God bless Christopher Nolan. God bless him. This man has given us clever lil’ indies, gigantic effects spectacles, and three legendary Batman movies. He teamed up Robin Williams and Al Pacino. He folded Paris into a cube. He made everyone cry by making us watch Matthew McConaughey cry. He gave us fisticuffs between two guys who are the same guy moving in opposite directions through time. He made a contemporary war movie that was under two hours long.
He’s done so much, and he did it all while fighting to preserve theatrical exhibition and actual, tangible film.
If Tom Cruise is saving the movies, Christopher Nolan is preserving cinema.
Sure, through his mission to perfect his craft he sometimes ends up getting in his own way, but this is only because he’s not about to settle for complacency. He’s always trying to grow, and as a result he has yet to release a film that isn’t a certified banger. Some are better than others, but every last one of them represents a step forward in craft and a leap forward in ambition. God bless this man.
It’s only fitting that for his latest epic, he chose to profile J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the atom bomb — the man who, per this excellent film — was never the type to do the math, but always the type to conceive something well beyond what anyone else could even begin to understand. One would assume that Nolan, like many creatives, sees a parallel here. Especially in the directing world. It’s not necessarily up to the director to know how to make an image, but they do need inspire their team of technicians and artists to see the final product in tandem. That said, the results of a director’s vision, unlike Mr. Oppy, don’t involve man harnessing the power of the sun in order to turn countless human beings into dust.
Based on the novel American Prometheus, Oppenheimer follows the titular physicist from his appointment at the head of the Manhattan Project, all the way through his post-war years, during which the American government sought to brand him a communist in response to his vocal reluctance to be as gung-ho as the military industrial complex in proliferating a nuclear arsenal. It’s a complicated portrait of an undoubtedly complicated man, operating at an extremely complicated time.
Nolan performs a sort of “greatest hits” reel in the film’s construction. You have the non-linear timeline of Memento/The Prestige, the Russian doll genre stacking of Inception, and the promise of at least one astonishing in-camera effects sequence a la Interstellar. But even with all of these influences, the bulk of the film is something rather new for Nolan: it’s mostly just people talking. There’s no footage of the final bombs being dropped, nor does the film dwell too long on its (absolutely fantastic) sequence depicting the initial test explosion. This is, for better and for worse, a biopic. Yet even though its energy is much more Good Night, and Good Luck than it is Pearl Harbor, the way its shot lends itself to the 70mm/IMAX format. As the long list of heavy hitters in the cast engage in a variety of bureaucratic discussions, it becomes clear how talented each player is. There’s room on a gigantic screen for subtlety, and the entire cast uses every inch they can get. Appropriate too, given the nature of the story. Without such nuanced performances and a large pallet upon which to draw them, how can an actor wear the paradox of ‘saving the world’ at the mere cost of moving us vastly closer to Armageddon without playing too broadly to the back row?
It’s admittedly difficult to process the entirety of Oppenheimer in just a single viewing. There’s so much movie going on that it’s simply not possible to parse out the pros and cons in too meaningful a way. What I mean to say is that the biggest con: the final third of the movie, which focuses on a tension that exists between Oppenheimer and Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss, the latter whom is seeking to destroy the former’s reputation while also preserving his own, feels a bit “after the fact.” It does indeed feel like an hour-long deflation which occurs after the mid-movie atomic bomb test, but I imagine this criticism will dull upon repeat viewings — after I’m no longer being taught how to watch the movie by the movie itself (another Nolan staple). Nonetheless, this material is still riveting in its own way, and ultimately serves the themes of the film.
What are these themes? Well to single even ten out would be just a small chunk of what they’re getting at here, but for my money the most prominent is the notion that our heroes are only heroes through a certain lens. One can look at Oppenheimer and see a guy who ended WWII or the guy who gave humans the destructive power of the sun. We can look at the Manhattan Project itself as an altruistic attempt to beat our enemies at building a powerful weapon for which the science was just recently developed, or you can see it as Americans racing to be the sole possessors of God-like means of destruction. Was our decision to drop the bomb made in an earnest attempt to end the war? Or was it simply an advertisement of our new toys?
A single scene in which a group of besuited, powerful men try to determine the target of the bomb is perhaps the best in the entire film at driving home this paradox of power. Every last one of them knows that countless innocent people are going to die. They also recognize that Pandora’s box is open — a bomb is going to be dropped. One of these soulless suits (James Remar!) states that Kyoto is too important to Japanese culture to lob a bomb at — a nice enough consideration — before lamenting that he’d hate to see it go since that’s where he and his wife celebrated their honeymoon.
J. Robert Oppenheimer knows what he’s doing is dangerous, but does not stop. America knows it’s about to weakly justify something villainous, but does not stop. Why? Because everyone fears the potential situation that could manifest if they do stop. If Oppenheimer is the father of the Atomic Age, we must all recognize that it is an age where decisions are based as much in fear as they are in innovation.
It’s scary, important stuff, and presented here it’s a breathless three-hour biographical epic (the highest praise I can give the film is that I did not leave the theater to pee). Due to its non-linear edit, the film gets to exist as a dense biopic and a ticking-clock thriller. Add to that a career best score by Ludwig Göransson and the brilliant lens of Hoyte Van Hoytema, and you’ve got an uncommonly hypnotic film that, even if you lose interest in a story sense, is sure to enrapture you in a technical one.
It’s simple fate that this film will receive Oscar love come next year’s ceremony, all of it deserved, with a strong chance that Cillian Murphy will take home the gold with his searing, understated performance. Robert Downey Jr. will almost certainly be recognized as well — but make no mistake: every single performance across this stacked cast is deserving of recognition. From Emily Blunt’s deeply compelling portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer down to Macon Blair’s work as Oppy’s tenacious lawyer (he chews the scenery with Jason Clarke in a big way, basically declaring himself the heir apparent to Philip Seymour Hoffman), everyone recognizes the scope of the film and plays to it perfectly. Literally everyone. And this movie stars EVERYONE.
I, for one, know that I’ll be seeking out multiple additional viewings of Oppenheimer, with at least one more being in a premium format. It’s a masterpiece of tone and craft that tells such a vast story that it’s impossible to take it all in in just one sitting. Luckily, it’s such an enjoyable, albeit dark film that it invites multiple viewings. It’s rare that a movie which clocks in at three hours makes you want to return to it right away, but here we are. My assumption is that the shaggier plot elements that felt somewhat extraneous will grow to feel essential, but even if they don’t, it still places Oppenheimer in a damn fine place.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan, Kai Bird, based on the book by Martin Sherwin
Starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and everybody else
Rated R, 180 minutes