Christopher Nolan’s haunting epic mixes triumph and tragedy.
AT ONE POINT NEAR THE END of American Prometheus—the 2005 biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin detailing the physicist’s effort to create the atomic bomb and the effort of his political enemies to tar him as a Communist after the fact, and the book on which the film Oppenheimer is based—the authors highlight Oppie’s annoyance with a popular play that closed with a monologue announcing his feelings of guilt about the creation, and deployment, of the atomic bomb.
“Such melodrama somehow cheapened the character of his ordeal,” Kai and Sherwin write. “In short, he thought the script poor drama precisely because it lacked ambiguity.”
I have no idea what Oppenheimer would make of Oppenheimer, but it is decidedly ambiguous in its treatment of two of the great moral quandaries of midcentury America: the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the maniacal effort to root out Communist infiltration (or “infiltration”) of America’s political, social, and educational classes. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) himself rests at the intersection of these two tempests, and it is through him that this storm will rage.
Oppenheimer is framed through two hearings. The first, in color, follows Oppie as he tries to maintain his atomic secrets security clearance in the face of accusations that his relationships—professional, social, and sexual—with Communists and support for liberal (and Communist-backed) causes represents a risk to national security, one that may or may not have led to the Soviet Union acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. As part of this hearing, Oppenheimer tells his life story, which we see in flashback.
The second hearing, in black and white, concerns Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) as he hopes to be confirmed by the Senate for a role in Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet. The matter of Oppenheimer’s persecution plays a central role in the debate; through a series of flashbacks, we see the role Strauss himself played in that farce, and the role his own insecurities played in trying to destroy the reputation of the father of the atomic bomb. Some have compared Oppenheimer to JFK, in large part thanks to the rhythmic nature of the editing, but thematically it calls to mind Amadeus and the ways in which petty inferiors obsessed with slights real and imagined used public opinion and the levers of power to destroy their betters.
THE TIMELINES DISCUSSED in the hearings occasionally intersect, but Nolan layers the chronological structure in such a way that it’s never confusing, each element amplifying or echoing the other in precise ways to keep the story—the meat of which is the flashback, Oppie’s life story as told by Oppie in his own hearing—moving.
For a movie that’s three hours long, occasionally in black and white, and features almost nothing but dudes chatting about science stuff, Oppenheimer absolutely zips along, moving us through his college years and early professional life with ease before we get to the heart of the matter: the development of Los Alamos and the creation of the atomic bomb. It helps that Nolan has assembled one of the greatest supporting casts of all time to deliver all of this intercutting dialogue; Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. both deserve awards-season consideration, but every single role is stocked with top-tier talent. A special kudos to Macon Blair, who perfectly portrays confused frustration as Oppenheimer’s put-upon lawyer, Lloyd Garrison, in Oppie’s Kafkaesque security hearing.
Keep up with all of Sonny Bunch’s movie review—and all of The Bulwark’s culture coverage—with a free or paid subscription.
Nolan, who wrote the screenplay in addition to directing the picture, does an admirable job of conveying both the urgency and necessity of the creation of the atomic bomb alongside the discomfort some of the scientists felt at the thought of creating a single bomb capable of killing thousands at a go. At the end of the day, however, Oppenheimer is less concerned with parsing the moral difference between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden (for good reason, since there is none), and more concerned with consequences of humanity’s unfortunate discovery of the ability to destroy itself. The fission bomb leads inexorably to the fusion bomb—the “super,” as Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), one of the scientists dead-set on creating a hydrogen bomb, calls it—and the fusion bomb has no battlefield benefit, unlike the tactical nukes Oppenheimer spent his later years arguing in favor of. The H-bomb is a weapon of pure destruction, pure terror: a promise that great power conflict will quickly devolve into world-destroying conflict.
This destruction, mutually assured, may stave off conflict, but for someone who sees the world through a quantum lens, the very possibility of that destruction is nearly too much to bear. Oppenheimer, at times of great stress, sees the world as living and destroyed simultaneously. One might think of him as seeing the world in a constant state of Schrödinger’s Annihilation. The strain is evident on Murphy’s face as he delivers the greatest performance of his career.
IT IS HARD NOT TO THINK OF Nolan’s Dunkirk and Oppenheimer as two parts of a midcentury epic. The first marked the decline of one empire managed by an exhausted elite; the second chronicles the rise of another, this one managed by mediocrities who relied on scientific elites to give them the power to end all life on Earth.
Oppenheimer mimics Dunkirk’s stylistic designation of the timelines—the color section is labeled “1. Fission” and the black and white “2. Fusion,” a clear echo of Dunkirk’s delineation of 1. The Mole, 2. The Sea, and 3. The Air—and the two are clearly in conversation with each other. Dunkirk’s closing lines involve Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) reading Churchill’s speech: “And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island . . . were subjugated and starving. . . . Then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle. Until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.” In the script for Dunkirk, that sequence fades to black on Tom Hardy’s burning Spitfire. In the film, however, there’s one last cut: back to Tommy, who looks up from his newspaper and not quite into the camera—and thus, not at us, the present-day viewer—but just off of it.
As if he’s caught a vision of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s gaunt face reflected in his train’s window. He is, after all, the man who will truly marshal all of the New World’s power and might. And he is the man who will be crucified for trying to contain the atomic fire stolen from Olympus before it can consume the New World—and the Old.