What makes a Christopher Nolan film? Many argue the unmatched cinematography, the technical sharpness, and the seamless dilution of the cinematic apparatus into the plot. Many believe it is the experience of the film, the raw and pedantic dialogues spoken by the deliberately humane characters within a fantastical plot and conversely, the fantastical script etched within a realistic plot. Oppenheimer is both — and much more.
The over three-hour-long biographical retelling of J. Robert Oppenheimer, draws from the realness of a Memento (2000) and the grandeur of an Inception (2010).
The film is a study of and an enquiry into the enigmatic life and complex legacy of Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist who played a pivotal role in the development of the atomic bomb that ended World War II. Ahead of 1945, the United States and its then allies were afraid that their enemies would develop nuclear weapons first, so they began the Manhattan Project, a secret research effort led by Oppenheimer.
The culmination of it was the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which killed around 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and to this date stands as the world’s first and worst testament of the infinitely-destructive power of the nuclear weapon — and the human mind.
Through his latest epic, Nolan refrains from pontificating on the ethics that surround Oppenheimer’s legacy but implores the audience to think. The modern-day auteur puts his best foot forward with this film. He combines an extraordinarily sharp script with Jennifer Lame’s [Tenet, Marriage Story, Hereditary] elliptical editing cutting across time (differentiated by the presence and absence of colour on screen), Hoyte van Hoytema [Tenet, Interstellar, Dunkirk] controlled yet dramatic cinematography in the large-format IMAX system, and the sprawling deserts of New Mexico.
He assembles an equally vast star-cast led by Cillian Murphy as the titular character; Matt Damon as the sturdy and unflinchingly loyal to his own heart, more than his country, General Leslie Groves, the military supervisor of the Manhattan Project; Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s helpless yet resolute wife Kitty; Robert Downey Jr., as the morally ambiguous Lewis Strauss, the Atomic Energy Commission chair who found himself at crossroads with Oppenheimer; Dane DeHaan as Strauss’ faithful sidekick Kenneth Nichols; Josh Hartnett as Dr. Ernst Lawrence, Benny Safdie as theoretical physicist Dr. Edward Teller; Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s lost lover and mistress Jean Tatlock; and an enchanting Tom Conti as Albert Einstein.
There are also some unmissable and striking cameos: Gary Oldman as President Harry Truman, Kenneth Branagh as Nobel-laureate Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Rami Malek as the great experimental American physicist David L. Hill, and Matthias Schweighöfer as German theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg.
The first half of the film revolves around the primary characters endlessly deliberating the creation of the atomic bomb, under the helm of Oppenheimer, who carries his wife and child along with his entire entourage of scientist companions, students, and friends to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to embark on the apocalyptic Manhattan Project.
The Irish actor who has proven his method-like prowess of blending into the character, particularly as Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders, wears the unease of being Oppenheimer with the utmost ease. Murphy defines the film as Nolan’s magnum opus. “I’ll be there for any part he wants if he wants a sword carrier — I’m there,” says Murphy about his 20-year and 5-film-long stint with Nolan.
Oppenheimer is brimming with close-ups. Close-up after close-up shows star Murphy’s face staring into the distance, off-screen, and often directly into the lens, while he sinks deep into the complexities of his mind. The technique of close-ups is deployed on the other characters as well, whose smiles contract into fearful frowns upon realising the immeasurable weight of their actions.
Nolan uses leitmotifs of flame, debris, ripples of water, tapping feet, and smaller chain-reaction explosions that resemble strings of firecrackers, as well as non-incendiary images that evoke internal turmoil, creating an extremely tense build-up, as if to constantly derail the impending explosion.
The explosion, happening simultaneously within and outside of Oppenheimer is accentuated by Ludwig Göransson’s [Tenet, Black Panther, Creed] exceptional background score. The violin-heavy score is interspersed with atmospheric sounds, breaking into foot-stomps, clock-ticking, and bass-thumping that gradually builds up through the first half of the film — signalling the arrival of the big bomb blast. However, when the moment finally arrives, Göransson completely rids the screen of sound. An eerie, ominous silence accompanies the ultimate explosion of Oppenheimer, deafening enough to get the audience truly thinking.
The film traces the creator of the first nuclear weapon pleading for nuclear non-proliferation at the height of his displaced fame — which continually plagues him, bringing him down from the pedestal of a groundbreaking scientist to a mere guilt-ridden mortal. Further, his scientific brilliance is in constant contradiction with his non-pragmatic ways of living, leftist ideologies, and appetite for showmanship. Murphy portrays a character so gray, that forming a solid opinion is the most challenging task for the viewer.
The magic of the film, however, lies in its palpability. Nolan compels the audience to go through the guilt and fear spiral that consumes Oppenheimer himself. The audience gasps when he reads from the Bhagvad Gita “Now I am become death; The destroyer of worlds” — a visceral moment that foreshadows his inevitable doom.
Oppenheimer is quickly denied credibility, as money, power, and the hegemonic United States government takes over his weapon of destruction. And in his eventual defeat, lies the reality of today’s nuclear-fuelled world, despite the existence of the NPT, CTBT, SALT-I and similar immaterial agreements between nations whose interactions are defined by deterrence versus defence.
The value-loaded ending reveals Nolan’s intent going into the film, which blurs the lines between facts and fiction, depicting the human experience of the men behind the most crucial point in history. Oppenheimer represents a sublime anti-hero who is trapped at the intersection of science and politicisation of it.
The combination of visual grandeur, technical flair, and emotional intimacy is what makes a Nolan film, what makes it truly great, and in the case of Oppenheimer, one of his finest, is the lingering feeling of mystery and rumination around the human condition — constantly at the brink of the next war and the next explosion.
Amarabati Bhattacharyya is a journalist and writer based in Kolkata, West Bengal with a keen interest in global affairs, human rights, and culture.