“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
Few directors in the history of cinema will ever be as known for their unique take on plot structure as Christopher Nolan. His 2000 cult favorite Memento helped popularize the idea of subverting narrative by abandoning linearity completely (a trend that Pulp Fiction had already reignited a few years prior) and he eventually redefined what a big-budget blockbuster can be — and what it’s capable of. Whether you’ve loved, hated, or been confused by his movies, you still show up at the theater simply because of the mere potential of what sort of brilliance may occur on screen. That’s something few filmmakers can claim.
Nolan’s latest endeavor, Oppenheimer, is not as ambitious as, say, Inception or Interstellar, nor is it as accessible as The Prestige or any of the Batman movies, but it’s perhaps his most pure character study yet. It involves the creation of the atomic bomb by a team led by Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) during World War II. Not just a brilliant mind but also a salesman for science, the physicist is recruited by the U.S. government (solely represented by Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves) to develop and test the weapon of mass destruction in a remote location in New Mexico so that the military can beat the Nazis to the punch; attempting to achieve peace through fear.
Throughout this three-hour motion picture, we jump from Oppenheimer’s time in New Mexico, his early days studying abroad, and a 1954 hearing intended to strip him of his security clearance on the grounds that he played a part in delivering information to Russia.
Oppenheimer features a who’s who of 20th-century physicists, delivered via one of the most meaningful ensemble casts ever assembled. Over 20 A-listers appear, some without a single close-up, just showing up in various purposeful roles throughout the film. The likes of Gary Oldman, Casey Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, and Florence Pugh — even Josh Peck and Benny Saidie show up for some interesting roles. The cast is crammed with familiar faces, yet never becomes about the familiar faces themselves; this is no Wes Anderson movie.
As perfect as Nolan’s latest endeavor may be, the writer-director’s obsession with the subversion of time and space may have finally become a hindrance to the initial moviegoing experience. Despite powerful scenes involving the A-bomb’s testing, Oppenheimer’s indictment, and his conversations with Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), the events that take place and the details surrounding them become needlessly convoluted in the early going thanks to the overwrought plot construction.
Unlike Nolan’s previous endeavor Tenet (aka the most confusing movie of all time that can still be technically considered a narrative achievement), Oppenheimer does easily come together in the last hour or so, which includes an outstanding third act. However, the obfuscation of its story may actually mask the strength of what it’s trying to say as a whole.
Obviously inspired by Citizen Kane, these back-and-forths aren’t the only trick that Nolan borrows from the 1941 film. In fact, certain parts of the 1954 goings-on, intermittently depicted in black-and-white when told objectively through the lens of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) — Oppenheimer’s rival and eventual antagonist — are reminiscent of William Alland’s Jerry Thompson as he attempts to uncover the actual truth about the eponymous Kane in Orson Welles’ masterpiece.
Where many biopics attempt to give the audience some version of the truth as well, Oppenheimer, on the other hand, deals in paradoxes. The very first lesson the titular physicist teaches his class at Berkeley is that, despite the common misconception that paradoxical statements must mean that the circumstances in question cannot exist simultaneously, two seemingly contradictory ideas can very much both be true. Oppenheimer can think the atomic bomb is an important scientific discovery while also having strong moral qualms about it. He can agree with communist ideas but still not be a communist. He can state that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a technical success despite feeling like it was a failure of ethics.
Robert Oppenheimer was not a good person, but in no part because of his role in the development of the atomic bomb. He was a womanizer, a self-centered egomaniac, and a man who nearly poisoned one of his college professors for no good reason. However, it could also be true that he was not playing for both teams in order to stage a nuclear war. Mediocre minds, however, couldn’t see past their own established truths.
While the indictment hearings play out accordingly, there’s also the justice sought by the movie itself. Oppenheimer is the protagonist of this film and in every way a better person than Lewis Strauss, who gets his comeuppance. Oppenheimer gets a sort of comeuppance in his own right. Just as his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), says, “You don’t get to commit the sin and then make us feel bad for you that it had consequences.” We can feel bad for the man while also admonishing his actions. More paradoxes.
It shouldn’t go without saying that the emotional drive of the film is given through Ludwig Göransson’s heart-throbbing musical score and the overall sound design. Our ears hurt from the abrupt explosions and the unexpected silence. We’re paying attention more than we would be during the cacophonous action scenes in other blockbuster fare.
Perhaps it would have been nice to dive deeper into the ethical debate prior to the A-bomb’s development. And that’s where a more linear narrative would have been beneficial. We don’t see as much social context as we do the more myopic one that exists among Oppenheimer’s colleagues and inner circle. However, I suppose that would have made better sense in a more traditional biopic. This is a Christopher Nolan film, which succeeds at transcending the construct of a biographical film to achieve something deeper and richer, if not more focused.
The themes of Oppenheimer are almost prioritized over the story itself, which undoubtedly would have been much messier in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Like it or not, we’ve finally reached the point where Nolan’s greatness as an auteur is evident despite any flaws that may come bundled along with his genius. Paradoxical indeed.