'Oppenheimer' Is Explosive, but Its Best Parts Look Inward

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, David Krumholtz, Dane DeHaan

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures

BY Rachel HoPublished Jul 20, 2023

In Greek mythology, two brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus, were tasked with populating the world. Prometheus moulded a variety of creatures out of clay, and Epimetheus gifted upon them positive attributes to help them survive. After Prometheus fashioned humans, he stole fire from the gods to help us, and was chained to a rock for millennia as punishment. 

Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer begins with a two-line retelling of this tale and ultimately unravels the real-life paradox of Prometheus's transgression: fire is gifted to humans for their survival, only for it to become the demise of humanity. Across three hours, the creation, execution and indictment of the Manhattan Project and its leader is explored in a haunting fight between logic and reason, the ends and the means, man and narcissism.

Although adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer is far from being a straightforward biopic about one of history's most famed theoretical physicists. Instead, the film plays out as one part history lesson, one part against-the-clock-thriller, and one part political espionage — all while morality hangs in the balance.

For a director who is steadfast in his loyalty to past collaborators, Cillian Murphy is the obvious choice for Nolan's Dr. Oppenheimer. His appearance aside (granted, those icy blue eyes and sharp cheekbones go a long way in illustrating the scientist's sunken and mesmerizing character), Murphy's ability to bring hope and despair with the slightest facial movement and vocal affectation brings to life the complexity of Oppenheimer. It's through Murphy's performance that the overarching themes and considerations around the development of the atomic bomb can be presented as a universal story encompassing all of human history while maintaining the heightened singularity of this particular moment.

Surrounding Murphy is a who's who of Hollywood talent. Given the breadth of the film's subject, many important players are understandably short-changed: Emily Blunt's Kitty Oppenheimer, David Krumholtz's Isidor Isaac Rabi, Florence Pugh's Jean Tatlock, Dane DeHaan's Kenneth Nichols, Benny Safdie's Edward Teller and even Matt Damon's Leslie Groves aren't given much depth despite receiving substantial screen time. The only other person to receive a similar examination to Dr. Oppenheimer is Lewis Strauss, a politician and former chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Strauss, played by a terrific Robert Downey Jr., serves as Oppenheimer's guide and narrator. As Nolan shuttles between timelines — it is a Nolan movie after all — navigating Oppenheimer's early career starting in 1924, before and after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the AEC's prolonged inquiry over Oppenheimer's security clearance renewal in 1954, and Strauss's Senate nomination hearing in 1959, Strauss looms over the film from beginning to end.

For Nolan's part, he makes following the different timelines easy, shifting colour palettes and lenses to give audiences a sense of time without having to watermark the screen with years or locations. Out of necessity, Nolan front-loads Oppenheimer with a dense introduction to the science, politics and social economics of the time, as well as the many people involved. It's when the Trinity test is on the horizon, and the subsequent demonstration itself, that Oppenheimer truly opens up

As an audience, we're all too aware that the Trinity test was successful, and yet, Nolan creates a sequence that is so gripping and intense that a part of my brain began to second guess the outcome. Arguably the primary reason for such tension is Ludwig Göransson

In his second collaboration with Nolan, Göransson composes a violin-heavy score that aggressively feeds into the gravity of every scene. For the Trinity test, he punctuates the "near-zero" stakes wherein the world could be destroyed by the push of a button with a grandiose build up that hits its climax as the extraordinary mushroom cloud of fire fills the screen (remarkably done without CGI). But where Göransson's score really pays dividends is following the atomic attacks, when reality has set in for Oppenheimer as he faces a crowd full of cheering Americans. Aided by Richard King's sound design and Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography, an instance of perceived victory becomes a moment of terror as Göransson's strings mix with echoing screams in the distance.

Nolan is often criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for making films that are cold and detached. With Oppenheimer, Nolan brings the force of one of modern history's most world-altering events in a manner that may seem heartless on the surface, free of outward displays of the actual human suffering caused by Oppenheimer's creation. However, it's through the physicist's downfall, and redemption of sorts, that Nolan gets to the unsettling heart of humanity and all its intricacies.

When Zeus bound Prometheus to a rock for his offence, he sent an eagle to eat Prometheus's liver. As his liver grew back over night, the eagle returned the next day to once again devour the organ; eternal torture as punishment for his betrayal. Conversely, Epimetheus was sent to live among the humans, sharing the history of those before them in the hopes that they would learn from it.

Oppenheimer considers whether J. Robert Oppenheimer was both Prometheus and Epimetheus, the forethinker and afterthinker — clever and a fool. He readily understood the weight of his computations and their consequences well before August 6, 1945, and was tortured for the rest of his days because of it; he also, rather naïvely, worked with policymakers, sharing his knowledge with the belief that he could contain the use of nuclear weapons.

In true Nolan fashion, he doesn't posit an answer or grant an opinion to the unending debate around the Manhattan Project. Rather, he interrogates Oppenheimer as a man through a thoughtful and introspective study of integrity and our misgivings as a species. The visuals and technical aspects of Oppenheimer were always going to inspire praise, but it's Nolan's look at our frailty that sets this film in the upper echelon of an already famed filmography.
(Universal Pictures)

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