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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

An intimate exploration of Oppenheimer, unveiling reflections of ourselves

Nolan has crafted a mesmerising biopic about the father of the atomic bomb as well as a portrait of the human condition, skilfully weaving together the strands of science, historical events and the personal conflict of the eponymous protagonist.

Written by

Lónsi

Jul 22, 2023

© Universal Pictures

Shifting nonlinearly between black-and-white and colour shots, the film follows the brilliant physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer and his work on the Manhattan Project in the creation of the atomic bomb. Imposingly performed by Cillian Murphy, we see Oppenheimer torn between the pursuit of scientific discovery and moral burden, between obligation and responsibility.

The film covers various periods of his life, including: the years of his apprenticeship, the genesis of the Manhattan Project as well as the development of the bomb, and finally Oppenheimer’s defence for his integrity against accusations to have acted against his country.

The brilliance of this film is revealed in the decision of what it does not show—which is the actual dropping of the bombs along with the countless deaths it caused. We instead see Oppenheimer and his accomplices as the news of the bombing reaches them. Understated acting takes the place of the explicit images of horror, and yet we feel the weight of the consequences, precisely because we as viewers are aware of the implications. We get a different perspective from this scene, that of Oppenheimer, which we witness intimately without explicit exposition—how does the inventor of the atomic bomb feel after he is solemnly told that the bomb has successfully hit and that an outrageous number of civilians have died as a result? This decision adds a layer of profound genuineness to the scene, transporting the viewer into Oppenheimer’s psyche and leaving you, as well as him, lost and in the throes of shattering.

© Universal Pictures

“All of this is a very intimate glimpse into the mind and soul of Oppenheimer. We see and experience no more than he does.”

This key scene is where the film masterfully succeeds in depicting the burden of accountability, the weight that rests on the character’s shoulders, and in echoing the underlying moral conflicts that he encounters throughout the entire narrative. As the viewer is given a deep insight into the mental turmoil of the character as he grapples with the consequences of his decisions, it underscores the central theme of the film—the accountability of science and its far-reaching impact on so many lives. It is this haunting depiction that sets the framework for the entire film, immersing the viewer in a thought-provoking exploration of human choices and the intricacies of their moral complexity.

It is also the bridge between ‘before and after’ the bomb. The allure of scientific exploration appears in a different light, just as all the political struggles and vanities involved become a farce in light of the aftermath. On the whole, Nolan repeatedly juxtaposes time and its attendant circumstances here. In the rapid leaps in time between the decades, the bomb becomes a theory, a last resort to stop the war and eventually all wars; a reality; the death of tens of thousands of people; and back to a theory again. All the while, there is the question of the responsibility and justification of such science and its implications. As the film always repeats—‘theory only takes you so far’ and for Oppenheimer, responsibility condenses like the bomb from a theory to realisation.

Following Tenet, Ludwig Göransson is once again in charge of the music. Right at the beginning of the film, an increasingly fast-paced piece accompanies an equally fast-paced cut consisting of frenzied fade-ins of light and dust particles as well as circling atoms, in which the magic of science becomes almost tangibly substance. Apart from that, the music is mostly calmer—foregrounded by melodic violin, piano and synthesizer sounds that are as multifaceted as Cillian Murphy’s acting. Both complement each other in equal measure to portray Oppenheimer’s complex character.

Cillian Murphy’s truly exceptional acting also makes it possible to show less and yet reveal so much. With his nuanced performance, he conveys an immense flood of thoughts, conflicts and emotions that allows a deep immersion into the character’s psyche. It is a remarkable performance of subtlety, where every frame of the many close-ups is filled with an intricate quality. This finely crafted performance is utterly absorbing, unfolding the complexity of Oppenheimer’s inner realm in a way that is both overwhelming and honest.

All of this is a very intimate glimpse into the mind and soul of Oppenheimer. We see and experience no more than he does. We only hear about the bomb in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but witness the terrifying destructive power of the nuclear explosion at the test site beforehand. We do not see the immediate victims of the bomb, but we sense Oppenheimer’s feelings of guilt when he sees faces suddenly disintegrating as if in a nightmare. Oppenheimer is at once a biopic, but also so much more.

The emotional impact is not as immediate as, say, Interstellar, but that is due to the richness and complexity of the conflicts we are dealing with here. It is less emotional cinema than it is a reflectional one that challenges us to question ourselves on issues of responsibility in a universal context. This leads to a form of honesty that is not only felt but also has the potential for provoking change.

Alternate takes

Written by
Ralf

Is nobody going for the obvious “was it really all done in camera?” joke in light of Nolan’s only fourth R-Rated film, which finally also brings us a more distinctive female presence?

A Nolan-directed sex scene by way of intellectual kinks and a repeat of that scene fused with an interrogation scene truly are the most subversive, unexpected things to happen in this film that is otherwise filled with non-sexual tension and a plethora of intercutting between different points in time, as is par for the course with Nolan. All that while he essentially starts off by flooding us with dialogue to go with evocative images somewhere between Interstellar and the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This film is a lot to take in after just one viewing. There’s an onslaught of nervousness and unease constantly boiling just beneath the surface, the likes of which perhaps only the Safdie brothers know how to dial up even further. For a film with such a somewhat anticlimactic culmination where the Trinity test is concerned, it’s entirely fitting that Nolan ratchets up the explosive nature of nearly every other scene, providing us with the most jarring interrogation scenes. Oppenheimer weaponizes exposition to overwhelm us with anti-communist inquisition scare tactics against the central character and gives us a belated hearing that pulls the rug out from under a patiently grudge-bearing schemer (played by Robert Downey Jr. in an intense performance taken right out of the House of Cards playbook).

For better or worse, the film is always "on", which goes for most of the dialogue scenes throughout as well as for the sublime but exhausting score too. Ludwig Göransson truly experiments in a summer blockbuster environment and has crafted an "everything score" that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, so it tries a lot of variations ranging from piano-led biopic sound to ear-shattering bombast and the electronics that he already put to good use in Tenet. When those first few notes of the track Fission hit, I instantly felt reminded of Justin Hurwitz’ score for First Man and it’s truly an interesting direction for Göransson to go in. Speaking of Tenet, the Nolan dialogue problem is not as apparent here as it was in that film for me but there are still some moments in this that warrant your ears’ full attention if you don’t want to play catch-up.

I’m really glad that Cillian Murphy finally got a leading man performance under Nolan that is worthy of his talents and, without knowing much about the real Oppenheimer, Murphy’s eyes always tell the true story of what he feels, while his mouth seems full of a fear of being disliked, which is why it says the words that the crowds seemingly want to hear from him and that they cheer him on for. While Florence Pugh leaves an unforgettable imprint in her flower-averse role in Oppenheimer’s life (and eerily echoes The Prestige as a suicidal woman close to the protagonist), it is Emily Blunt who leaves an even more lasting impression as Oppenheimer’s wife, a woman who won’t be easily pigeonholed despite being shoved into an alcoholic’s corner by the film and who is smarter than a lot of the men in the room, triumphantly cutting through an interrogator’s bullshit tactics in one the film’s finest scenes.

Despite Murphy’s great turn in the lead, Blunt’s phenomenal support (she actually appears quite late in the film), and a veritable who’s who of recognizable faces that would have presumably lain on Terrence Mallick’s cutting room floor, it took me a while to get into the groove of the film, which somehow feels like its own extended trailer for quite a while. Who’d have thought, when Matt Damon first appeared something clicked for me and my investment in the film increased from there on out and it allowed me to settle into its rhythm.

Since the zeitgeist demands to look at the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer with meaning, it is worth pondering how these two films could be tied together by their narrative threads, if at all. To my perception, both characters are the tip of the spear of something, a movement, an entity, an image in people’s minds when their name is uttered. They are both a figure synonymous with a lasting idea that goes beyond the characters themselves. Just like Barbie is the epitome of the stereotypical feminine in this world, Oppenheimer is the face of the Atomic Age and by way of his work perhaps the epitome of the stereotypical masculine, going out of his way to pursue something just because he can, something that he knows will be used for one thing and one thing only: destruction.

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