Oscars 2024: How Oppenheimer Turned Science into Cinema

Oscars 2024: How Oppenheimer Turned Science into Cinema

Written by director Christopher Nolan, the script is based on an award-winning biography and is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

As titles go, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a winner. It’s got a classical gloss, promises a dramatic arc, and hints at both glory and heartbreak, which is how we generally like our heroes. In contrast, Oppenheimer (2023) can feel almost basic at first. It’s just a name, and one that has limited recognition for those who aren’t big on theoretical physics and World War II. Let the case of American Prometheus and Oppenheimer be a lesson to all those inclined towards quick assumptions — never gauge levels of drama from the title. Because by the time you’ve reached the end of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest magnum opus, the name “Oppenheimer” feels loaded with complexity. It crackles with the static of clashing egos, crushing tragedy and the memory of Cillian Murphy’s haunting blue eyes.

While Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus is a straightforward biography, Nolan’s screenplay is a masterful adaptation because it’s packed with the tension of a political thriller. Central to the film are the security hearings that declared Oppenheimer a Communist, which was akin to being labelled a traitor. Oppenheimer doesn’t just clear the scientist’s name, but also lays bare how government machinery can be abused. 

Nolan’s directorial flourish is evident in Oppenheimer’s staggeringly beautiful depictions of scientific theory, the spectacular recreation of the Trinity Test, and the mesmerising scene in which Oppenheimer is struck by the bomb’s horrific potential. As a screenwriter, his genius lies not just in structuring a 700-paged book into a three-hour film, but in the care and subtlety with which he structures scenes like the one in which Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) is questioned during Oppenheimer’s security hearing. By this point, we know that the Oppenheimer marriage is unconventional at best and unhappy at worst. Kitty is an alcoholic and prone to lashing out at her husband, who has repeatedly been unfaithful to her. To put Kitty before the panel that has already crushed many of Oppenheimer’s supporters — some of the most intelligent men of their time — seems like an exercise in cruelty. Surely, she doesn’t stand a chance. Worse, what if she turns on Oppenheimer in front of the panel of questioners?

Kitty Oppenheimer turns out to be a force as unpredictable as nature, and someone whose intelligence leaves the panel looking like a collection of chumps. Blunt is magnificent in this scene and later when she demolishes a former colleague of Oppenheimer’s (played by Ben Safdie) by simply refusing to shake his hand. 

Oppenheimer has been criticised for its narrow focus, which means Nolan doesn’t bring in the perspective of the Japanese after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, choosing instead to show only how Oppenheimer grappled with his own feelings about being the father of the atomic bomb. The film also makes short shrift of Oppenheimer’s dramatic and complex personal life, with his many infidelities and Kitty’s own romantic adventures (she was married thrice). Perhaps Nolan felt these details dilute the central narrative and the sinister contest that developed between Oppenheimer and the man who targeted him, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.).

Tipped to be a frontrunner in the category of best adapted screenplay, there’s no doubt Oppenheimer is a feat even if it isn’t flawless. Not only does it make quantum physics comprehensible (albeit briefly. Once we were out of the film, some of us were none the wiser about photons, but remained mesmerised by how they made Murphy’s blue eyes shine), Oppenheimer is able to turn intellectual contests into gripping cinema and find glory for someone who was more the vanquished than a victor.  

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