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HomeIndustry SectorFilmOppenheimer Review: Christopher Nolan's Atomic Biopic Is a Formal and Narrative Masterpiece

Oppenheimer Review: Christopher Nolan’s Atomic Biopic Is a Formal and Narrative Masterpiece

At once a character study and a reckoning with history, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a staggering film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” that illuminates not only the intellectual life and complicated legacy of one of America’s most consequential scientific minds but also the array of opposing, divided systems that drove his ambition and determined his actions.

Brilliantly considering the contradictory properties of a man who risked destroying the world in order to save it, Oppenheimer presents a portrait of the theoretical physicist as imprisoned by the same sense of paradox that propelled his obsession with quantum mechanics (which proposed light as a constant duality, both particle and wave). A scientist and administrator fascinated by arts, poetry, and literature; a devoted family man who repeatedly cheated on his wife; a brilliant theoretical physicist who was incompetent in matters of practical application; and a conduit between atomic scientists and the military and government figures overseeing their work, who discouraged his colleagues from moral or political questioning but wrestled mightily with the implications of their creation, he was as fascinatingly complex a figure as he was an ultimately unknowable one.

Responsible for researching and developing the two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, Oppenheimer later opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb; he was rewarded with public humiliation, having been made a martyr of paranoid McCarthyism. Active in left-wing politics throughout the 1930s, he betrayed Communist colleagues to the U.S. government. Oppenheimer claimed to love humanity, but his scornful treatment of those around him alienated colleagues, whose professional jealousies hastened his downfall. The smartest man in any room, he rarely bothered to learn how to read one, and this proved his undoing.

Adapted from American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan’s film feels definitive in its depiction of a genius at tragic odds with existence, and of all the conceptual oscillations he contained: between brilliance and naïveté, confidence and hubris, moral obligation and patriotic duty, scientific progress and political gamesmanship, apocalyptic ruination and salvation, theory and reality. Unfolding across decades, the three-hour film follows Oppenheimer — played by Cillian Murphy, in a performance of rivetingly magnetic tension — from early years in academia through the unceremonious conclusion of his career in the nuclear establishment, along the way depicting many of the events that would come to define him in public and private life. Simultaneously, it fills in the world around Oppenheimer, the camaraderie and petty vanities of the scientific establishment, and the fear-mongering groupthink of a government in the grips of the Red Scare.

Oppenheimer movie
Oppenheimer movie

Taking as its centerpiece Oppenheimer’s years as the director of the clandestine Los Alamos Laboratory, where his charismatic leadership of people and ability to quickly grasp concepts across the breadth of the weapons program’s departments proved key to the success of the Manhattan Project, the film nevertheless brings into view Oppenheimer’s friendships and romantic entanglements, first his affair with volatile leftist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, whose scenes with Murphy spark with erotic heat) and later his marriage to Kitty Harrison (Emily Blunt, whose long-simmering resentments supply a different, equally tantalizing energy), a boozy divorcée who accompanies Oppenheimer to Los Alamos and whose loyalty to her husband appears only to solidify as it is tested.

Equally prominent is his adversarial relationship with Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the military general who appointed Oppenheimer head of Los Alamos despite describing him as a “dilettante, a womanizer, and a suspected Communist,” prone to unstable, theatrical, and neurotic behavior. “Brilliance makes up for a lot,” Oppenheimer replies to Groves with a smirk, though his associations with Community Party members and support of leftist causes will later come back to bite him.

Rather than attempt to reconcile his main character’s dualities, Nolan ingeniously transforms them into the film’s foundation, narratively and formally dividing Oppenheimer into two perspectives — that of Oppenheimer, in luxurious color, and of Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss (a shrewd, sinuous Robert Downey Jr.), in crisp black-and-white — and moving back-and-forth between these sections, one entitled “fission,” a splitting apart of atoms, and the other “fusion,” a convergence of the same. In league with Hoyte van Hoytema, his extraordinary director of photography, who shot the film on 65-millimeter film and IMAX 65mm, Nolan affords this construct a vividly cinematic grandeur, one that complements and compounds the immersive design of his filmmaking. For a story so dense with dialogue-heavy scenes of important, self-important men conversing in rooms of power, the film’s sense of scale is at once visceral and psychically deafening.

The boldly nonlinear chronology also serves to amplify the enigmatic nature of Oppenheimer’s inner workings, the slipperiness of his identity, by shifting at speed between his inner and outer worlds. Even in proposing an in-depth exploration of the scientist’s haunted psychology, Nolan has placed this subjective approach to Oppenheimer in the greater objective context of historical record, pulling verbatim from the transcripts of two hearings — one a demonstrably biased 1954 tribunal that saw Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked at the behest of political enemies; the other a 1959 confirmation in the Senate for Strauss, who was nominated as Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce — and cross-cutting between sections to super-charge causal links and connections, colliding both men’s lives together as if inside a particle accelerator.

Oppenheimer movie
Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer/Universal Pictures

Clocking in at three hours, Oppenheimer is Nolan’s fastest-paced film to date, hurtling through time and space, from chillily removed academic echelons to sun-scorched desert panoramas, grounding it only in Murphy’s astonishing, tour-de-force performance, the power of which is magnified by close-ups that invite us to search for truth behind his piercing yet opaque eyes, across the thin, gaunt outlines of his features. Throughout, Oppenheimer is troubled by visions of a hidden world, a subatomic reality, ripples caused by rain droplets in water and fire surging with annihilative heat, as if the insurmountable expanse of the cosmos is colliding with the granularity of matter. Compartmentalization is critical to Oppenheimer, and to Oppenheimer. As the head of Los Alamos, he resists the government’s need-to-know protocols that keep scientists working in silos, but the justifications he must make to himself in order to proceed with their project take on an increasingly inconclusive characteristic.

Nolan has always been fascinated by the vital illusions men create to justify their own actions, and by their hubris in imposing an order for existence. As Oppenheimer pursues scientific breakthroughs and finds himself existentially weighted with responsibility for the world’s atomic armament, and tasked with a certain performance of brilliance to the public, these vital illusions begin to fail him, and the Faustian nature of his role within the nuclear establishment becomes clear. Part biography, part psychological thriller, part horror film, Oppenheimer is both the most structured and formally inventive film that Nolan has made, and its experimentations add to the cumulative force of his spiritual reckoning, the sense that surpassing the limits of human potential has rendered him both irrevocably guilty and beyond all judgment. In first witnessing the detonation of a nuclear weapon, as a mushroom cloud rises over the American desert with the promise of obliterative power, Oppenheimer turns not to Western philosophy but to Eastern scripture, to the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Nolan clearly believes there is some truth to such a mythic framing of Oppenheimer; the dizzying construction of his film mirrors the urgency with which Groves refers to the Manhattan Project as “the most important thing to ever happen in the history of the world,” and it offers no reprieve or solution for a condition as vexing as the soul of the man who made it possible. “Theory can only take you so far,” Oppenheimer often reflects, a refrain that later haunts him — like so many other lines of dialogue that double back in Nolan’s cleverly circular script — as an ominous portend for those on the precipice of world-altering discovery.

The film takes on another relevance in its final black-and-white third, as its depiction of Oppenheimer’s victimhood at the hands of the U.S. security establishment tells the truth about what befell the country’s most prominent scientist and, in doing so, speaks to not only his tragedy but the urgent need to reify the role of the scientist as a public intellectual, to heed their reasoned words of caution as much as their statements of monumental achievement.

Grade: A

Universal Pictures will release Oppenheimer in theaters worldwide, including all IMAX screens, on Friday, July 21, with previews starting Thursday night.

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