Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer opens with a quote, ‘Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humans and he was chained to a rock for eternity’. It’s with this almost prophetic thought that the film dives into the mind and work of a haunted, troubled and yet brilliant physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
At a 3 hour runtime, one would expect the film to have a rather leisurely pace, but this isn’t a story of leisure.
While the film flits between two government hearings attempting to dissect Oppenheimer’s past–several years after the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–it’s an intuitive character study.
Even in a film about the 'Father of the Atomic Bomb', the actual bomb never takes precedence over the protagonist and his moral and ethical dilemma. Even in one of the film’s best and most haunting scenes–the Trinity Nuclear test in 1945–the movie is focusing on one man’s realisation of the destruction he has potentially enabled; his doubts being replaced by surety that demolition is now in the hands of humans.
Nolan is doing what Nolan does best–using sharp storytelling to give the audience not a second too long to breathe or pace themselves. Cut sharply between Oppenheimer's visage and his mind, the movie is breathtaking and dizzying (even if mixed with abject terror).
The film delves into Oppenheimer’s vanity in more than one instance, with people around him challenging the notion that this bomb is all about him–like with an exemplary scene with President Harry Truman (Gary Oldman). But conversely, the film itself does much of the same. Nolan made the decision to not show the effects of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but does feature a scene wherein Oppenheimer posits why the decision made sense for the future of humanity (not with the intent to justify but to merely explain).
As Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy is absolutely magnificent. He plays the physicist across ages and introduces minute character details that mirror his thoughts and overarching feelings. When he is a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge in England, diminished by his peers and tutors, he looks shrunken but in his eyes there is a fervour and intensity. Later, in the scene with Oldman, he looks similarly ashen and withdrawn but his shoulders have more of a slump, his gait more doubtful than before.
And yet, in the middle, we see a man brimming with the self-confidence of a person knowingly holding what he believes to be a potential stop to the war.
“Oppie’s” (as those close to him call him) is a brilliantly written character as well–not a member of the Communist party but haunted by his suspected communist ties. A man whose leftist politics leave a sour taste in some people’s mouths even as his anti-fascism (and Hitler’s blatant anti-semitism) drive him towards advancing quantum physics towards an end goal.
Even with his goal in mind, he is wary of the ideas presented by Edward Teller who, if you have a brief grasp of history (I didn’t), is the father of the hydrogen bomb. Murphy captures Oppenheimer’s hesitation and skepticism brilliantly and yet Nolan never makes you believe that the two are on different sides of the same debate.
Nolan has casted Hollywood’s who’s who in the film, including featuring Oscar-winners in cameo roles. Some of the best work comes from an almost-unrecognisable Robert Downey Jr as former Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss, one of the subjects of the aforementioned hearings. His testimonials are placed right next to Oppenheimer’s own and he plays this role with a self-assuredness that is as captivating as the film itself.
These clashing scenes of testimony can sometimes cause repetitiveness to occur.
Two actors who barely get their due but do their absolute best with the screen time they are afforded are the ones playing the women in Oppie’s life–one whose heart he broke and one who he married but practically abandoned. Florence Pugh plays Jean Tatlock with a vivaciousness that isn’t new for the great actor but is delightful as always and Emily Blunt plays Kitty with a deep resentful sorrow that makes your heart go out for her.
Throughout the buildup to the creation of the atomic bomb, the audience is gazing from one character to the other, trying desperately to be a part of the action and not miss a bit of the unrelenting screenplay. The big bang itself is regrettably not the best part of the film even though it is still a cinematic feat. The shots of explosions juxtaposed with action in the film are more terror-inducing than the former. However, how much does that really take away from the experience, considering the audience is now completely mesmerised by Oppenheimer’s moral war.
And that is perhaps why the real horror comes from watching Oppenheimer grappling with the reality of what he has contributed to. In his eyes, there are swatches of terror even as he watches his colleagues cheering in jubilance.
It is in this moment that you understand why he is associated with the phrase, ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ from the Bhagavad Gita.
There are so many actors who deserve praise for their work in this film–Matt Damon (as Lt Gen Richard Groves) the military engineer in-charge of the Manhattan Project’s security and the man who sees in Oppenheimer the ability to lead it, Tom Conti as a detached Albert Einstein, and David Krumholtz as Isidor Isaac Rabi who is the attempted moral compass to Oppie.
It is heady to see prominent scientific figures make appearances (even if verbal) in the film, from Neils Bohr to Werner Karl Heisenberg.
At the end of the day, we see Oppenheimer battling both his unwanted celebrity and his eventual irrelevance as his ideology is used against him to character assassinate him post-war. Murphy’s uncanny resemblance to the real Robert Oppenheimer only makes these emotional themes more believable.
Oppenheimer is known for the invention of the atomic bomb as much as he is known for the regret that followed. For his consistent opposition to the hydrogen bomb and the lobbying for control of nuclear power. Oppenheimer is Nolan’s best and most gripping film and it leaves you with the most horrifying conclusion: at the end of the day, technology and humans are both at the mercy of each other and yet, destruction and total annihilation is always a looming threat.