Christopher Nolan has made his name as a filmmaker through two basic avenues. One is his Dark Knight trilogy of movies featuring Batman. The other is in complex narratives that play on the elasticity of cinema itself to tell high-concept stories out of sequence or in ways that mess with basic timeline structure (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk, Tenet, etc). The trick with that latter conceit is that the plot itself is fairly straightforward, and what makes it grander is the editing shell game Nolan plays to give the key moments more context and weight.
Such is the case with Oppenheimer, the first true Best Picture contender of 2023. In its most stripped down form, this is a simple biopic about a crucial figure in American history, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), who oversaw the Manhattan Project and built the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing about Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. Oppenheimer is a multi-faceted character. He’s a great theoretical physicist but is lackadaisical with practical lab work, a philanderer who seduces women with both his charm and intellect, and an open-minded patriot who believes in doing right by his country while also pushing for systemic change. After the war was over, he had a well-publicized fall from grace due to overblown perceptions about liaisons with the Communist Party during the Red Scare and Cold War.
He’s a fascinating person, one eminently worthy of the Hollywood treatment. And when you get right down to it, his character arc is somewhat by the numbers. We see the seeds of his genius, his work on the bomb, and the kangaroo court where the government is weaponized against him after the fact, penalizing him for having a differing political ideology. It’s an especially poignant display given current events, where one of our country’s major parties is running a sham committee on this very subject as a means to dismantle federal law enforcement with innuendo instead of facts, and they’re making it a public priority of their agenda for the next election to remove the independence of these agencies and use them to target their perceived enemies.
But what makes this rise well above the chaff is in how Nolan orchestrates his presentation. Shot entirely on film — including IMAX — to enhance the visual profile, the movie commits itself to a grainy, dirty reality shown from two diametrically opposed, alternating perspectives. The plot structure isn’t so much split into two timelines as it is interwoven between different sides of the same thematic coin with goals that are in direct conflict. Delineated very early on, most of the film is presented in color, and runs the length of Oppenheimer’s story, while the rest is in black-and-white, focusing on the confirmation hearings for Admiral Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), a former colleague of Oppenheimer’s at the Atomic Energy Commission who has been nominated to be Secretary of Commerce.
These two angles are labeled “Fission” and “Fusion,” and work to tremendous effect. In scientific terms, especially as it relates to nuclear weaponry, fission is when an atom is split into smaller atoms, which is the method by which Oppenheimer created the first atomic bombs. Fusion, on the other hand, combines atoms into larger ones, which is the underlying theory that led to the hydrogen bomb promoted by a member of Oppenheimer’s team, Edward Teller (Benny Safdie). From a storytelling standpoint, however, these two ideas are taken to their highest levels, as “Fission” comprises the color scenes and “Fusion” the black-and-white. On the surface, they represent the core dichotomy between Oppenheimer’s expertise in theory and his unease in practical demonstration. When he’s conceiving of what atomic energy can do, the possibilities are endless, expansive, bright and colorful (made even more spectacular when you consider that Nolan is red/green colorblind), beautiful and terrible, but altogether awe-inspiring. However, once he’s seen the true power of what he’s created, everything becomes a binary absolute. There are only a handful of possible outcomes, with only the slightest shades of grey (“a bit of wiggle room,” as Oppenheimer puts it in an early scene), and it’s up to the people in charge whether they want to accept the cold truth of the matter or reject it.
But of course, Nolan isn’t content with just one metaphor for his time fuckery, no sir! In addition to Oppenheimer’s worldview, the two contrasting terms also represent the distribution of power. In the “Fission” sphere, Oppenheimer divides the power, seeking collaboration and debate, even when he disagrees. He admits his own shortcomings and seeks out people who can fill in those gaps. This applies to both his professional life — where he enjoys the counsel of Teller, Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), David Hill (Rami Malek), Isador Isaac Rabi (David Krumholtz), his military handler General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), and legendary scientific minds Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) — and his personal — including his marriage to Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt) and on-and-off affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, making me swoon as always). The “Fusion” side of the equation is about consolidating power and dominating with just the threat of its destructive capabilities. This is where you have the likes of Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), William Borden (David Dastmalchian), and Kenneth Nichols (Dane DeHaan) among others working in tandem to obliterate Oppenheimer’s reputation for daring to dissent or even *gasp* unionize workers. Going even further, there’s what feels like an intentional irony in the labeling as well, as the “Fission” color segments represent Oppenheimer’s greatest triumph, but also illustrate how everything fell apart for him, while the “Fusion” black-and-white scenes show forces coming together, but only for the stated goal of breaking him down.
The vast ensemble cast all perform to the highest levels, with Pugh, Downey, and Murphy shining the brightest. For the latter two, their juxtaposition is something glorious to behold. On the one side, you have Downey embodying Strauss as endlessly confident yet unassuming, playing everything very close to the vest. As the years pass and his hairline recedes (some non-linear smash cuts in the “Fusion” timeline illustrate this beautifully), his resolve never wavers, and while he’s shown to be nowhere near as smart as the scientists and political aides (the latter led by Alden Ehrenriech) that surround him, he’s almost always composed and assertive enough to stand his ground and be decisive.
On the other side, Cillian Murphy shows Oppenheimer as a gaunt, tired man, never truly sure of what he wants because a) he’s always considering and calculating eventualities, and b) he’s something of an insomniac. He carries himself as if the weight of literal kilotons are on his shoulders. His piercing eyes, even in the lightest of moments, are almost fixed into a thousand-yard stare, trying to determine how to act as a maelstrom of possibilities and personalities vie for attention in his mind and in the rooms he occupies. He dons his fedora like a confused blend of Indiana Jones and Eliot Ness, looking aimless while walking a straight line. He believes in a democratic process every step of the way at Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was stationed, because he’s able to consider and present all opinions. Like any good leader, he’s not wishy-washy, and when he makes his choices, he lives with them. And like any good scientist, he acts based on evidence, and never without the consultation and review of his peers. This mentality, combined with his lanky constitution and sometimes pallid face, gives him the appearance of meekness when in reality he only becomes more certain as time goes on.
As for Pugh, her role is relatively small compared to the leads, but when she’s in the film, she takes her screen time for all its worth. As an intellectually confident and sexually assertive woman, she’s a perfect foil for Oppenheimer’s more passive façade, and serves as a living example of the difference between theory and practice. She’s chaotic, dangerous, and immensely satisfying to everything Oppenheimer loves, but she’s also a variable that can’t be quantified. Contrast that with Blunt as Kitty, who has similar qualities, but is much more predictable, and therefore safe. With Jean, there’s so much to imagine, both wonderous and catastrophic, and Pugh embodies that paradox perfectly in the scattered moments where she participates in the story.
Not to be outdone, of course, are the technical elements, which are superlative as always. A ton of credit goes to cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema (Oscar-nominated for Dunkirk) and editor Jennifer Lame (Marriage Story, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Midsommar among many others) for creating such a visually pleasing, well-paced epic that never drags despite its three-hour runtime. To keep things as spoiler-free as possible, the Trinity test of the atom bomb takes place two thirds of the way through the movie, and I was legitimately concerned about how the final hour would be filled. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, as they manage to keep all that follows the Manhattan Project just as engaging and intriguing as everything that led up to it. As ever, Nolan places an emphasis on practical visual effects over CGI whenever possible, and it comes through absolutely, particularly as it relates to the pyrotechnics. Along those same lines, in an excellent display of sound design and fealty to the very physics that inform the history, whenever a prototype is detonated, we see the blast before we hear the explosion, as light travels faster than sound. This leads to an amazing payoff later on. Another highlight from the sound department is the way that the cacophonous din of machinery is blended so that it can apply to any number of visuals, including train engines and the collective stomping of feet, a tremendous portrayal of the swarm of thoughts and implications going through Oppenheimer’s head. And of course, Ludwig Göransson (Oscar-winner for Black Panther) provides an absolutely stellar score that supplements the potential for atomic energy to both save and destroy the world, ramping up the tension of a scene without ever supplanting the natural elements playing out on screen. His use of strings and kettle drums is particularly strong, a steady, low-register march towards our potential doom.
This film has just about everything you could ask for. It’s superbly acted, incredibly well-written, visually stunning, and presented in a way that makes a relatively easy story into something as big as the literal and figurative fallout that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career had. By giving us such a stark visual contrast between the theoretical process that led to one of the seminal moments in American history and the harsh, unfeeling aftermath, Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy teach a very valuable lesson in science and civics, as well as providing a cautionary tale for the world we currently occupy. An idea is boundless, gorgeous, and malleable, but when it’s executed, potential becomes data. Whatever you imagine, the reality of it can be even more devastating. This is especially true when it comes to power, no matter what form it takes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Christopher Nolan movie? What do you believe is the most important moment in American history? Let me know! Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and YouTube!