Oppenheimer review: Christopher Nolan masterfully captures one of history’s defining figures
As the so-called "father of the atomic bomb", American theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer was also, in a sense, the granddaddy of modern spectacle, setting off a big bang whose blast radius spread out across the entirety of modern culture. Few images were more terrifying – or more awesome – than the mushroom cloud generated by a nuclear explosion, an image seared into the visual language of politics, media and entertainment of the late 20th century and beyond.
Even his famously cheerful quote – "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" – has come to sound less like a lift from the Bhagavad Gita than a quip from a movie supervillain presiding over some de rigueur apocalypse.
It's fitting, then, that this seismic story (based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin) should be brought to the screen by Christopher Nolan, that reigning brainiac of the blockbuster whose gift for engineering spectacle has made him one of the key architects of the new millennium's multiplex.
In this age of cookie-cutter IP, the British filmmaker is one of the few remaining auteurs capable of commanding a studio budget to mount an original project of scale and ambition, and to his credit he's used that clout to deliver what is essentially a three-hour movie comprised of men talking in close-ups (call it the fedora-friendly Women Talking), albeit staged in towering 70mm IMAX that renders its subjects as starched-collar colossuses.
In taking on the moral complexity of a brilliant, hubristic visionary, it also feels like Nolan is reckoning with his own place in the history of 21st-century cinema, as a destroyer of cinematic worlds, whose blockbuster Batman films played a significant part in reshaping the contemporary movie landscape.
From a certain point of view, it might be the most personal film he's ever made.
Nolan regular Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins; Inception), his otherworldly blue eyes and pout looming almost comically large, plays Oppenheimer, who we first meet at the centre of the US government's 1954 security hearing led by Lewis Strauss, the atomic energy commissioner with a political and personal axe to grind (he's played by a slippery Robert Downey Jr., reminding us of the great actor he was before entering a decade-plus purgatory of glib Marvel mugging).
Couched in grainy, newsreel black-and-white, it's all stuffy courtrooms and stiff suits, McCarthyism and Red Scare in full flight, as the investigating committee tries to lay blame for an information leak in the Manhattan Project on Oppenheimer and his suspected communist sympathies.
At the same time, the movie enters a series of nested, structurally ambitious flashbacks, to Oppenheimer's first meeting with Strauss – and what will become a pivotal encounter with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) – and to his early career in the 20s and 30s, as he transforms from an anxious Cambridge student with a headful of T.S. Eliot and Picasso to an assured Berkeley academic whose idealistic curiosity draws him into the orbit of left-wing radicals.
From these circles come Oppenheimer's great romances. There's Jean Tatlock (a fleeting but fiery Florence Pugh), a young physician with whom he enters a prolonged, sporadic affair, and Katherine 'Kitty' Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt, mostly relegated to performing 'alcoholic wife'), a jaded former radical who he would go on to marry.
Nolan's dabbling in romance, never one of his strong suits, alternately yields some of the film's clumsiest and prettiest images. An intimate scene where Oppenheimer reads his soon-to-be-infamous quote from the Sanskrit text – which Jean holds just below her naked breasts – is as charmingly awkward in its sex-and-death fusion as it is brazen for daring to exist in this age of the chaste blockbuster. Scenes of Oppenheimer and Kitty swooning against the Santa Fe ranch sky – with the former looking like a gaunt cowboy detective – have the spooky sweep of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's work on Jordan Peele's fantastic Nope, another film with a view to unpacking cinema's fraught spectacle.
One of Nolan's great strokes is to splice Oppenheimer's thoughts, and Murphy's glassy, galactic stare, into cosmic montages of swirling molecules, particles and dying stars (a fittingly Kuleshovian move), impressionistic images that have the effect of a Stan Brakhage film projected onto a planetarium dome. (It's hard to imagine Nolan didn't take a cue from the atomic sequence in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return, a dizzying macro zoom into a mushroom cloud that remains one of the greatest sequences ever put to screen.)
Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame (Tenet) build this montage to show-stopping effect in the film's centrepiece, as Oppenheimer and his team, under the supervision of gung-ho Colonel Leslie Groves (a reliably buoyant Matt Damon), race to build and test an atomic bomb at a secret site in the Los Alamos desert. It's a typically bravura sequence, full of stark images of men slathered in sunscreen and wearing fly-eye goggles, but it's even more remarkable for what it withholds; just as the blast hits, Nolan lets his stentorian sound mix fall away, leaving us in the stark company of human breathing.
It's this sense of anti-spectacle that gives Oppenheimer its curious, cumulative power.
True to the director's form, Oppenheimer plays more or less like a three-hour trailer, with endlessly clipped scenes and thunderous, wall-to-wall music from composer Ludwig Göransson that goes from elegantly weird to overbearing, especially as it thrums beneath scenes of otherwise subdued dialogue. It's all tease with little payoff, befitting a tapestry of frustrated men squabbling over weapons of mass destruction.
Yet all of this works to enhance Oppenheimer's strange effect, not to diminish it, and by the film's final moments it has, often by sheer force rather than any kind of elegance, cemented itself as an enormous, ugly-beautiful object infused with as much melancholy as bombast.
"You're the American Prometheus, the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves," Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) tells Oppenheimer. In examining that power through the spectacle it indirectly inspired, Nolan's film opens up a fascinating conversation with both the destruction of the past and the cinema of the present. Go see it.
Oppenheimer is in cinemas now.
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