There are few figures in American history as mythologized as J. Robert Oppenheimer — in no small part due to the man himself.
So building a cohesive story about him — the physicist who helped define an entire scientific field; the precocious child-genius; the prideful “father of the atomic bomb”; the financial supporter of both communists and Jewish victims of the Nazis; the forgetful and rude philanderer — is, if nothing else, a feat of economy.
American Prometheus, the biography upon which Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is based, is 600 pages long and took its authors 25 years to write. If you asked Nolan, he’d probably be proud he cut it down to three hours.
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The way he achieves it is a testament to that story, as well as what the dying world of Hollywood can produce when championed by an auteur.
Because as it follows the harried physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) through his early days of self discovery, a successful career in quantum physics, to his management of the Manhattan project and eventual pillorying by the government, Oppenheimer doesn’t concern itself with a classically satisfying character arc.
Instead, it uses Oppenheimer as a static and ultimately tragic beacon to examine how hopelessly doomed the nuclear age has left us.
That both elevates Oppenheimer into something more than just another biopic, and threatens to make it difficult to access. Because while Oppenheimer will likely be remembered as one of the best popular films of the decade, the careful and incisive character study is worlds apart from the Dunkirk-style, visual war-spectacle it’s been billed as.
Complicated by its incredible fidelity to historical fact, slightly hurt by an overabundance of stars, and triumphant in its performances, Oppenheimer is an extraordinary movie both because of and in spite of its morose complexity.
When it comes to attention though, the first question is practical. Ever since his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has long had an affinity for filming in the IMAX format, leaving audiences struggling to decide which of the various screenings his movies warrant.
Unfortunately, there are only six theatres in Canada capable of screening Oppenheimer in the IMAX 70mm format Nolan made the movie for. While the director recommends a 70mm screening if you can’t find an IMAX 70MM one, and IMAX recommends seeing it in any IMAX format possible, it hasn’t stopped debate between fans over which is best. It’s a debate that just fuels the idea of Oppenheimer being a typical WWII movie held up by fantastic visuals.
While there are beautiful, Tree of Life-esque moments showing particles and waves, most of Oppenheimer is told in boardrooms, laboratories and parks. Depending which format you watch it in, you may feel more immersed — but those who expect to feel the full power of Saving Private Ryan‘s beach storming scenes, or are just excited for a big IMAX boom will likely feel let down.
Instead, Oppenheimer works almost as a diptych — an artwork split into two halfs that, while separate, inform one another. Here, it feels like two movies with two messages. The first is the more typical: the tortured genius enlisted into a secretive government project to win the war by Matt Damon’s gruff Lt.-Gen. Leslie Groves.
Damon is only the first of a host of familiar faces to pop up in the background. Everyone from Casey Affleck, to Josh Peck, to Josh Hartnett to Florence Pugh show up in the dust-whorled backgrounds to, at times, break the immersion.
The beginning of the movie operates more as a clip show than establishing sequence, as we spend nearly 45 minutes following a flatly affected Oppenheimer, dutifully detailing the early events of his life without much character development.
That said, those events are impressively faithful to history: yes, U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson really did save the Japanese city of Kyoto from bombing because he enjoyed holidaying there, and Oppenheimer really did read all three volumes of Das Kapital in German.
But it’s the second half of the movie where Oppenheimer really earns its accolades. After successfully building the bomb, Oppenheimer is plagued by guilt and made to grapple with the communist leanings of his past through protracted security hearings borne of the “red scare” era in the U.S.
Those concerns, along with guilt over his rampant infidelity, produce some of the most compelling scenes. As in Pablo Larrain’s criminally underrated Spencer, Oppenheimer’s world breaks around him into metaphorical symbols and hallucinations. As he is forced to celebrate the achievement of the atomic bombs among an ecstatic crowd, Oppenheimer is suddenly stepping into a cracked and burnt corpse. As he is forced to describe his affairs in front of a government hearing and his own wife, he is suddenly naked and with her as the committee continues on.
These scenes also bring up, surprisingly, the strongest conflict in a film about a world war: eccentric genius Oppenheimer versus the vindictive, jealous naval officer and U.S. Secretary of Commerce nominee Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr.
Their conflict of a doomed but brilliant iconoclast taken down by a self-important runner-up to their own peril is nothing new: think Mozart and Salieri or Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Here though, it’s less about the characters than a finding. From the beginning to Nolan’s visually stunning and prophetic end, Oppenheimer never seems able to exert control over where he — or humanity as a whole — is headed.
He is unable to control the outcome of his relationships, fight back against the sham hearings against him, control the use of his weapons, or stop the later development of the even deadlier hydrogen bombs.
With its fatalistic bent, Oppenheimer is another of the year’s pessimistic parables like Beau is Afraid and Asteroid City, seemingly plucked right from a public unconscious staring right at an apocalyptic end.
As an obviously bleak counter to the bright, simultaneous release of Barbie, it works as a rumination on America’s building up, and destruction of its heroes, while using Oppenheimer himself as a window into America’s debate over whether its actions to save the world have ultimately and inevitably doomed us all.