I still marvel (word chosen deliberately) at the hype surrounding a biopic about the scientist largely responsible for atomic weapons. And not from awards-hounds, either. Blockbuster fans. That is, of course, mostly down to its writer-director, Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s penchant for dizzying narrative structure, enormous visuals, and heart-pounding tension have made him one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. After 2017’s Dunkirk proved his style could apply to historical epics just as well as genre fare, the cinema community couldn’t be more excited for Oppenheimer. And once you start to vibe with its chaotic approach to the material, it really is a wonderful, troubling film.
You should absolutely not expect Oppenheimer to follow typical biopic structure, pacing, or even character introduction. This is a lengthy movie with loads of moving parts. Characters come in and out of the orbit of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, masterfully underplayed by Cillian Murphy. With a few exceptions where the people involved are names you know—Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr—Nolan relies on casting familiar faces and giving them just enough screen time to know they’re important when they pop up much later.
Not content to present anything in full chronological order, Oppenheimer gives us two frame stories. Each presents a different point of view on times in the man’s life and career. The first, dubbed “Fission,” shows us the controversial 1954 hearing which sought to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance based on his perceived history as a communist sympathizer. The second, “Fusion,” is the Senate confirmation hearing for Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Strauss had appointed Oppenheimer to the Atomic Energy Commission a few years after WWII. Fission is in color, Fusion in black and white. All the while, we see parts of Oppenheimer’s rise to theoretical quantum physics messiah and his eventually founding and leading of the Los Alamos site development of the atomic bomb which eventually leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The movie is long, and it covers a lot of ground, quite quickly. The music and sound design keep us from ever feeling at ease. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography wavers between huge closeups and massive landscapes, hammering home the micro and the macro of the story at hand. Oppenheimer struggles with his place in history. The movie doesn’t let him off the hook, either. He is both the genius whose tenacity helped end WWII and “become death, destroyer of worlds.” It puts me in mind, in a completely different tone and style, of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous final film, 2013’s The Wind Rises. That film followed the aeronautics genius who wanted to make airplanes, and did so to create the A6M Zero fighter during WWII. Scientists creating and discovering while knowing their work will kill loads of people.
Oppenheimer also contends with the end of an all-too-brief time when scientists and experts were trusted and listened to not just for technological advancement but for policy and morality. As often happens, however, when the people in power see more power on the horizon, they turn their back on reason. The entire project was in Oppenheimer’s hands, the movie details, only for it to be stripped away by the military, the US government, and eventually the nuclear age the moment it was finished. Just like the Space Race was all about beating the Soviets to the moon, the rise of the A-bomb was all to stick it to the Nazis, who had already surrendered by time the bombs dropped.
Not everything about the movie works. While the movie tries to make Oppenheimer’s romantic and sexual relationships—the man was a notorious womanizer—have weight, they end up as nudity-filled footnotes. Emily Blunt plays Robert’s wife Kitty, who gets a good amount to do, but Florence Pugh as his troubled communist girlfriend seems only there for awkward sex scenes. We see next to nothing about any other woman in the story, save Olivia Thirlby as one of the Los Alamos project’s lone female physicists. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but she’s there.
Oppenheimer certainly feels like several movies, but it’s to Nolan’s credit that each works as well as it does. The breathlessness waiting for the Trinity bomb test, even knowing it didn’t, in fact, end the world, is one of the movie’s crowning achievements. But equal tension comes from Oppenheimer realizing what he hath wrought. It’s an amazing feat, making a single event seem both like a triumph and a failure. This movie pulls it off.
Like its central figure, Oppenheimer is a complicated, hectic, but altogether satisfying movie that will give people much to think about. I could list all the performances that merit attention, but that would end up just looking like a cast list. Murphy’s grounded, stoic, heavy performance as one of the most complex figures of the 20th century should, and likely will, receive plaudits. Richly deserved. The movie entirely rests on him, and it’s a career highlight in an already excellent body of work. If this is the film that will give Murphy and Nolan their first Academy Awards, it will be well and truly warranted.