Robert Oppenheimer isn’t an easy man to read about, much less capture on film. But Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 The American Prometheus, takes to the task with intensity and gravitas, revealing him as a tortured and hopelessly contemplative individual. He struggled daily with hypocritical judgments and was seemingly bewildered by his own life, unable to stand on solid ground for more than a few moments at a time.
How could one lead the team during the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos responsible for manufacturing weapons of mass destruction yet be diametrically opposed to warfare? How could one be any kind of leader while balancing the incredible emotional weight of numerous affairs, depression, and immense existential dread?
It would be fair to speculate audiences never expected these questions from a director known for his spectacular environments and production. After all, audiences flocked to theaters on the promise of seeing an explosion like none other put to film, and while Nolan does deliver on this front it’s not the reason why Oppenheimer should be regarded as one of his finest endeavors.
Without a doubt, Oppenheimer marks Nolan’s most human movie. Cillian Murphy embodies a man driven by ambition and discovery, yet seemingly smothered under the weight of his own choices, hiding as best he can the anguish of his own hypocrisy. Through his eyes we experience his elation at discovery and community, yet also see him drawn back into himself where he battles with what is right versus what he believes is necessary in the name of science. It’s a masterful performance exposing the man who could never fathom the result of such a duality until he saw the first bomb test at Los Alamos.
However, Cillian Murphy isn’t the only standout. The entire cast plays off each other brilliantly, with characters like Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) as the embittered politician and longtime acquaintance of Oppenheimer before, during, and after the Manhattan Project, and Katherine Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), Oppenheimer’s wife who battled her own demons while married to a man so admired and so full of dread.
What’s important to understand is, while he had a relatively supportive and active community among his peers and friends, Oppenheimer could not be absolved of his distress at the new era he helped usher in. The Manhattan Project marked a significant development in warfare and we should be lucky that Nolan was the man to recreate such a historic moment. Every character (including everyone in the audience) held their breath together watching the clock tick down from 3…2…What follows isn’t the ripping blast that shreds the speakers, but instead the labored breath of Oppenheimer himself, watching the most destructive force the world had ever seen.
This moment is impactful not just for its technical result or thematic importance, but because of its strong juxtaposition to the film’s overall tone. The story moves at a brisk pace, resembling a Baz Luhrmann film, where a plethora of small character interactions compound on each other leading to each story arc. This style can feel a bit overwhelming as the movie also jumps between three different time periods, including Oppenheimer’s life up to the Manhattan Project, and the two trials regarding his security clearance and loyalty to his country.
However the film does present a few moments of downtime where Ludwig Göransson’s score is removed and characters are allowed to simply sit in a room and talk. But these don’t compare to the purposefully jarring silence of the explosion and the subsequent fear that Oppenheimer experiences.
With Oppenheimer Nolan has succeeded in bringing perspective to life, adding form and voice to the emotional failures and successes of a deeply tormented man plagued by duality all his life. That such a man could ever lead a team tasked with creating the ultimate weapon, yet still be against its use in war, is never answered. This isn’t a movie about answering questions about Oppenheimer’s particular psyche, nor uncovering how he “really” felt about his life and his achievements. In the end he could never know for certain, so why should we?