Christopher Nolan’s Complex Biopic Detonates Perceptions of the Atomic Age
DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN/2023
JIM TUDOR: J. Robert Oppenheimer… murderer?
That’s the question that the title character of Christopher Nolan’s latest monumental cinematic endeavor must ask himself. The film has barely started when we see young Oppenheimer, in response to having been humiliated by his professor in front of his peers, after class calmly and methodically injecting the green apple on his desk with lethal cyanide. The next morning Oppenheimer lurches awake in a fit of clarity and proceeds to hightail it to the classroom before anyone consumes the fatal fruit. This situation is representative of his approach to the far larger moral conundrum that he will be linked to for all of history: the invention of weapons of mass destruction, and their subsequent proliferation.
Well into the unconventional biopic, Oppenheimer closely resembles a really, really well-crafted prestige HBO miniseries, the kind they used to make a few decades ago that were always “based on true events!”. They were always good for respected actors acting up a serious storm in the best way possible. The film is a sprawling project with major gravitas and major resonance. Come awards time, such a thing is impossible to ignore, so why try? Oppenheimer, fueled with top talent and fully backed by impeccable marketing, is set to burn bright for both critics and commoners who don’t mind a rich, lengthy, talky, heavy-laden affair. This film, a nonlinear mid-century history lesson to its core, is not the kind of material that one might typically consider summer blockbuster material. But we should know better by now than to count out Nolan.
This being the celebrated filmmaker’s second World War II project (following 2017’s Dunkirk… is this the middle of a trilogy?), we are taken inside an altogether different side of the sequel to the war to end all wars… and how it ended. Nolan regular Cillian Murphy takes the lead as the famed physicist who changed the world forever with his work as leader of the Manhattan Project. They say it’s fundamentally challenging for an actor to convincingly embody a character who is tremendously smarter than they are, but seeing how the real Oppenheimer was a brilliantly complex man of science, it’s safe to say that Murphy (no slouch in the intelligence department, I’m sure) stunningly pulls it off. Not only does he sell Oppenheimer’s austere genius and fluctuating ethical grappling, he does so over multiple reoccurring points in the man’s life. Physicist. Husband. Leader. Womanizer. American. Cause célèbre engineer. We get it all, and more.
ERIK YATES: You are correct Jim that we get it all, and not just from Murphy, but the talented cast surrounding him. This is an incredibly layered film from Nolan that is masterly crafted. Like Dunkirk, there are several different timelines going all at once only to be brought together by the story’s end. His use of both black and white scenes and color helps keep track of some of these time shifts, but for me, the things he did with sound were perhaps most incredible. Telling this tale from Oppenheimer’s first-person perspective (which the screenplay, based on the book American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, was also written in) allows Nolan to pull back the sound at times where you might expect it to be loud, and then audibly obliterating the viewer just when they are lulled into a false sense of security. This created some of the film’s tension, and added greatly to the moral dilemma at the center of Oppenheimer’s pursuit of moving beyond what was just theory, to what was actually possible. Nolan isn’t heavy handed in his moral position over the atomic bomb, showing the multifaceted angles that existed during World War II as Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union also had designs on becoming the first to develop these kinds of weapons. What is clear, however, is that through the character of Oppenheimer, there is a moral wrestling match over its use to “bring the boys back home” rather than face a full invasion of Japan and the catastrophic loss of lives that would have incurred.
I feel that this film may well be a real-world scenario Nolan has given us as a demonstrative response to Jeff Goldblum’s character’s famous line in 1993’s Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should“. The war provides the context for the pursuit of what is possible and allows science to preoccupy itself in that pursuit, before realizing too late that the use of what it is developed is then out of their hands. It is the series of chain reactions that make up a bomb that also are felt in the decisions made by others, and here it is aimed at the military and politicians who dream up the justifications of such uses. It is a gripping look of a man who developed the most horrific weapon the world had yet to know and the consequences of his actions.
The cast is really a better ensemble in many ways than Wes Andersen tends to get for his films. Cillian Murphy, who you mentioned, is joined by the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Alden Ehrenreich, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, Matthew Modine, Jack Quaid, Benny Safdie, Rami Malek, Olivia Thirlby, and Gary Oldman, to name a few. Each blends perfectly into their character in service of the story, acting up a storm indeed. If you don’t mind a three-hour run time (that honestly was barely felt), then this film should have legs at the box office, as it is meant for the largest screen and sound system possible. It is also one of the first truly “adult” stories to serve as a blockbuster summer film in a long while, in both content (Oppenheimer earns its R rating with a few tastefully intimate scenes), execution, and subject matter. I’d also like to mention an amazing score from Ludwig Goransson.
JIM TUDOR: My word, that sound mix…! You are so right about that… While some may be taken aback by the lack of lots of ‘splosions in this movie that’s ostensibly about bombs, when one does go off, we literally feel it. This is the power of the kind of grand theatrical exhibition that Nolan is always in pursuit of.
In light of that very vocal commitment of his, I deeply appreciate his decision to keep the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki off screen. While this withholding may, for some viewers, lessen the impact of the historical deaths of those thousands of people, the decision to not allow any room for those disasters to be perceived as spectacle shows a directorial maturity that eludes so many of even Nolan’s loftiest filmmaking peers.
Nolan’s oeuvre has been interpreted as right wing-leaning (particularly his finest Batman film, The Dark Knight), and I don’t dispute that at all. However, with Oppenheimer, there is an active attempt to take on real-life politics (and dare I say, issues that are still relevant today) in terms of communism in America, albeit in a rather apolitical way. (In pure World War II numbers, I’ve heard the conventional wisdom denounced that the bombings of Japan actually saved more lives in the long run. A character verbalizes that rationale, but, perhaps per historical accuracy, it isn’t challenged). The film does eventually “pick a side”, though it refuses to hold the audience’s hand as at hurls its barrage of names, organizations, and scientific elements for its full running time. Pre-screening refreshers on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the Atomic Energy Commission certainly couldn’t hurt.
In this, Nolan is doing what he’s always done, all the way back to Memento: demanding that his audience work, and leaving them heaving with a feeling of intellectual reward. In every case, it’s also him reinforcing his perceived need to be both “the golden boy” and the smartest guy in the room. If Inception, Interstellar, and his Batman trilogy were him effectively posturing as the sharpest, most popular high school senior at the party, then Dunkirk and Oppenheimer are his college thesis films to end all college thesis films. And I do mean all of that in the best way possible. I believe that in the complex personal grapple that is Oppenheimer, we’re seeing a true artistic leap. Nolan still wants us to marvel at his own pronounced aptitude, but doggone it, he earns it. He always has.
And for all that, Oppenheimer stands most visibly as an actor’s platform. The extensive and excellent cast you list, Erik, all absolutely take and run with the material. There are some career best performances here.
ERIK YATES: In Economics there is a concept called externalities, or unintended effects of a decision. These can be positive or negative. Nolan uses Oppenheimer as a means to explore those unintended consequences of the development and use of the atomic bombs on the two targets in Japan to hypothesize how we should feel about it today. Although accused of being right-leaning in the example you mentioned, I don’t think Nolan is intentionally choosing a side as much as asking a question. In The Dark Knight, Lucius Fox reluctantly used his technology to spy on Gotham but eventually the decision was made that such power shouldn’t really be used again, and the ability to use it was destroyed. In Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy’s title character dutifully proceeds to build this bomb to “bring the boys back home”, but we see the haunting visions of those externalities rising up in his mind, putting him on a collision course with the political elite he once served during the rise of McCarthyism. Could he see the future and what would come out of all their work in Los Alamos?
The rationale mentioned by a character that the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki “saved more lives” in the long run is not challenged when its uttered, but leaving the theater, that is a question the audience may be asking themselves, much like when the token of the top in Inception wasn’t clearly answered as to whether it fell or kept spinning. Was it worth it? Is it still worth it? Those answers won’t be answered by the filmmaker, but the questions will be asked. The best cinematic films unite the audience into a shared community who have experienced something together that transcends. This film provides that grand theatrical exhibition and experience you mentioned Jim, at every level. The audience will have to work, but it will feel effortless because it is the pursuit of excellence by a filmmaker who wants to collaborate with us, the viewers, in a shared experience. Everything comes together in this film. If Oppenheimer is Nolan providing a cinematic college thesis to end all college thesis-es, then I can’t wait to one day watch his doctoral dissertation.