“Once the rockets are up,
Who cares where they come down?
‘That’s not my department’,
Says Wernher von Braun”
Did J. Robert Oppenheimer truly care where the rockets come down? The man who brought quantum physics to America, is recruited by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to set up a top-secret community of scientists with one goal to begin with: build the bomb before the Nazis can. The purpose of the bomb begins to shift before long, and Oppenheimer’s motivations are never so much as totally clear. Being ahead of your time can come with a consequential naivety. Years later, as a nuclear disarmament advocate, he would be held to account for every horrific mistake and smallest choice during a deposition, in the name of his security clearance, held on the recommendation of Atomic Commission member and staunch anti-communist Lewis Strauss. Strauss, aiming for a cabinet position before the senate, must later attest as to his relationship with and treatment of Oppenheimer before a determination is made.
These frames and telling’s are illustrated by rapidly exchanged quickfire scenes, often switching between each other (the closest comparison might be with The Social Network and its two lawsuits making their way through Zuckerberg’s life via many testimonies, but two in particular). One recollection is labelled ‘1. Fusion’ and is in colour, the other ‘2. Fusion’ and is in black and white. We learn early on that light exists as both particles and waves depending on the occasion of observation and observer, a lesson in part passed down from Einstein (Tim Conti), who makes a crucial and grave set of appearances. Two things which seem at odds with each other, but the math says that both are true. Ambiguity and distress are intwined, making for thoroughly intense viewing.
All that aside, the question remains what went on the head of the American Prometheus? Early on it’s established, by way of a speech about theoretical physics, that you can’t lift the rock without being bitten by the snake. Oppenheimer is bitten by the snake in immeasurable ways, at any one time trapped in the role of troubled genius, adulterer, mayor, commander, a poor judge of character, the bridge to a peerless group of minds, a prophet, a dissident, target, martyr, flagellator, and so on. A theme carried from writer-director Christopher Nolan’s other work; a man moved to do something against all personal sacrifice, particularly on the familial side. The man often goes on for the sake of perhaps impossible redemption, as it appears to be here. So often they feel guilty.
Tracing his life, Nolan works to completely engage the audience by any and every means, and hold their attention by restating promises, so that you look forward to this piece of the puzzle or sensorially overwhelming sequence yet to come. The early glances of engulfing, whirring particles which seem to plague the young scientist (both disturbing and tantalizing to him) promise not only the IMAX spectacle of the bomb, but also the subjective nature of this biopic, out of step with most examples. It rumbles to life like a steam train, memories like gears clambering over themselves to roll forward and never slow down. Thereafter there are set-ups abound, characters of unplaceable motivation, conversations left unheard to be eavesdropped on only when the film is good and ready to allow that.
Cillian Murphy is revelatory in the role, not in the sense that he uncovers some new extreme in performance (though the character’s life gives plenty such opportunities), but that he has found Oppenheimer as this film demands he be and holds it. Without this continuity of character, the complex structure of the edit would be a disaster. In that edit, we hop from story to telling, between two tellers, but always moving forward, and Murphy inhabits the role unflinchingly. All of this allows Nolan to convolute his story but keep its progression clear and often simple. In the shaken inner world of Oppenheimer, we are granted entry in surreal breaks (one among them the single best scene of Nolan’s career), and sometimes in curious actions, developing glimpses of a fractured and indefinable personality beneath his cold eyes and forthright, if withdrawn demeanor.
For instance: the film exposits the origin of the “Now I am become Death” remark through a sex scene tied to Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), later something like Oppenheimer’s mistress. Stressing a formative brush with homicidal impulse begs questions as well. His marriage to ‘Kitty’ (Emily Blunt) is strong and troubled, as is she. In saying there is something unknowable in him, that you make of him (and of power and theory and all that) what you will, Nolan affixes a lesser subplot concerning Robert Strauss’ potential appointment as Secretary of Commerce. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent, though chomps too much scenery in his outburst following a remarkably staid performance, and though this second story is kept as tidily entertaining as the rest, it makes a point more clear than the main plot (Oppenheimer’s relayed life-and-times) but makes a touch too much of it. This framing technically necessitates the deposition from which Oppenheimer’s biography is drawn, and makes comment on it, but does not meet the strength of J. Robert’s company (and the newly minted black and white IMAX process achieves mixed results, at least in IMAX projection where the exposure is perfectly balanced during the colour sequences, though it buries Mank some fathoms deep).
No doubt what you’re served here ultimately becomes epic, intimate, airtight and yes, explosive throughout its convolutions (which are spoon-fed at blinding speed), packed to the gills but is it as dense as it could be for its 3 hours? A great experience in the cinema, involving and justly unsettling, but in that way, you may be left thinking more on the film than on the bomb, or even Oppenheimer himself. If it were that bit closer to the allure of his enigmatic conscience and worldview (as the character seems drawn to the mysteries at the bottom of the universe and disturbed). For keeping its pace and bent narrative (collapsing memories, testimonies, urgencies, visions all slipping over each other in his overwhelmed mind, a masterclass in editing built on the time-melding work of Dunkirk), it may have brushed past or cut to bits some greater insight. Its most impressive strengths are its greatest (though modest) flaws. This does mean the film avoids being overly didactic, and what translates from a single viewing is that the broad strokes of Oppenheimer’s life are now, with little exaggeration, living history.
The intensity may be an idee fix keeping this reviewer from seeing what others will, regardless, asking for as much as all that may be a little outrageous. This is brilliant work, Nolan out of his element (if he can even be said to have one at this point), but at the height of his powers. Experience it, and you may get all that and more.