As well as examining the drives and origins of the man, Oppenheimer embraces the complexities of quantum mechanics, Hindu scripture, wartime strategies, post-war strategies, fascism, communism, McCarthyism, kangaroo courts, and the prescient flexibility of truth. All while shooting in colour and black-and-white with IMAX cameras in varying aspect ratios.
Nolan also writes the screenplay (based on the Pulitzer-winning biography American Prometheus) and, continuing his career-long playfulness with time, he tells the multilateral story in a scattered, non-linear order with the kind of haste that few can get away with. It’s the fall-out haze of a divisive life. Nolan couldn’t do simple if he tried, and Oppenheimer proves one of his least conventional films and his best since Interstellar.
Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) and J Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). Photo: Universal
Robert (Cillian Murphy, at the zenith of his career) is assured by the sceptical faces of the 1954 security hearing that they are ‘not judges’. It’s a perfect way to open a film that strives not to judge the man, but to understand him in spite of his flaws. As well as inventing the weapon that would change global warfare forever, he's also awkward, adulterous and occasionally spineless.
His scientific motivations spin between advancing the ‘New Physics’ into practice and superseding equivalent developments by the Nazis in WWII. His romantic and sexual nature is divided: his depressed wife Kitty (a scene-stealing Emily Blunt) on one side and his younger mistress Jean Tatlock (a regularly bare Florence Pugh) on the other.
And while you hop from big and small courtrooms to Robert’s development as a Cambridge physicist, the story also branches off in black-and-white to the founder of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (a layered portrayal by a post-Marvel Robert Downey, Jr). Strauss is the political villain of the piece, symbolising the dishonest and deceptive US political culture.
Robert Downey, Jr as Lewis Strauss. Photo: Universal
These parallel strands provide an inspired exercise in perspective, which is rare territory for Nolan who tends toward plot-driven objectivity. Angles and expressions change from character to character. Dreams and uncomfortable imaginings invade Robert’s waking life, even grazing the surreal at times – especially when they combine sex, death and power.
One daring scene even has Robert recite his infamous Bhagavad Gita reference (‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’) during an erotically charged moment with Jean. Nolan takes a surprising turn toward the psychosexual, and this critic is all here for it.
Preceded by historic meetings with eminent physicists like Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and even Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), much of the middle act focuses on the construction of the atom bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Alongside the sharp gathering of scientists, military officer Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) contributes necessary comic relief as much as a sweary, pragmatic energy to the Manhattan Project.
Nolan is always a director of details, and there’s enormous scientific satisfaction in observing tests where the sound arrives seconds after the explosion. The inevitable, apocalyptic light of the Trinity Test – shot using analogue methods without CGI – reacts like a deep breath before the soundwaves reach the witnesses, before its genocidal potential is realised. It’s an intensely bittersweet moment: the success of the scientists’ efforts to end the war matched with the plutonium hellfire the bomb will unleash on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not to mention the never-ending arms race that will follow.
The best films often cloud your perceptions as you re-enter the world. After experiencing Oppenheimer, it’s a mushroom cloud. One that questions the ostensible safety around you. Streets and people burn in your mind, as they do in Robert’s – summarised in a terrifying final line that haunts every step home. Nolan not only tells the story of Oppenheimer the man, but also of the world he created and will potentially destroy.
Oppenheimer will be in UK cinemas on Friday 21 July
21 Jul 23 – 21 Jul 24, IN CINEMAS
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