Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is some degree of masterpiece
The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a fine excuse to study the workings of power in the U.S. Nuclear physicist Oppenheimer is generally credited with orchestrating the development of the first atomic bombs, which were deployed in air raids against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, killing some 220,000 men, women and children and effectively ending World War II. But how much more about the story does a movie audience want or need to know?
Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer of the drama Oppenheimer, opens the historical tale in the late stages of the war. The government is in a hurry to develop a nuclear weapon before the Nazi Germans do, and brilliant scientist Oppenheimer is drafted into the effort despite his apparent conflicting convictions. As a former communist sympathizer and a Jew, Oppenheimer — in a magnetic performance by Cillian Murphy – is already a question mark for the military brass and jingoistic politicians. But he’s still America’s foremost physicist, and he chooses Los Alamos, New Mexico as the headquarters of the new Manhattan Project for weapon development.
“Oppy” is a bit of a romantic dreamer in addition to being a genius. His love life is complicated – his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) is weary of enduring the presence of the scientist’s longtime leftwing girlfriend, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) – and his professional career is a minefield of academic argument and intellectual snobbery. Oppenheimer’s chief detractor is government think-tank wonk Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., almost unrecognizable in makeup), forever ready to challenge his rival’s leadership.
And then there’s the task of getting a bunch of quirky, insecure eggheads to work as a team. The film’s hectic pace, goaded along by Ludwig Göransson’s penetrating string music score, keeps Nolan’s three-hour screen saga moving in high gear. It’s a pleasure to see a movie about intelligent people.
In addition to the pressures of his national security task, nutty professor Oppenheimer has an inner dimension that’s as morally complicated as it is photogenic. In his quiet moments, which are many, his thoughts drift off into classic Hindu religious texts, particularly the Bhagavad-Gita, which he reads in the original Sanskrit. As his doubts multiply amid mounting political and military pressure, so do Oppenheimer’s moral qualms about unleashing the “destroyer of worlds.”
In one especially frightful scene, he faces an auditorium of howling citizens overjoyed that “his” A-bomb has punished the Japanese. All he can think about is the loss of life, and the inescapable realization that he has let loose a terrible curse on humanity. The crowd is fixated on vengeance. Meanwhile, fake-jovial President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman, always prepared to disappear into a character role) instantly recognizes that Oppenheimer is not his type of Cold Warrior – a commie peacenik who thinks too much.
Explicit in Oppenheimer’s point of view is the idea that heading off the threat of nuclear annihilation should be the prime determinant of America’s Cold War policy, an opinion decidedly not shared by the country’s leadership. And so Oppenheimer must pay the price for acquiescing to the hardball military-industrial playbook in the first place. His assigned role has its limits even when his conscience does not, and he is ultimately banished from the establishment amid the postwar Red Scare.
Oppenheimer, a film energized by the life-and-death consequences the scientist deals with every day for years, is a bracing argument in favor of anti-war activism that paradoxically uses the bomb’s awesome firestorm as a spectacularly ironic punctuation mark. Nolan’s film is some degree of masterpiece.