like a blade works for Oppenheimer until he brings it to the proverbial gunfight of the American military’s Manhattan Project. Coming aboard as its scientific director, Oppenheimer saw the chance to mold heretofore frustrating abstractions of his theoretical work into something practical, tangible and grimly purposeful, as well as to lead a project in the rural New Mexican splendor he loved.
Mercifully, Oppenheimer forgoes the sort of footnote filmmaking that a failed effort would entail. Nolan wastes little time on dizzying, distracting explanations of Oppenheimer’s knowledge. The specificity of Oppenheimer’s intellect is immaterial. If not Oppenheimer, it would have been someone else. And as it’s said in his snappily written introduction to U.S. Army Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), genius is a given among this group. Instead, Nolan uses his canvas to convey Oppenheimer’s attunement to alternative wavelengths and vibrations — dropping the viewer amid exponential explosions inside Oppenheimer’s mind palace for nigh-synesthetic interludes at which he envisions pulling at the threads of physics.
These visions provide powerful conflations of his exhaustive obsessions, and they are among the numerous necessities of IMAX-sized immersion in Oppenheimer. (This reviewer was fortunate enough to screen in 70mm IMAX at one of only 30 such theaters worldwide.) The same goes for vast, vision-filling vistas of the Los Alamos testing site and the Trinity sequence, which depicts America’s inaugural test of its atomic capabilities. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema frame the former like a splendor on the verge of manmade spoilage and the latter like a pillar of portent no one involved can truly see. As rendered in IMAX, the sequence pins you flat. But so do the many crystalline moments of spectacle that come from the specificity and nuance of emotional performance — captured with utmost clarity by the camera and unswerving authenticity by the cast. (It’s so mesmerizing that even temple-squeezing tension on the bows of President Harry Truman’s glasses say something crucial about him.)
Oppenheimer also represents a high point of sonic storytelling for Nolan. Oft derided for leaving discernible dialogue dead in a ditch, Nolan understands that the words about the deeds are important here. In turn, Oscar-winning sound designer Richard King forces focus as much on the absence of volume as its insistent, often-martial presence — with soundscapes as creatively thoughtful, layered and terrifying as the script’s themes, particularly in a separated juxtaposition of different babies’ screams that herald the hell to come. There are grace notes, too, including the everyday din of Washington, D.C. continuing to churn outside while lives are chewed up and spat out in small, dingy rooms. This is also a film with at least 150 minutes of music, all astonishing, from Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson. His compositions crescendo from electronic warbles and scratches at the known fabric of scientific understanding to the inescapable momentum of chemical reactions and, finally, into a lament and mournfulness akin to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
If there are any missteps, it is Oppenheimer’s heavy flirtation with Nolan’s traditionally flimsy female characters. They are perhaps reduced for too long to simple salvation or doomsaying, at least before the third act turns Blunt loose for a series of terrific spotlight scenes as Oppenheimer’s spouse, Katherine. Much has also been made of the film’s sexual content (a rarity for Nolan) regarding Oppenheimer and his recurring affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Over-reported for clickbait, these encounters are mostly modulated until a bit of orgasmic hallucination that renders a moment in Munich by Steven Spielberg (also often sex-averse) subtle by comparison. It’s also the only break in a volley of perspective between Oppenheimer and Strauss, which makes the bit even more of a head-scratcher.
And yet these are minor misgivings for a film about people who confused temporary observation of Olympus with occupation, and where the titular subject’s pursuit of penance plays at the pace of a thriller. While developing the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer reaches out to many scientific luminaries. It’s less for an independent affirmation of his findings and more for a preemptive absolution of what they will mean. And while Nolan’s resolution arrives at a point of catharsis, neither does it let Oppenheimer off the hook. If anything, it simply affords him the courtesy of choosing the hook on which he should hang.
An electrifying existential treatise. A warning about the thin line between delusion and destruction. A wearily wise work that understands writing history means etching your epitaph well before you expire. Oppenheimer is a rhapsodic, attention-snaring example of all these — joining the ranks of great epics that throw you into a rumble seat of history and the horrors it has yielded.