Sometimes the close-ups of people’s faces are interrupted by flash-cuts of events that haven’t happened, or already happened. There are recurring images of flame, debris, and smaller chain-reaction explosions that resemble strings of firecrackers, as well as non-incendiary images that evoke other awful, personal disasters. (There are a lot of gradually expanding flashbacks in this film, where you see a glimpse of something first, then a bit more of it, and then finally the entire thing.) But these don’t just relate to the big bomb that Oppenheimer’s team hopes to detonate in the desert, or the little ones that are constantly detonating in Oppenheimer’s life, sometimes because he personally pushed the big red button in a moment of anger, pride or lust, and other times because he made a naive or thoughtless mistake that pissed somebody off long ago, and the wronged person retaliated with the equivalent of a time-delayed bomb. The “fissile” cutting, to borrow a physics word, is also a metaphor for the domino effect caused by individual decisions, and the chain reaction that makes other things happen as a result. This principle is also visualized by repeated images of ripples in water, starting with the opening closeup of raindrops setting off expanding circles on the surface that foreshadow both the ending of Oppenheimer’s career as a government advisor and public figure and the explosion of the first nuke at Los Alamos (which observers see, then hear, then finally feel, in all its awful impact).
The weight of the film’s interests and meanings are carried by faces—not just Oppenheimer’s, but those of other significant characters, including General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Los Alamos’ military supervisor; Robert’s suffering wife Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), whosej tactical mind could have averted a lot of disasters if her husband would have only listened; and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Atomic Energy Commission chair who despised Oppenheimer for a lot of reasons, including his decision to distance himself from his Jewish roots, and who spent several years trying to derail Oppenheimer’s post-Los Alamos career. The latter constitutes its own adjacent full-length story about pettiness, mediocrity, and jealousy. Strauss is Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart, regularly and often pathetically reminding others that he studied physics, too, back in the day, and that he’s a good person, unlike Oppenheimer the adulterer and communist sympathizer. (This film asserts that Strauss leaked the FBI file on his progressive and communist associations to a third party who then wrote to the bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover.)
The film speaks quite often of one of the principles of quantum physics, which holds that observing quantum phenomena by a detector or an instrument can change the results of this experiment. The editing illustrates it by constantly re-framing our perception of an event to change its meaning, and the script does it by adding new information that undermines, contradicts, or expands our sense of why a character did something, or whether they even knew why they did it.
That, I believe, is really what “Oppenheimer” is about, much more so than the atom bomb itself, or even its impact on the war and the Japanese civilian population, which is talked about but never shown. The film does show what the atom bomb does to human flesh, but it’s not recreations of the actual attacks on Japan: the agonized Oppenheimer imagines Americans going through it. This filmmaking decision is likely to antagonize both viewers who wanted a more direct reckoning with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who have bought into the arguments advanced by Strauss and others that the bombs had to be dropped because Japan never would have surrendered otherwise. The movie doesn’t indicate whether it thinks that interpretation is true or if it sides more with Oppenheimer and others who insisted that Japan was on its knees by that point in World War II and would have eventually given up without atomic attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. No, this is a film that permits itself the freedoms and indulgences of novelists, poets, and opera composers. It does what we expect it to do: Dramatize the life of Oppenheimer and other historically significant people in his orbit in an aesthetically daring way while also letting all of the characters and all of the events be used metaphorically and symbolically as well, so that they become pointillistic elements in a much larger canvas that’s about the mysteries of the human personality and the unforeseen impact of decisions made by individuals and societies.