After Tenet, a film with lots of spectacle but no plot whatsoever, it felt like Christopher Nolan had hit a bit of a dead end. Tenet wasn’t very well-received by anyone, and Oppenheimer is a fantastic vehicle for Nolan to reaffirm his status as a serious director whilst still playing to his strengths: it’s a biopic of an enigmatic, elusive genius, which also centres on the greatest spectacle of all, the detonation of a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear weapons feature a lot in American cinema, but almost exclusively in action and science fiction movies, apart from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which took probably the most rational artistic approach to nuclear war – namely, that the whole concept of Mutually Assured Destruction is so grotesque that it can only really be discussed in comic terms, since the real horror of it is beyond communication.
Nolan explores the disastrous ramifications of the Atomic Age through the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, genius physicist and leader of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer seemed like a genuinely weird, fascinating figure. Nobody could accuse Oppenheimer of banality. The problem, however, is that the requirements of a biopic which might do justice to him are contrary to the very nature of Nolan’s style.
There are three narratives running in Oppenheimer. The first tracks Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) from his training as a young physicist, through to the detonation of the Trinity device at Los Alamos. The second deals with an older Oppenheimer, fallen from grace, subjected to a McCarthy-era witch hunt over his Communist affiliations as a young man. The third narrative focuses on a side character, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, as he seeks Senate confirmation for a cabinet role.
The film cuts constantly between these narratives, in a way which is disorientating at first but soon makes sense. However, the film lives and dies to the extent that it provides a convincing portrait of Oppenheimer as a human being – and here, despite all the skill and tact you would expect from the brilliant Cillian Murphy, the film simply doesn’t work.
What struck me about Oppenheimer was how, even with its three-hour runtime, the film still felt rushed. Oppenheimer’s left-wing sympathies are, apart from the Manhattan Project itself, the key driver of the film’s narrative. Yet Nolan is simply not equipped to explore why so many intellectuals were, in the first half of the 20th century, convinced Marxists. The best we get is an exchange with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), an early love of Oppenheimer, to whom he describes Capital as “turgid” – although he does confess to liking Marx’s idea that “Property is theft” (which comes from French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, not from Marx). Given a great part of the film deals with Oppenheimer being hounded for his Communist past, it would be good to know what actually drew him to the ideology in the first place.
There are many similar instances where Nolan could explore the psyche of his protagonist, but turns aside instead, almost reflexively. For instance, in another scene with Jean, she asks him to translate from the original Sanskrit of the Bhagavad Gita. He obligingly recites the infamous line: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
Why did Oppenheimer take the time to teach himself Sanskrit? What did the Bhagavad Gita mean to him? Why was he so compelled to quote it at the culmination of his life’s work? The film simply skates over these questions, using Oppenheimer’s knowledge of Sanskrit as another example of how incredibly clever he is. Obviously Oppenheimer was operating on a level which us ordinary people will never fathom – but he was still a human being with his own private fixations, and Nolan shies away from that fact, preferring to view him as an agent of immutable Destiny, the “American Prometheus” (as he was named in the biography on which Oppenheimer was based).
This failure of characterisation permeates the entire film. No scene is allowed to breathe at all; every line is delivered with huge gravitas; there is always a crisis to be imminently averted. The soundtrack swells and thunders constantly, even when it is only accompanying two people talking quietly in a train carriage.
Nolan simply can’t let go of the Batman approach to filmmaking, no matter how little relation it has to the source material. The film shows how Los Alamos was established as a strange community in the desert, with homes, schools, and churches, surrounded by soldiers, operating under the strictest confidentiality imaginable. This seems like rich dramatic material, but Nolan instead gives us interminable macho discussions between Oppenheimer and his superior, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who has far too prominent a role in the movie. Oppenheimer’s domestic life is barely considered, and Emily Blunt, as his wife Kitty, is not present at all in the film except as an appendage of her husband.
There has been some criticism of Oppenheimer for failing to depict the suffering inflicted on the people who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is fair; Nolan clearly wanted to make a film about the atomic bomb in the abstract, just as he wanted to represent Oppenheimer himself not as a man but as Prometheus, a doomed, heroic figure out of myth. Mythical figures can’t be judged by human moral standards; they never had any choice in their actions. But this approach becomes quite distasteful when Oppenheimer is painted as an object of sympathy in the movie’s final act. If Nolan expects us to feel sorry about Oppenheimer’s shabby treatment at the hands of the American government, how exactly does he want us to feel about the victims of the atomic bomb? Prometheus had his liver torn out by birds for eternity; it’s hardly comparable to being kicked off a government think-tank because your former girlfriend was a socialist. The film simply doesn’t add up.
I will say that the depiction of the Trinity test itself is brilliantly done. We have all seen a thousand nuclear explosions in movies, but Nolan does create a genuinely arresting sequence. Visually, the film is great; and although the three plotlines never quite sit neatly alongside each other, and the Robert Downey Jr. narrative always feels a bit extraneous, Oppenheimer is edited in such a way that there is a constant sense of momentum throughout. However, taking the film on its own terms, as a character study of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan’s magnum opus is a striking yet sadly typical failure.
Oppenheimer is currently playing in cinemas.