Film 101

SYN Podcasts

Oppenheimer: Christopher Nolan Casts some Light on the Darkness Covering the Atomic Bomb’s Father


Oppenheimer preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

“Whether for better or worse, Oppenheimer is Nolan at his most un-Nolan-like, taking the best of his oeuvre and refitting it for his first true crack at a biopic”

While J. Robert Oppenheimer’s name might be synonymous with the deadliest device ever created, Christopher Nolan’s latest three hour biopic, Oppenheimer, looks at the man behind the atomic bomb through a much more introspective lens without ever insinuating that audiences should feel a sense of sympathy for his brilliant mistake/s. Of course, introspection is a key building block to any biopic, but given Nolan’s ouevre hasn’t ever focused on a historical figure of this magnitude —or any historical figure in this sense which still isn’t as big a shock as not casting Michael Caine—, there’s understandably a greater interest surrounding this biopic if not for the simple fact that it’s a Nolan film, then definitely because its subject is one of the most infamous, and misunderstood, scientific minds ever.

That Oppenheimer was a brilliant theoretical physicist who was the victim of his own belief that man could be trusted with forces larger than them, is undeniable. But Nolan’s film isn’t just concerned with the cookie-cutter facts that you can pull from a Wikipedia page. While the film is based on 2005’s Pulitzer winning novel, ‘American Prometheus’, Nolan’s interest jumps from the key, often glossed over moments in Oppenheimer’s life, and interrogates them more carefully.

Nolan’s Oppenheimer (a perfectly cast Cillian Murphy) is a man struggling to be faithful, who is always in his mind, viewing every next move like an equation on a chalkboard. His relationship to theory stretches into his everyday life as he struggles to maintain meaningful relationships, always approaching life by the numbers and relegating himself to a disconnected observer as opposed to a practical artisan. At one point he is in disbelief that scientists overseas have figured out how to split atoms from each other (or something to that effect), stating that it’s not possible from a theoretical point of view (POV), and it’s through this sort of mould that he carves his Oppenheimer from — a man unlike those around him, an outlier.

Emily Blunt is Kitty Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Emily Blunt is Kitty Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

In this way, he isn’t too different from other Nolan characters like Bruce Wayne or Joseph Cooper in that he’s committed to what he knows, and does what he must for the greater good. His distant persona also affects his ability to build sustainable relationships, often pin-balling across various lovers and failing to forge a life beyond his commitment to his craft as exacerbated by a scene where he offers his crying baby to his friends as he doesn’t have the time to look after it (a selfish move he recognises).

Early in the film he’s encouraged to pursue his interest in theory and master it, and this is the point in his life that Nolan opts to introduce us to. And it’s in the early stages of the film that Nolan really portrays the internal struggle that will go on to plague Oppenheimer in the film’s later stages. He cleverly uses hazy, almost dreamlike visual motifs that equally look like beautiful stars and bomb fragments. These moments are some of the most thought-provoking as they provide a real deviation from the coolness and level head of Cillian Murphy’s performance that makes the character difficult to read — as though he’s got everything under his hat and under control.

It helps that multiple POV’s are being deployed by Nolan here in what is probably the most un-Nolan-esque part of this movie. Not only is Oppenheimer’s view of the world on display, but that of his early ‘affiliate’, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr. at his brilliant best). This duality helps build tension and allows the events of the third act to come together more tightly than might otherwise have been possible. Frequent Nolan cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, shoots in colour for Oppenheimer and black and white for Strauss, further helping create this sense of separation through subjectivity and objectivity, ultimately adding to Oppenheimer’s unknowability and the difference in views that the two characters have. Whether or not this approach works in its entirety is difficult to tell from a first viewing, especially since it does tie events together, but equally throws one out of rhythm from time to time with the various timelines intersecting.

 Robert Downey Jr is Lewis Strauss in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Robert Downey Jr is Lewis Strauss in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.

The most jarring instance of rhythmic intrusion is also the film’s best for the very fact that it’s the most speechless moment in the film. If you’ve followed the marketing, the controlled atomic set-piece (atomic in its own right) is where the full force of seeing this 70mm beast in IMAX really sells itself. By this point a lot of the establishing from the first half —namely around the politics of the Manhattan Project and the scientific lingo that will fly over most people’s heads— has been rounded off and Nolan finally gets to play with his own toys by unleashing the mother of all bombs, creating a spectacle that almost transports you to the New Mexico desert with the characters. It is really the punchline of the film, rewarding your patience by drowning out all of the noise in its countdown and the ensuing blast.

Whether or not Oppenheimer is the sort of Nolan film audiences are eager for is tough to say; there’s no tricky logic that fans of Interstellar (2014) or Inception (2010) wouldn’t wrap their heads around, but the film also sees Nolan at his rawest and most cynical, choosing to show a world destined to implode on itself just as it’s beginning to take shape. While The Dark Knight (2008) followed a similar path, there was at least the knowledge that its commentary was so distant from reality rather than a part of it. Yet in a film full of so many competing elements whether it’s the performances, the dialogue (which has has never really been the sweet-spot in a Nolan film as much as the moments around it are), the rapturous score from Ludwig Göransson, the staging of the key set piece or even the candidness of the story, there’s no doubt that like Oppenheimer, Nolan was all in on going big, and the final result is one that will stick with many long after the end credits roll by.

Oppenheimer opens nationally from today.


Arnel Duracak

More by Film 101

The Boy and the Heron copyright 2023 Studio Ghibli_Image 1

The Boy and the Heron: Hayao Miyazaki Signs off in Stellar Fashion

The Boy and the Heron preview screening provided by Sony Pictures “The Boy and the Heron feels like the sum of all of […]


Napoleon: Joaquin Phoenix Stars as the Legendary French Emperor in this Basic Biopic

Napoleon preview screening provided by Sony Pictures “Napoleon is a by-the-books biopic with some brilliant battles” A figure that is as synonymous […]


Saltburn: Emerald Fennell’s Strange, Somewhat Fetishistic Second Feature has it all, Mostly

Saltburn preview screening provided by Universal Pictures “Saltburn is like a box with lots of fun random toys, but ones that you […]