Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Jack Quaid, Dane DeHaan, Robert Downey Jr, Josh Peck
Runtime: 182 minutes
Available in: Theatres
A bomb explodes, the death toll is in the thousands and there’s a chance the planet might catch on fire, but in Oppenheimer (2023), director-writer Christopher Nolan’s screenplay traces destruction at a smaller, more subatomic level — the systematic ruination of a single man. For all its shots of sprawling landscapes, this is a movie that largely plays out in a series of rooms, moving from rooms in which scientists achieve greatness, to one lonely room in which a scientist falls from grace. Emulating the fission reaction that triggered the atomic bomb’s explosion, this is a screenplay that traces a cascading chain of consequences – a proposal made at a dinner party, a humiliating public remark, a critical action delayed too long – and the ripples of their aftermath.
Oppenheimer is one of Christopher Nolan’s most staggering achievements – a thudding, thrilling, tremendously intimate story about a scientist who sometimes can’t see his own greatness, often can’t see past it, and tragically, can’t persuade people to believe him when he does. The director’s films have, in some way or the other, been about men attempting to exert control over vast cosmic forces so much greater than they are – time, science, space – and reckoning with the repercussions of their actions. Over his past few films, he’s broadened his focus, moving from individual obsession to widespread planetary destruction – climate change in Interstellar (2014) and Tenet (2020). Oppenheimer fuses both his thematic preoccupations, the end result an alchemy of one man’s quest for scientific advancement, and the wielding of a power he can’t control, holding the Earth to a lit match.
The film plays out in three major parallel tracks. The first chronicles J. Robert Oppenheimer’s evolution from stifled student to superlative scientist and director of the Manhattan Project. The second, set in the future, has him having to answer questions about his past ties to Communists. The third, filmed in black-and-white, follows Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) during his hearing to become the US Secretary of Commerce. The film flits between an event, a retelling of the event, and the aftermath of the years into the future. We get the bomb. And the fallout. At the same time.
Questions posed in the future are answered in the past. The same sentence uttered to different people at different points in time is both, a promise and an accusation. Events are revisited and recontextualized with striking clarity.
The first half plays out like a series of rapid, choppy vignettes, each scene driving home a certain point about Oppenheimer's character or his circumstances. It’s effective, if a little unmooring. But this compressing of time and information also has its casualties. To read American Prometheus, on which the film is based, is to know that Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), was never really able to bond with their son through his life. To watch the movie, particularly a scene soundtracked by a child crying as Kitty drinks in the kitchen alone, is to just see a harried mother overwhelmed by the demands of domesticity.
If the first half of the film is propulsive and urgent, the second is deeply sad. Having built up to the Trinity Test, the bomb trial before it’s dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the result is oddly anti-climactic. Frantic violins give way to silence and then a shockwave like a clap of thunder. There’s a large column of fire. On the whole, however, it’s less evocative than the worlds of light and fire that Oppenheimer envisions quantum physics to be like when he shuts his eyes.
But maybe that’s the point – Nolan isn’t interested in using the full scope of his technical prowess to bring fire and fury to the screen, to have the audience gaze in wonder at the sight before them, to present it as any sort of heroic spectacle or scientific achievement at all. It’s telling that the film’s most compelling stretches are those set in small rooms, in which conversations that determine who lives and who dies play out with a casualness that only reinforces their cruelty.
Having dispatched with the bomb test, the film turns its attentions to the impact it has on the physicist. The movie externalizes much of his torment. Is that clanging coming from inside Oppenheimer’s head? Is the thudding we hear the sound of his heart? A speech he gives later unfolds like a horror movie, his jubilant words at odds with his inner rumblings, his monologue interrupted by a piercing scream.
However, for a filmmaker so fond of playing with perception, there are limits to what Nolan lets the audience see. The actual Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are never depicted, and it’s the scientist’s face the camera focuses instead on as he’s faced with the aftermath. It’s a complicated endeavour – to evoke pity for Oppenheimer and his guilt over the bombings, instead of pity for the bombings themselves. Murphy, skeletal, is a haunted paradox of a man who made a choice and must now live with the consequences. The film spends just as much time in the crags and ridges of his face as it does on the plains of Los Alamos.
How a scientist absorbed in splitting things down to their minutest elements could be so blind to everything else is a maddening mystery and the screenplay does a fine job of pointing out the blinkers around Oppenheimer’s piercing blue eyes. The film undercuts his self-sacrificial schtick by framing him as a man who says it’s too late to continue going down a road despite him having picked the path in the first place. Still, it induces pity for the scientist who is eventually subjected to a rigorous questioning of his loyalty to the country and his reputation is shredded down to its last atom. “The bigger the star, the more violent its demise,” a character says of the astronomical body, and the same is true of Oppenheimer.
So much of Nolan’s filmography is about time lost, moments left unseized, opportunities that have slipped by, but not Oppenheimer. In presenting events and then flashing forwards, the director reveals truths that weren’t evident at the time. He reaches into the future to wring absolution and justice for his protagonist. He makes things right. Then, in one of his finest climactic sequences yet, he underlines how all it took was for one man to get it horribly, horribly wrong.