There are moments in history that define us all. But is it worth the toll that it takes upon us?
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the brilliant theoretical physicist who was teaching in the US during the Second World War. Although he gained notoriety, Oppenheimer’s personal life kept him from true success. However, his life is changed when Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. (Matt Damon) recruits him to begin work on a top-secret assignment. Dubbed the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer and his team of brilliant scientists begin to develop and design an atomic bomb that the US believes can bring peace to the world.
Quite simply put, Oppenheimer is a masterpiece by one of modern cinemas greatest storytellers. Everyone associated with this film is working at the highest level to create something memorable and they have succeeded. Featuring a sparkling script and brilliant performances, Nolan has not only made one of the best films of the year but he may finally achieve the Oscar glory that has eluded him throughout his career.
It’s worth noting that Oppenheimer is less of a war film and more of a political thriller. In essence, Nolan spends more far more time in the board room (and the bedroom) than he does on the battlefield. Instead of emphasizing the physical devastation created by the invention of the atomic bomb, Nolan reveals the damage it has done to humanity’s soul. Unlike Dunkirk, this isn’t meant to be a visual spectacle but more of a moral inquest into humanity’s propensity to ignore the consequences of our actions.
As such, Nolan’s work is almost entirely grounded within its characters. However, having said this, that scene—the one that changed the world—is nothing short of remarkable as well. As a result of his commitment to practical effects, Nolan grounds this scene with every conceivable emotion, leaving the audience as conflicted as its characters. In short, Nolan ensures that the invention of a bomb is infused with both wonder and horror.
As Oppenheimer himself, Murphy presents a man who seems to keep his head clear and (arguably) his heart cold. However, Murphy also gives his character an inner compassion and conviction that keeps him conflicted. What’s more, the film features some stellar work by Robert Downey Jr. as politician Lewis Strauss. Both benevolent and (potentially) malevolent, Downey brings a fury to his performance that makes him absolutely riveting to watch. (In fact, it is not hard to imagine a scenario where Downey finds his way to the podium next year during Oscar season.)
Admittedly, if there’s a criticism to be had its likely the film’s portrayal of its female characters. Both Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh offer ferocious performances in their respective roles, showing confidence and frailty. Even though this is meant to be a world of toxic masculinity, its unfortunate that their characters seem minimized and the film suffers as a result. (In fact, I even fear that more ink will likely be devoted to Pugh’s nudity than the strength of her work.)
Having said this, Nolan’s work has always been at its best when sitting in morally ‘grey areas’. For example, whereas The Dark Knight peeled back our assumptions about heroism, Dunkirk also dissolved the ‘glory’ of war. But, with Oppenheimer, Nolan focuses his lens on a man who is largely responsible for one of mankind’s most devastating achievements. For a man who helped end WWII, Oppenheimer is also held up as one of history’s most controversial figures.
But this is exactly the sort of figure that Nolan revels in exploring.
Here, Nolan depicts the US government with a certain naiveté. To them, the atom bomb remains a solid solution, despite the fact that scientists repeatedly warn them that success will create a world filled with consequences. Even so, the team remains undeterred in their vision. After all, their interest in creating a weapon of mass destruction is rooted in the race to defeat the evil of the Nazis, no matter the cost.
In this way, Oppenheimer paints its primary subject as neither hero nor villain. (In fact, there’s a certain sense that he is both.) As a man of science, Oppenheimer feels less committed to any particular moral high ground but still struggles with his actions. As a man of science, he is driven to achieve. However, his focus on the future leaves him in a string of broken relationships, despite his unique brand of love for them. As a Jew, he is passionate about the defeat of the Nazis yet he seems unwilling to consider the ramifications of his results. Oppenheimer even recognizes the deeply flawed nature of capitalism yet he refuses to align himself with the Communist party.
But the bright light of the atomic bomb forces him to re-examine himself and his new world.
Strangely, though set 70 years in the past, Nolan’s work still feels eerily current. As progress throttles forth more rapidly than at any other time in our history, the film reminds the viewer of the dark side of innovation. Like Oppenheimer, we too are willing to prove our ingenuity and power of scientific achievement but are we willing to slow down and reflect on its implications. Like the Greek god Prometheus stealing fire from the heavens, our passion for innovation often overrides our interest in its impact on the future. (To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, ‘our scientists seem so intent on discovering if they can do things that they don’t always stop to think if they should’.)
Therein lies the genius of Oppenheimer. Although Nolan may take the viewer back into the 1940s, the true terror of this story is that it continues to shape our world in the present.
Oppenheimer is available in theatres on Friday, July 21st, 2023.