Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated latest film tells the story of the man who created the atomic bomb. It’s boldly imaginative and his most mature work yet, writes Caryn James.
Bursts of fire fill the screen throughout Oppenheimer, at times making it seem as if a thousand volcanoes were about to engulf us. But they aren’t the only fiery images in Christopher Nolan’s magnificent film, as it tells the story of the man who helped create the atomic bomb and wrestled for the rest of his life with the deadly consequences. At times circles race across empty darkness or wiry orange strands of light appear, depicting the fears and the science occupying Oppenheimer’s mind. Those artful images are sporadic in a film that never loses its sense of story and drama, but they reveal how boldly imaginative and sure-footed the film is. Oppenheimer is Nolan’s most mature work, combining the explosive, commercially-enticing action of The Dark Knight trilogy with the cerebral underpinnings that go back more than 20 years to Memento and run through Inception and Tenet.
Cillian Murphy, staring with icy blue eyes, dominates the film, playing Robert Oppenheimer with a restraint that perfectly suits this charismatic yet chilly character. The story takes us from his student days in Europe, to his time as a professor in California in the 1930s, and then to the Manhattan Project, the top-secret US programme to build nuclear weapons in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where his team races to create a bomb to end World War Two. Murphy keeps us with him even when the character seems a bit opaque. Nolan based his film on the magisterial biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin and captures just what that title suggests: a tragic and profoundly American hero who helped shaped the modern world and became a victim of Washington politics.
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The film is framed as a head-to-head battle between Oppenheimer and his nemesis, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), former head of the US Atomic Energy Commission. Throughout, Nolan’s screenplay goes back and forth between two US government hearings in the 1950s which play like tense courtroom dramas, flashing back in long stretches to tell the story of Oppenheimer’s life. By the 50s Oppenheimer is a lionised national figure, yet is being questioned by a panel determining whether to revoke his security clearance, based on bogus accusations that he is a communist threat.
Much of the film is from Oppenheimer’s point of view, in bright colour, designed and shot with immediacy despite its wide-screen format. Black and white sections that feel deliberately claustrophobic show Strauss’ perspective, as he appears before a US Senate committee voting on his nomination as Secretary of Commerce. Those sections eventually echo Memento, in which the story is not what it first seems. The fractured chronology effectively creates a sense of doom that haunts the earlier scenes.
The story builds gradually, but you hardly feel the film’s length, just over three hours. In California, Oppenheimer begins an affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a communist, emotionally volatile and unsettled. In one scene, after sex with Oppenheimer, she finds a Sanskrit copy of the Bhagavad Gita on his shelf and asks him to read from it. Oppenheimer delivers the line most associated with him, which came to him while watching Trinity, the first test of the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos, as he recalled in a TV interview years later: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”. Dropping that into a sex scene is another startling choice. In a later scene that hints at how good a Nolan love story might be, they sit naked in armchairs across the room from each other, an elegant image that suggests both intimacy and distance.
Like the rest of the large cast, Pugh is impressive in a small role. Even Emily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, spends most of the time in the background. Late in the film, in a couple of major scenes she displays why Kitty was a force of her own. Matt Damon is Leslie Groves, the down-to-earth army general who shepherds the Manhattan Project. Kenneth Branagh is the physicist Niels Bohr, Oppenheimer’s sometime mentor and conscience. But Downey is the crucial supporting player, and he gives a shrewd, dynamic performance as the wily, insecure, powerful Strauss.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon
Run time: 3hrs
Release date: 21 July
The film doesn’t belabour or especially try to explain the science of the bomb, even as research physicists cluster around Oppenheimer to debate it. At Los Alamos, the tension ramps up as the story heads toward the inevitable test in the vast desert. There is a howling rainstorm the night before Trinity. When the explosion happens – Oppenheimer in a shack some distance away, others lying flat on the ground, shielding their eyes – the fire seems to roar at us from the screen, followed by sudden silence as the soundtrack cuts out. That jolting, immersive scene alone justifies shooting in the Imax format Nolan loves so much (and that shows every line and pore in the actors’ faces).
The physicist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) charges Oppenheimer with being more politician than physicist. Kitty tells him he plays the martyr. Nolan shows a man who naively believed he could speak honestly, urging President Truman to avoid a nuclear arms race. He also believed that it was necessary to drop the bomb on Hiroshima because, as he says, “Once it’s used, a nuclear war becomes unthinkable”. But he does think about it. Just after Hiroshima we see more images from his mind, including a photo-negative image of a young woman with her skin peeling off. As this inspired film suggests, Oppenheimer’s greatest tragedy was that he wasn’t able to save the future from his own invention.
Oppenheimer is released internationally from 21 July.
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