Entertainment Magazine


Posted on the 13 August 2023 by Christopher Saunders

Christopher Nolan is one of the most important and successful filmmakers of the past two decades, yet I've never been a fan. While I respect his talent and appreciate his ambition, his style of filmmaking tends to rub me the wrong way. His penchant for cinematic legerdemain - anachronic order, random plot twists - has made for interesting films like Memento while undermining The Prestige and even his mostly-solid Dunkirk. His technical side combines skilled visual styles and fine handling of actors with a weakness for questionable sound mixing and bombastic music, plus his perpetual struggle to stage an action scene - a considerable handicap for a director of superhero films. 

But Nolan's real weakness is as a screenwriter, as he generally couches his themes or plot elements in the most pompous, didactic terms. The Dark Knight trilogy suffers from so many scenes of characters spelling out the franchise's themes in obvious, insulting detail. Inception and Interstellar are similarly hamstrung by scenes that violate the "show don't tell" rule with the subtlety of a sledge hammer. I still laugh about a scene in Interstellar, where Matt Damon's astronaut muses about being raised from the dead. Matthew McConoughey sagely nods and mutters, "Lazarus," as if the audience couldn't possibly draw that connection themselves. 

Thus I approached Oppenheimer, his latest epic, with trepidation. The biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist, father of the atomic bomb and victim of the Red Scare, would be a tricky subject in any case; earlier movies like Roland Jaffe's Fat Man and Little Boy struggled to make the Manhattan Project compelling, resorting to extremely simplified drama, while Hollywood has struggled to make memorable films about the McCarthy era, resorting to broad strokes about betrayal and character assassination. But Oppenheimer manages to be really, really good - perhaps even great - capturing the full breadth of its controversial subject and the moral implications of atomic warfare and political betrayal. 


Drawing on Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's biography American Prometheus, Oppenheimer follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) in two parallel storylines. The first follows Oppenheimer's rise from a precocious physics professor in the 1920s to pioneering professor in the '30s, who establishes America's first physics institute in Berkeley. He flirts with radical politics, with an inner circle made up of communists or fellow travelers - brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) are all associated with the Party, as are his fellow academics. Oppenheimer has little use for communism's collectivism, but respects its desire for change and its moral stands against fascism. Much of these scenes depict Oppenheimer, believably, as a naif with a sincere but muddled progressivism that causes him not to probe too deeply into his associations. 

Oppenheimer's politics delay his involvement in the Manhattan Project - the United States government's project to build an atomic weapon in World War II. It takes the intercession of General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to bring Oppenheimer into the fold, and at Oppie's aegis the Army constructs a massive base at Los Alamos for the development of a nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer clashes with his colleagues and struggles to evade government questions about his past connections - especially when Marxist colleague Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall) tries to recruit him as a Soviet spy. Of more immediate concern, though, is the fear that they might not be able to beat Nazi Germany in a race for the Bomb - or that their weapon, once unleashed, might trigger the destruction of the world. 


The second storyline, running parallel in a nonlinear fashion, flashes forward to the 1950s when the Red Scare is at its height. Oppenheimer is humiliated by a hearing about renewing his security clearance, where an aggressive counsel (Jason Clarke) forces him to account for his every action and association over the past two decades. Oppenheimer takes a high-handed moral tone while sidestepping his engagement with communists, positioning himself as a martyr for his ongoing criticisms of the nuclear state. It turns out that Oppenheimer is victimized by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), his former colleague at the Atomic Energy Commission who nurses a petty grudge against Oppenheimer and uses their differences over developing a hydrogen bomb as an excuse to railroad him from government. This comes back to bite Strauss, who during confirmation hearings for a cabinet post is repeatedly pilloried for his mistreatment of Oppenheimer. 

Oppenheimer is thus a massive, textured film that crams a remarkable amount of history into its 180 minutes. The movie's anachronic structure is much easier to follow than in Dunkirk, with Nolan imposing a simple color scheme (regular for Oppenheimer's story, black-and-white for Strauss) to differentiate storylines and perspective. Some scenes and speeches are repeated multiple times to stress a point, the closest Nolan comes to his didactic tendencies as a writer, but it mostly fits. If the movie shows some of Nolan's habitual weaknesses (Ludwig Goransson's musical score is loud, often to the point of distraction) it also highlights his strengths: a clean visual style, with an eye for striking imagery of explosions, whether the real detonation of the Trinity test or the imagined Holocaust in Oppenheimer's mind. 


Nolan avoids making simple judgments of his hero. It would be easy to paint Oppenheimer as a martyred genius, used, abused and discarded by the American state. He's certainly a genius, making scientific breakthroughs in his twenties and mastering foreign languages in a matter of weeks, and there's no doubt about his intelligence or charisma. But he's also a deeply flawed man, in a variety of ways. Most obviously, in his personal life: he forces Kitty, an accomplished scientist in her own right, into a role as an unwilling housewife, forced to stand by her husband through his trials and humiliation. His relationships with the unstable Jean and Ruth Tolman (Louise Lombard), the wife of a colleague, further poison his private life, with Jean's storyline having a tragic climax that nearly results in Oppenheimer's own destruction. 

But Nolan doesn't shy away from Oppenheimer's involvement in controversial causes, an angle which makes it hard to sympathize. He's shown organizing rallies for Spanish Loyalists and attending Communist meetings, though he frustrates his committed brother by refusing to join the Party. Certainly Oppenheimer, a Jewish progressive, felt sincere disgust at fascism; he wasn't the only American intellectual to flirt with communism in the '30s, when capitalist democracy seemed unwilling or unable to deal with the decade's upheavals. But it ultimately seems like dilettantism more than principle; in one scene, he tries to sell out a left-wing colleague to an Army interrogator (Casey Affleck) in the most mealy-mouthed way possible. Soon, fellow physicists are calling him out for a lack of principle, politically or morally, walking a tightrope that seems to satisfy no one. 


Oppenheimer has been cleared of spying for the Soviets, but it's clear that the real man was careless about his associations (unmentioned by the film, he was friends with Party organizer Steve Nelson, who actively recruited agents for the USSR). Nor, as the film demonstrates, were his much-bruited qualms about nuclear weapons in evidence before Hiroshima. When colleagues ask if it's necessary to drop a bomb on Japan, which seems likely to surrender regardless, Oppenheimer assures them that it's not the place of scientists to question the politics of statements. In a surprising scene later in the film, he's pinioned by the Security Board for his defense of the Hiroshima bombings, which he in fact encouraged by underestimating the likely death toll. No wonder everyone from Kitty to Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) calls out his belated stance against nuclear weapons; he may feel sincere guilt, but seems to view martyrdom as a way to square his conscience. 

Ultimately, Oppenheimer's newfound scruples prove a hindrance. As the Cold War hardens, his arguments for international control of nuclear weapons and against developing hydrogen bombs mark him as a prime target for Red-baiters. And men like Lewis Strauss, who arranges to ruin Oppenheimer's career for a personal slight the latter likely doesn't even remember; it's easy for the government to acquiesce, at a time when anything left of Eisenhower seemed suspect. Strauss, frustrated by his inability to win Senate confirmation, rants about Oppenheimer's self-serving narcissism and it's hard to disagree with him. But, as Strauss's aide (Aiden Ehrenreich) comments, his backstabbing only convinces Oppenheimer's colleagues, many of them estranged, to rally around him. 


This sophisticated understanding of politics and personal guilt might be a surprise for those expecting a wartime thriller, although the Manhattan Project takes up the middle third of the movie. Nolan skillfully dramatizes the hurdles the scientists face, practically or politically, along with the tensions between Oppenheimer, his colleague Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and his own wife and family, struggling in hi shadows. It culminates in an elaborate restaging of the Trinity test, announced in operatic terms with wide shots of the lit-up landscape, and culminating in an impressively rendered silent explosion (with a belated sound ripple) - truly, Nolan's most impressive achievement as a director. 

Cillian Murphy does an excellent job playing Oppenheimer as a man who's alternately charismatic and crabbed, likeable and haughty, hitting the perfect notes of subtle emotion and self-torment. Murphy does an impressive job externalizing a role that must largely be interior (aided, or not, by hallucinatory scenes inserted by Nolan) with facial gestures and subtle inflections of voice. Robert Downey Jr. is equally impressive; he initially plays Strauss with his usual acerbic slickness, but slowly unravels a more devious and insecure man as the film wears on. Emily Blunt makes the most of minimal screen time; Nolan's script sadly backgrounds Kitty, but in her few featured scenes (particularly her sparring with Jason Clarke's smug inquisitor) she shows a strong character tired of her husband's indecision, and eager to assert her own identity. 


Oppenheimer's all-star players sometimes smack of stunt casting, with a parcel of A-listers in cameos and minor roles, but fortunately Nolan makes great use of his ensemble. Matt Damon is particularly impressive in what amounts to a character role: his gruff, irascible. Josh Hartnett, David Krumholz and Benny Safdie play various of Oppenheimer's colleagues; Rami Malek has a scene-stealing cameo as a scientist who clashes with Oppenheimer, only to have his back when it counts. Casey Affleck plays a creepy intelligence officer, Jason Clarke is appropriately loathsome and Gary Oldman nearly unrecognizable. Kenneth Branagh and Tom Conti (as Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, respectively) make a strong impression in only a few scenes. Only Florence Pugh is ill-served by a role that mostly requires her to be topless and neurotic, including a silly scene where she persuades "Oppie" to read the Bhagavad to her during a tryst. 

Some reviews have criticized Oppenheimer for avoiding some elements of the Manhattan Project, from the "downwinders" victimized by the Trinity Test's fallouts to the lack of explicit imagery of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's victims. Perhaps, but there's only so much material a three hour film can cover, and considering the sheer amount of political and moral arguments the film does consider (there's even a long scene where Oppenheimer and Truman's cabinet select targets in Japan!), it's hard to criticize. I may never be Christopher Nolan's biggest fan, but I'll happily concede that he has delivered one of the smartest, most complex and thought-provoking films of the past decade. 

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