OPPENHEIMER is a Stunning Dissection of Apocalyptic Guilt and Glory

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Cillian Murphy and Christopher Nolan turn in career-best work in a complex portrait of an iconic and infamous physicist

Stills courtesy of Universal Pictures.

To J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the atomic bomb was supposed to be the weapon to end all war–unleashing the possibility of destruction so large it would hopefully stop humanity in its tracks and pull it back from the brink of self-destruction. Decades removed from the surrender of Germany and Japan, however, America has continued its own ideological war for self-preservation in the fight against Communism…placing a target on Oppenheimer’s own flawed, conflicted life as the U.S. Government votes to confirm his security clearance. With the threat of the “Super” H-Bomb looming at the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, no minutiae of Oppenheimer’s life is safe–including all associations romantic, professional, political, or ideological. 

“No one is on trial here” is a common refrain throughout Christopher Nolan’s stunning three-hour opus about the director of the infamous Manhattan Project. However, nothing could be further from the truth as warring ideological factions fight for dominance over it–placing the life and reputation of one of America’s most morally complicated scientists in the crossfire. Through one man’s impossible choices in the name of scientific progress and global unity, writer-director Nolan examines how the road to hell is self-laid with the best of intentions; how the noblest pursuits are perverted in the name of ruthless self-interest; and how the sum of history is more often than not a desperate rationalization by the guilty, far from any futile sense of objective truth.

It’s a heady, thematically complicated picture that also happens to have some of the most riveting blockbuster sequences of 2023 so far, thrillingly realized by Nolan and his regular collaborators including cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Ludwig Göransson. Nolan and van Hoytema depict Oppenheimer’s world as one of constant chaos, brimming with atomic-level instability that’s on the brink of implosion at any minute. To escape the madness swirling around him, Murphy’s Oppenheimer obsesses over making sense of life’s paradoxes and incongruities–finding solace not just in his fellow scientists, but in eventual experimentation that brings his constant visual cacophony to a larger, far more destructive scale. Göransson’s score is a dazzling sonic equivalent, full of thrumming synths that tease out the discoveries at hand, finding their decibel-topping release at moments of “triumph.” They’re jaw-dropping, practical-FX-driven sequences that toe the line between the real and experimental, sneaking in Malickian visual flair amidst sequences befitting an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama. What’s wilder, I’d gauge that 90% of Oppenheimer is in full IMAX aspect ratio–treating a cold gaze or sudden betrayal with as much graphic reverence as an atomic explosion or a majestic European vista.

Oppenheimer’s marketing campaign has lured in audiences with the promise of depicting one of America’s most fiercely debated scientific and wartime acts through the lens of one of its most championed blockbuster directors. In a much more satisfying sleight of hand, however, the majority of Oppenheimer is a series of two-handed interrogations–one very much in the public eye, one in the bureaucratic shadows–allowing Nolan to return to the claustrophobic psychologically-charged interiors of his Following and Insomnia days. While the creation of the bomb is what may get audiences in seats–it’s Nolan’s fascination with the weaponized ideals at play in the aftermath of the atom bomb’s creation that rightfully dominates the mammoth runtime of Oppenheimer. These sequences, however, still retain a thrilling pace and captivating visual sense–cross-cutting across multiple decades and perspectives to make each scene feel electrifyingly riveting and current. Nolan recognizes there’s just as much suspense to be found in the tiniest details of an actor’s performance as there is in an eagerly-awaited explosion–and the film’s meticulous editing by Jennifer Lame mines each of the film’s performances and enriches them to their most explosive potential.

Equally weaponized is the film’s murderers’ row of supporting actors, with Nolan impossibly managing to give each of them a moment to steal the spotlight from Cillian Murphy. Part of Oppenheimer’s thrill is not knowing just who might pop up next, with Nolan pretty much using these actors’ presence in modern pop culture as an emotional shorthand for the roles these scientists and officials played in their own era. Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma casts an increasingly dubious spell in his portrayal of Atomic Energy Commission leader Lewis Strauss, whose shepherding of America’s nuclear program reveals itself to be less about global scientific progress and more about American dominance. Kenneth Branagh’s Neils Bohr and Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein are jovial yet brow-furrowed mentors and colleagues to Oppenheimer. Matt Damon is ever a pragmatic optimist as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the military brass tasked with herding whatever nuclear physicist he can find to the project at Los Alamos–wholly placing his trust and political clout in theoretical science if it means bringing an end to the bloodshed of World War II. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, and Dane DeHaan turn in soft-spoken, menacing performances as President Harry Truman, Colonel Boris Pash, and Major General Kenneth Nichols–jaded or bloodthirsty men in power who flash smiles like knives in the pursuit of their single-minded goals, often at the cost of Groves, Oppenheimer, and the scientists at their disposal. There’s even room for a complicated and moving turn by none other than Josh Hartnett as a member of Oppenheimer’s Berkeley faculty who recognizes and confronts his colleague’s self-destructive behavior–chiding how Robert sees both scientific progress and Communism as paths to global unity as America seeks to use the former as a weapon against the latter. Not to mention further appearances by literally everyone including Benny Safdie, James Urbaniak, Jason Clarke, Macon Blair, David Dastmalchian, Christopher Denham, Alex Wolff, Jack Quaid, and Matthew Modine.

Rounding out the cast are Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer and Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, both driven and complicated figures in their own right who challenged Oppenheimer as much as consoled him throughout his life. Like the other fleeting characters throughout the picture, Kitty and Jean reveal more about Oppenheimer than themselves–although both Pugh and Blunt strive to give their characters a depth outside of being defined by Murphy’s leading role. Both women possess the same flaws as Robert–notably an impulsive mania that externalizes into behavior toeing the line between charisma and obsession; however, American society (then and now) allows men like Oppenheimer to frame such antics as part of their genius, while women like Kitty and Jean are forced to keep such inner turmoil repressed in order to maintain a patriarchal order. It’s Kitty who forces Oppenheimer to confront his own naïveté as a scientist; it’s Jean that provides Oppenheimer with a mirror to his own ego. But unlike past female roles in Inception or The Prestige, where women feel more totemic than anything else, Nolan seems acutely aware of the unfair sacrifices women like Kitty and Jean are forced to make in the name of others’ progress. Blunt’s ferocity in particular shines throughout Oppenheimer’s second half, as she questions the black-and-white nature of Americans’ hunt to root out Communists via her own lived experiences. However, one can’t help but feel like both Blunt and Pugh are underutilized throughout, perpetually in the crippling shadow of Murphy’s egomaniac scientist. Also notably portrayed is scientist Lilli Hornig by Olivia Thirlby, who is framed as a role-bucking participant of the Manhattan Project who eventually leads an internal charge against the eventual usage of scientists’ bomb research on civilians when the end of the War is already in sight.

For all of its stacked supporting cast, however, Oppenheimer can also be seen as Christopher Nolan’s love letter to Cillian Murphy, a collaborator of Nolan’s since 2005’s Batman Begins. Arguably his largest theatrical leading role since 2012’s Red Lights, Murphy’s increasingly gaunt stare is in nearly every IMAX-sized frame of Oppenheimer. The actor tackles the challenging role with steely resolve, charting an overwhelming journey from manic optimism to haunted fatalism with near-imperceptible tics and stares. It’s an incredibly committed performance that grounds Nolan’s film in a compelling emotional journey even as it navigates the complexities of theoretical physics and Washington political intrigue in addition to its bombastic set pieces; it’s a performance that even saves Oppenheimer during some of its more questionable artistic choices, notably its nude scenes of Murphy mid-interrogation in a more flat-footed illustration of Oppenheimer’s psychological vulnerability. With van Hoytema’s square frame, performances in Oppenheimer evoke the gravitas of silent-era features; with an unerring gaze on Murphy as Oppenheimer struggles to make sense of the world, it’s breathtaking how Nolan and van Hoytema make the world ripple and shake around their lead actor. There’s rarely a frame in Oppenheimer that doesn’t juxtapose Murphy’s cool demeanor with the raging of the natural world around him–a pairing that frequently externalizes the moral apocalypse a man like Oppenheimer faced the majority of his life.

In regards to its claustrophobic capturing of a morally-conflicted moment in history, Nolan’s Oppenheimer has more in common with films like Son of Saul as it does with the scientific hagiography of something like The Right Stuff. Nolan and Oppenheimer make no qualms about acknowledging the devastation the Manhattan Project wreaked not just upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also in the following decades. In its second half, it allows the film to pivot away from the noble efforts of bringing together the world’s top minds in pursuit of a common goal into how that idea of unity itself became a weapon of national self-interest. There’s a raw suspense Nolan finds in the battle for self-preservation the film’s characters face, one where alliances only last as long as they’re useful. In an ideologically bloodthirsty world as this, Oppenheimer’s position is an impossible one, as the physicist tasked with the scientific discoveries that may end thousands of lives to save countless more. Where Oppenheimer soars is the emotional collapse in the aftermath of this journey–when it becomes clear that, despite Oppenheimer’s dreams of creating a weapon to end all weapons, the atomic bomb isn’t seen as a last resort but the first step towards a fabled self-made armageddon. It’s a reality that Oppenheimer as a film is wholly convinced of, with each character either feebly denying its prospects or crumbling under the weight of their complicity in bringing such a future closer to reality. A jaw-dropping sequence where Oppenheimer applauds the efforts of Los Alamos scientists marks the chilling duality of this response–echoing, of all things, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in how people confront their own impending atrocities with stoic resolve, sobbing guilt, or vigorously-applauding enthusiasm.

For all of its technical wizardry and bravura performances, Oppenheimer’s greatest strength is in how it confronts and embraces the necessary reckoning for historical moments such as these. There’s natural posturing about the scruples involved in the choice to create a bomb and pick its targets, but even then such moral preening comes from those who take such reductive stances towards atrocities as a validation of their own unyielding and equally-destructive sense of nationalism. Through an intricate journey of moral justification and sincere optimism, Oppenheimer peels away thin veneers of moral righteousness until we are left with the idea that we are just as capable of our own self-destruction as we are of our possible redemption; everything else is just moral window dressing. The responsibility for what comes next is as much in the hands of those watching Oppenheimer as it was for the man it portrays–and by balancing this world-ending terror with the idea that we can still come together in the name of progress, Nolan hopes (perhaps in vain) that we’re as much creators of worlds as we are destroyers.

Oppenheimer hits theaters on July 21, 2023 courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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