Oppenheimer is smart, imaginative and Christopher Nolan at his best – analysis

Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s best and most revealing work. It’s a deeply haunting story told with a traditionalist’s eye toward craftsmanship and muscular, cinematic imagination. Here, Nolan treats one of the most contested legacies of the 20th century – that of J Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy), the “father of the atomic bomb” – as a mathematical puzzle to be solved.

In 1943, at the behest of Major General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Oppenheimer became the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the New Mexico site of the Manhattan Project for the attempt to successfully develop the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, at first, was driven by the moral imperative: he was very afraid, as a Jew, about what would happen if the Nazis developed a weapon of such lethal capability (that a non-Jewish actor played a role in which identity plays an important role, in this way, quite strange).

Following Hitler’s defeat, Oppenheimer continued to support the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced that such hellish destruction would not only end the war in the Pacific, but all wars. Historians have since debated the idea that the bombs were necessary in any way for Japan’s surrender (the real turning point, it seems, was the threat of Soviet invasion). And Oppenheimer’s own utopian vision is quickly dismantled by fellow scientist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who move forward with the creation of the H-bomb, a thousand times more deadly in its range.

Oppenheimer attempted, in vain, to stop the ensuing nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. He was immediately silenced using one of America’s most expensive tools of political oppression – anti-Communist hysteria. He is attacked for his personal associations with the Communist Party, by his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), and former lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). It was an act of pure, public humiliation.

Nolan observes each of these chapters with morbid wonder, while Jennifer Lame’s editing and Ludwig Göransson’s poignant score lend. Oppenheimer a frightening momentum. The film is constructed in a way that allows its audience to understand, on an intellectual level, the deep power and turmoil that leads its main character to see himself as the “Death, destroyer of worlds” of the Hindu scriptures. I’m not sure, however, that it goes much deeper than that – in that deep, emotional space that can be both overwhelming and difficult to articulate. It is quite aware of itself, and the ways in which cinema produces its own reality. Throughout, the film teases an unheard conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), its inevitable revelation delivered in the same tone as a solution to Nolan’s own teleportation trick The Prestige.

But the priority of intelligence in Oppenheimer is not necessarily a criticism of Nolan – more a testament to who he is as an artist. The detonation of the A-bomb, in its first test in the New Mexico desert, is depicted as rising flames in extreme close-up, with enthralled onlookers. You sense its primal force, the kind of untapped power that led Oppenheimer to see himself as a kind of American Prometheus (also the title of a 2005 biography directed by Nolan). But compare that, perhaps, to how David Lynch approached the same A-bomb test in his 2017 limited series Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch pulls out the camera, slowly, confronting us with the full scale of the weapon’s destruction, absorbing us into its very center, denigrating us in its absence. Nolan’s A-bomb is impressive until we consider its context; Lynch’s A-bomb is pure nightmare.

The film’s non-linear structure (de rigueur for Tenet and Beginning filmmaker), in each timeline beautifully lensed by Hoyte van Hoytema in either color or black and white, puts a little more focus on Oppenheimer’s betrayal after the war than the rise of his guilt. Much of the film plays as a political thriller, the fuel in its engine being Downey Jr’s titanic coloring of Strauss, all boorish and manipulative charm.

But Nolan still focuses on understanding the inner workings of his subject. Here is a man deep in denial. When confronted with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he averted his gaze. Its horrors thundered (literally) into his peripheral vision, only clear to him when he thought of such brutality inflicted on white Americans celebrating his “victory” at Los Alamos. Murphy creates his own devastating fission: brilliance torn apart by arrogance. In each scene, the light behind his eyes begins to fade. He even had sex the same way he made bombs. After his affair turns sour, his wife Kitty chastises him: “You can’t commit a sin and then we all feel sorry for the consequences.” In Oppenheimera person’s private, inner, and political life are woven together, each part of the great equation that defines a person’s soul.

Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Tom Conti, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh. 15, 180 minutes.

‘Oppenheimer’ is in theaters from July 21

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