As a young academic, J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the early days of the field known as quantum mechanics. This was more than a new science, one of Oppenheimer’s associates claims, but a “new way to understand reality.” One can imagine Christopher Nolan’s ears perking up when he heard that phrase. As a director, he is particularly focused on movies that present new ways to understand reality; to break apart and contemplate the rigid rules of time and space, to contemplate the nature of human consciousness and subconscious.
Nolan’s subject in Oppenheimer is a bit more straightforward than some of his more fanciful thrillers — it’s a biopic about its title character, the scientist and academic widely regarded as the father of the atomic bomb — but its structure is as twisty and complex as any Nolan has ever devised. It cuts between several different timelines (some in color and others in black and white) to chronicle Oppenheimer’s rise and fall from public life. At some points, Oppenheimer nimbly bounces between four different but connected temporalities simultaneously, each one reflecting different aspects of Oppenheimer’s story. At three hours long with dozens of speaking roles, it’s got to be the weightiest and most ambitious $100 million movie a studio has released in the middle of the summer in many years.
At the center of it all — the nucleus around which all of this epic tale’s particles orbit — is Cillian Murphy, giving a transformative performance brimming with intelligence and barely contained emotion. (He also looks and sounds nothing like the man we’ve come to know from films like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Red Eye, and Nolan’s own Batman Begins.) A curious intellectual with liberal political leanings and a distaste for dogmatic thinking, Oppenheimer associated with (and in some cases did a whole lot more than associate with) Communists in his early years, something that will become enormously important when the U.S. government recognizes the need to build an atomic bomb before the Nazis can, and the military man in charge of the project (Matt Damon) identifies Oppenheimer as the most qualified candidate to lead such an effort.
Damon’s General Groves pushes through Oppenheimer’s appointment and security clearance, and Oppenheimer in turn brings together some of the best scientific minds of the 20th century to build what his team refers to as “the gadget.” The effort (spoiler alert) is successful, and Oppenheimer’s role in the Manhattan Project makes him one of the most famous men in the world. But in the years after World War II, Oppenheimer’s past puts him at odds with the Eisenhower administration and the Red Scare. When his security clearance comes up for renewal, the Atomic Energy Commission convenes a hearing that appears to exist solely to discredit and embarrass him for his political affiliations.
Nolan’s script, which he based on the award-winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, arrays these hearing sequences atop of and in between Oppenheimer’s work at Los Alamos — and then adds an additional timeline set several years after the hearings, during the Senate confirmation for a colleague of Oppenheimer’s, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), which threatens to expose even more secrets about Oppenheimer. Past and present collide more frequently in Oppenheimer than in Nolan’s Tenet, which was a film about a technology that actually allowed humanity to invert entropy.
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That’s a choice that is jarring at first, but its purpose gradually becomes clear along with Oppenheimer’s larger themes about how carefully considered actions often spark unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences — like the ripples in a puddle of water that Oppenheimer observes in the film’s very first scene. The tricky structure also helps Nolan keep Oppenheimer from becoming a more traditional (read: boring) biopic. By laying this man’s triumphs and tragedies side by side, he also shows they were inextricably linked — again, underscoring the movie’s ideas about chain reactions.
Murphy’s Oppenheimer occasionally discusses the theoretical possibility of what we now know as black holes. Before his time at Los Alamos, he wrote a paper on the existence of “dark stars” that contain so much gravity that not even light can escape it — and thus we cannot see them with the naked eye. But the stars in Oppenheimer are plainly visible, and right up until the very end of the movie, they keep popping up in scene after scene. Some, like Dane DeHaan, play small but important supporting roles (in his case, that of a military man working on the Manhattan Project who later became an important figure in the government’s moves to discredit Oppenheimer). Other huge-name talents appear in cameos so small that they cannot even be characterized as glorified. (Gary Oldman drawls Harry S. Truman’s words of thanks on behalf of a grateful nation to Oppenheimer during a tense visit to the Oval Office.)
These familiar faces — Alex Wolff! Tony Goldwyn! Benny Safdie! David Dastmalchian! Matthew Modine! David Krumholtz! Alden Ehrenreich! Jason Clarke! Josh Hartnett! Kenneth Branagh! Jack Quaid! James Urbaniak! — make Oppenheimer the single most impressive assemblage of “that guy” screen acting talent of the 21st century. But they also serve a practical purpose. Oppenheimer’s career and various post-Manhattan Project scandals contain so many important players that it becomes all but impossible (at least for a layperson like yours truly) to remember of everyone’s names and historical roles. Being able to recognize the actors in those roles helps to keep the basics of the drama clear.
Sometimes Nolan’s poetic visual flourishes conflict with these characters’ expository tendencies. There are a lot of speeches in Oppenheimer about patriotism and loyalty and morality; some of them work, while others feel a little redundant when they are presented in context with Nolan’s complex editing scheme and striking images. (The movie’s final thesis is pretty obvious well before Oppenheimer himself spells it out in the last scene.)
American Prometheus was over 700 pages long; in that sense, we might actually consider the three-hour Oppenheimer a work of remarkable brevity. Even at three hours, though, there are a few people in this story who deserved more attention, most crucially Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, who had a fascinating life before she even met him at a dinner party. Oppenheimer’s complex relationship with Kitty — and their shared relationship with a fiery and emotionally troubled Communist played by Florence Pugh — loom large in Oppenheimer’s mind, yet take up very little of the actual runtime.
Those quibbles aside, Oppenheimer is intelligent non-IP-driven filmmaking on a scale we simply don’t see in movie theaters anymore — especially not in mid-July. At this time of year, we’re so used to movies filled with explosions we become numb to them. Oppenheimer really only contains one bomb — one whose fate we know right from the start — but it’s astonishing how much drama that one blast generates, because Nolan so clearly shows what it meant, not only to Oppenheimer, but to the entire world. Everything about Oppenheimer recalls the title character’s description of light to a classroom of students. Light, he explains, can be understood as both a wave and a particle.
“It’s paradoxical,” he shrugs, “but it works.”
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