One of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has made over USD 900 million globally as of September 2023, 2 months since the film’s global release. Based on American Prometheus, a biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, the critically acclaimed film is Nolan’s third highest grossing, behind only The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. For an R-rated historical biopic where characters are mostly just talking (albeit with dramatic background music), it’s no small feat to achieve such commercial and critical success.
A quick summary of the film for the unacquainted: Oppenheimer follows physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, commonly known as the father of the atomic bomb, and director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos division. Three main periods of time are explored in the movie, with the film jumping back and forth between them. Firstly, the ‘main’ story, depicting Oppenheimer being recruited to develop the atomic bomb. This thread continues into the Manhattan project itself, culminating in the Trinity test, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Secondly, an older Oppenheimer is questioned by a kangaroo court (a court that generally ignores due process to arrive at a predetermined conclusion) about his past communist ties, ending with his security clearance not being renewed. The third and final strand of the film is shown in black and white, and follows former AEC chairman Lewis Strauss and his senate confirmation hearing. Here, it is revealed that his conflicts with Oppenheimer regarding nuclear policy led him to orchestrate the aforementioned kangaroo court, leading to Strauss not being nominated for the senate. The three plot threads are weaved together throughout the movie, with cuts from one to another highlighting the long term consequences of each action.
Nolan: The Director
Christopher Nolan is a highly acclaimed director, and his fingerprints can be seen all over Oppenheimer. Like many of Nolan’s films (such as Interstellar, Inception and Tenet), Oppenheimer deals with time in a nonlinear fashion, jumping back and forth between the three periods of Oppenheimer’s life. Black and white filmography reminiscent of Memento is also used, primarily to separate Strauss’s point of view from Oppenheimer’s, his world drained of colour by his bitterness and single-minded vengefulness against Oppenheimer, which leads to his downfall. The use of black and white also, according to Nolan, denotes to the audience that they are watching Oppenheimer’s story with an objective lens, provided by an outside observer to Oppenheimer’s life.
Another tool that Nolan frequently uses with great effect is music. Although Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s longtime collaborator, does not return to score Oppenheimer, composer Ludwig Göransson (Tenet, Black Panther) does not fall short. The strings-heavy score carries a similar anxiety and tension to many of Zimmer’s scores, notably that of Interstellar. Where Zimmer evokes the ticking clock in Interstellar, Göransson uses ticks reminiscent of a Geiger counter, counting off the radiation emanating from the atomic device. Layered violins crescendo as the Trinity test draws nearer, with short rhythmic strings pushing viewers to the edge of their seats even as the characters on screen only talk and wait.
Oppenheimer: The Man
Oppenheimer is ultimately a character study diving into the eponymous protagonist and his internal world, an idea highlighted by the numerous (maybe excessively) close-up shots of Oppenheimer’s face. As demonstrated by the nuclear arms race that followed, Oppenheimer can be described loosely as a modern day Frankenstein, the creator of a creature he immediately loses control of. Being an archetypal ‘tortured genius’, he battles anxiety and depression from the beginning in Cambridge, and maintains tumultuous relationships with others, such as his alcoholic wife Kitty, and his mistress Tatlock. He does not have a very good understanding of people, and exists much in the realm of ideas. This trait ultimately leads him to come to terms with and truly understand the gravity of his actions only when it’s too late.
“You don’t get to commit the sin, and then ask all of us to feel sorry for you when there are consequences.”
The quote, spoken by Kitty, refers to Oppenheimer’s breakdown when Tatlock commits suicide soon after the two sleep together. The line highlights Oppenheimer’s questionable morality, and takes him firmly off any pedestal one might expect the protagonist of a film to be placed on. He does not not claim to be a good person, and shows no remorse for cheating on his wife. Furthermore, it displays Nolan’s care in constructing a balanced representation of the man. It would be easy to portray Oppenheimer as merely a tragic, well-intentioned man whose work was used for destruction, creating a character audiences can idolise. However, Nolan instead opts to remind audiences that the movie is not a pity party for poor guilt-ridden Oppenheimer, who is entirely complicit in the mass killings and global tensions brought about by the bomb. The film presents the characters as they are, and refuses to turn a blind eye to Oppenheimer’s moral shortcomings.
Although the events of Oppenheimer’s life are presented largely as they occurred, and could not have been fabricated to orchestrate cheeky references and foreshadowing, Nolan certainly succeeds in sneaking them in through the dialogue and emphasising certain events.
The Apple and The Bomb
One of the first scenes of the film has Oppenheimer attempting to poison an apple intended for his teacher. He later regrets it, and manages to swipe the apple away just as his idol Neils Bohr is about to take a bite. This act, interestingly, is mostly historically accurate, although the real Oppenheimer likely used something less lethal than cyanide, and Niels Bohr wasn’t involved. Regardless, this incident is the perfect set-up to Oppenheimer’s story. He uses his intellect and resources to create a murder weapon, the apple mirroring the spherical bomb later depicted in the Trinity test. He regrets it and rushes to undo his mistake. This is where these stories differ. In the case of the atomic bomb, his guilt arrives too late, and all he can do is attempt, in vain, to rein in the continued investment into nuclear weaponry. Oppenheimer’s mad rush from his room back to the lab to get rid of the apple is a poignant display of the panic he feels when the gravity of his act finally hits him, and his arrival at the lab to find Bohr holding the apple would later resemble his visions of his fellow Americans screaming as they fall victim to his bomb.
The Black Hole and The Star
Nolan places disproportionate emphasis on Oppenheimer’s research into black holes, which was just one of many areas which Oppenheimer contributed to. This is not without motive. In a thinly veiled metaphor, Oppenheimer explains to a fellow party guest in one scene that “the bigger the star, the more dramatic its demise”. Not much explanation is needed to see how this relates to the overarching narrative of the film. Oppenheimer no doubt shines brilliantly for much of his career, and collapses just as dramatically with the film’s recreation of his security hearing.
One aspect of the movie in which Nolan takes significant creative licence is the character of Albert Einstein. Out of all the name-dropped physicists (many of whom were or would be Nobel laureates), Einstein is no doubt the most recognisable, both in name and in person. Although Einstein and Oppenheimer actually knew each other and met multiple times in reality, there is no evidence that any of their on-screen conversations actually happened. Nolan portrays the figure of Einstein as a sort of sage mentor, somebody whom Oppenheimer is willing to go to for advice. He provides the audience with a familiar face and a level of certainty (not wholly unrelated to how he rejects the uncertainty of quantum theory). Although Einstein plays a mostly passive role in the film, his function as an outlet for Oppenheimer to express his fears leaves the audience with a deep sense of dread as even the great Einstein cannot provide any wisdom to quell these fears.
No Film’s Perfect
Although Oppenheimer is undeniably a good movie, given the ambition of the project, even three hours is not enough time to tell a perfect and complete story of Oppenheimer’s life. For one, Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty is simultaneously underdeveloped and also an important contrasting voice to Oppenheimer. Throughout his trial, Oppenheimer is mainly dispassionate, and Kitty urges him to gather himself and actively advocate for himself. She isn’t afraid to show her mind, brazenly spurning those attacking her husband. However, she flip-flops between moments of clarity and drunken stupor, with no explanation given for her state of mind. Furthermore, at times, Strauss comes across as an almost comical villain, scheming, bitter and self-absorbed, with no redeeming qualities. While the film asserts that Strauss in fact was not a major figure in Oppenheimer’s eyes, greater dimensionality could have been awarded to the character, given that a significant portion of it is from Strauss’ point of view. In a complete work of fiction, this is not necessarily a flaw. However, for a biopic, which portrays real people, a more balanced representation is deserved.
Source: Universal Pictures. (2023, May 8). Oppenheimer | New Trailer [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYPbbksJxIg
Another personal gripe I have with the film is the intermittent flashes of abstract imagery, such as the streaking lights and diffusing particles. These clips no doubt represent quantum particles and the beauty of nature, which eventually collides with the explosive imagery that later fills Oppenheimer’s mind. While the idea is certainly appreciated, the images turn out almost resembling the screensavers of old computers, taking away from the serious tone of the film.
There is far more that can be said about the movie than this article has the space for. However, I can say that overall, Oppenheimer is a deeply nuanced film, diving deep into the mind and life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Furthermore , it successfully balances extraordinary historical accuracy (in comparison to other recent biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Elvis) and entertaining dramatism. Its filmography and success will no doubt go on to inspire and inform many future works.