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.
How do you make a film where the result is ultimately known before the audience even steps into the theater? This was classically the dilemma for many directors and writers who attempt to tackle world events, especially historically mammoth ones that the end result is a foregone conclusion. James Cameron tackling the Titanic sinking comes to mind. Of course Cameron’s approach was to wrap a fictional narrative around the historical event, giving you a manufactured viewpoint through which to see the inevitable horror as it looms large.
In his latest, and best, film, Christopher Nolan tackles a somehow even larger historical event: the creation of the atomic bomb, under the leadership of enigmatic theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. From the first frame, you know where this story heads, and the heavy shadow it casts over the history of warfare ever since. Or at least you think you know how the story goes.
But Nolan’s magic trick, as is often the case, is not in the story he is telling, but more precisely how he chooses to tell it. Yes, the audience is never curious if Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and the other fast-talking physicists behind the Manhattan Project will succeed in their task. Of course they will. But by bending time over on itself, not dissimilar to how he did in Memento, Nolan masterfully reframes the life of Oppenheimer, presenting his life previous to the bomb, and his tortured, guilt-laden life afterwards. By injecting his puzzle-box logic, best demonstrated by films like Memento and The Prestige, Nolan is able to get past the pure facts of Oppenheimer’s life to avoid the danger of creating a dry, if compelling, portrait of an individual, playing less like book report or documentary but as a psychological study of what it must feel like to doom humanity to an endless nuclear nightmare.
Which is not to suggest that Nolan’s portrait of “Oppie” is especially flattering. He is regularly displayed as an absent father, philanderer, conceited and difficult to get along with. He sympathizes with leftist politics, but also pragmatically is never a joiner, seeing any ideology as too incomplete to earn his full support. Time and again it is highlighted how Oppenheimer is more interested in theory than reality, conceiving the atomic bomb as a necessary evil to beat the Nazis to it, but also unable to accept his own culpability in creating a weapon of war. It’s not a bomb, after all; it’s a gadget.
The other pole of the film is Lewis Strauss, a connected businessman, Navy admiral and advocate for increased nuclear weaponry, played in a career-highlight performance by Robert Downey Jr. Strauss’ part of the story is told throughout, in black-and-white segments where he is facing a confirmation hearing to be placed on Eisenhower’s cabinet. But previous encounters with a post-bomb Oppenheimer, increasingly a critic of further nuclear proliferation, threaten to rattle his confirmation. And there is another mysterious interview that an elder Oppenheimer is subjected to, the full reality of which is not revealed until the film’s final act, but also is a matter of known historical record. This is one of those cases where the less you know of Oppenheimer’s life, the more the film’s unfolding of the narrative will grab you.
Thus is the odd crossroads that Nolan as both writer and director is attempting to balance. The events he is depicting as of upmost importance, amongst the most tragically significant in the history of human development that we all still live in the aftermath of. But by grounding the story on Oppie, and those in his immediate orbit, it allows for the human drama to meet the unimaginable weight of the moment. As it tumbles towards the inevitable, and we see the building of Los Alamos, the eventual detonation of the Trinity bomb, and the bombing of Japan in the name of ending World War II, we are deep under the skin for Oppenheimer. His immense guilt, his sense of shame and concern, is written across Murphy’s taut expression.
Murphy and Downey are far from the only exceptional performances in the film. Josh Hartnett puts in his own career best performance as Ernest Lawrence, a partner of Oppenheimer who turns his theories into practical results, and challenges his friend to keep his left-leaning politics to himself if he wants to have a hand in stopping the Nazi war machine. Emily Blunt tears through her scenes as Robert’s oft-suffering wife, who turns to alcoholism in the wake of having an unavailable, unfaithful partner. Matt Damon gives grounded warmth to Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer’s military liaison and often comic foil. There are a scattered few other surprising cameos throughout, including a previous Nolan collaborator making a one-scene appearance in the most scathingly critical depiction of an actual American president ever committed to film.
But for all the star power is best implemented by the man at the helm. This is unquestionably Nolan’s finest work to date by a healthy margin, combining his love for meticulously plotted playful filmmaking to a much more ambitious subject matter than he has ever tackled before. What’s more surprising is just how much humor and humanity is able to inject into it as well; especially the scenes between Oppenheimer and Groves are intentionally and effectively funny, lending credence to the camaraderie of their unlikely relationship, but also releasing the valve slightly. There are moments of horror alongside moments of triumph, often in the same breath; Oppenheimer is an exhaustive exploration of every angle of the atomic age as we think of it. It is both amazing and terrifying to imagine we are capable of this.
By taking seriously the precise imagination that led us there, Nolan and Murphy’s depiction of not just this moment but the totality of that weight creates an inescapable guilt, pain and a longing for retribution that is impossible to achieve. It lingers in the cracks of one remarkable person’s psyche, but also creates space for our own reflection and anxiety, a sense of the world teetering on the edge, and all of us are hopeless to stop it. Even those that are at the very front lines.