At one point in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb dons his iconic uniform — a fedora cap, a smoking pipe, a slightly over-sized suit — like Batman wearing his cape and cowl for the first time. It’s a look that serves as a sort of armor against mere mortals, who he woos with a peculiar charisma, as well as the military and political bureaucracy he battles while leading the Manhattan Project. It’s also a way for J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) to ground himself as he wrestles with the major conflict around his work: Building an atomic bomb could help win the war, but at what cost to humanity?
Oppenheimer may seem like a curious project for Nolan: Since wrapping up his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, he’s thrown himself into increasingly complex projects (perhaps to atone for that disappointment). Interstellar was ostensibly a story about a man exploring the cosmos to find a new planet for humanity, but it also wrestled with personal sacrifices as his children aged beyond him.
Dunkirk was a purely cinematic, almost dialog-free depiction of a famous wartime evacuation. And Tenet was a bold attempt at mixing another heady sci-fi concept (what if you could go backwards through time?!) with bombastic James Bond-esque set pieces. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, is a mostly talky film set in a variety of meeting rooms, save for one explosive sequence.
Take a step back, though, and a film about an intelligent and very capable man wrestling with huge moral issues is very much in the Nolan wheelhouse. Oppenheimer’s swaggering genius fits right alongside Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, the dedicated magicians in The Prestige or the expert dream divers/super spies in Inception.
The film, which is based on the biography American Prometheus by Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird, follows Oppenheimer from his time in Germany as a doctoral student, to his professorship at UC Berkeley. He mingles with notable scientists, including Albert Einstein himself, and makes a name for himself as a quantum physics researcher. We see Oppenheimer as more than just a bookish geek: He sends money to anti-fascists fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he pushes for unionization among lab workers and professors, and he supports local Communists. (Something that will come back to haunt him later.)
It’s not too long before he’s recruited to the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and the myth-making truly begins. Like a Nolan heist film, he assembles a team of the brightest scientific minds in America and beyond, and he pushes the government to establish a town doubling as a secret research base in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The film is strongest when it focuses on the specificities of the Manhattan Project: the rush to build a bomb before Nazi Germany, the pushback from scientists terrified about the damage “the gadget” could do.
The movie firmly focuses on Oppenheimer’s point of view, so much so that we mainly see him as a heroic tortured genius. Only he can put the right scientists together and motivate them to work; only he can solve the riddles of quantum physics to keep America safe. Some colleagues criticize his cavalier attitude about building an atomic bomb — they think it can lead to untold disaster, while he naively thinks it may be so powerful it could end all war. But, for the most part, we’re left feeling that he was a great man who was ultimately betrayed by a country that didn’t care for his post-war anti-nuclear activism.
I wasn’t able to see Oppenheimer on an IMAX screen, unfortunately, but sitting front row in a local theater still managed to be a thoroughly immersive experience. That was particularly surprising since it’s really a movie featuring people (mostly men) talking to each other in a series of unremarkable rooms. Save for one virtuoso set piece — the build-up and aftermath of a successful atomic bomb test is Nolan at his best — what’s most impressive is how cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema makes those conversations utterly engaging. We’ve never seen Cillian Murphy’s piercing blue eyes do so much work in close-up.
Still, it’s an overall disjointed experience. The few featured women — Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, Florence Pugh as the Communist activist Jean Tatlock — are sketched thin, even by Nolan standards. And the movie would have benefitted from more insight into Oppenheimer’s thinking. It’s a surprisingly standard biopic, even though it’s three hours long and far more technical than any studio film this year.
At the very least, it would have been interesting to see Oppenheimer reckon more directly with the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We see him confront President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) in a vain attempt to stop building nuclear weapons, and the film points to his very public stance against future bombs. But even those scenes feel self-serving.
At the end of the film, Oppenheimer finally comes to understand something many of his colleagues have been saying from the beginning. Nothing will be the same because of him. There is no peace now, only the undying specter of nuclear annihilation.