The primary visual stroke in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer isn’t, as you might expect, a wow 8K CGI rendering of atomic-fission heat-death but super close-ups of Cillian Murphy’s bony, glassy-eyed visage in the throes of one neurotic seizure or another. From his postgrad days at Cambridge to his last, persecuted post–Los Alamos guilt trips, Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” seems in a more or less constant state of tremulous dysphoria. Nolan means to get under this enigmatic figure’s sweaty skin, and to do it in peripheral IMAX and tympanic-cavity-sundering Dolby 5.1. So he gets close, often. It might be the longest and most expensive Hollywood movie dedicated to a real man’s neurotic anxiety.
If only monster close-ups were by nature revelatory. Well, at least Nolan’s not out concocting yet another scientifically preposterous and incomprehensible “mind-bender,” but, rather, returning to the WWII era, where he so fabulously upended the brain-free summer movie paradigm with Dunkirk (2017). But Oppenheimer’s siring of the atom bomb is only half of the story Nolan wants to tell. The real intention of the film is to disinter a forgotten 20th-century episode of all-American skullduggery and write it back into history. David O. Russell attempted something similar with the 1933 Wall Street Putsch in last year’s Amsterdam; for Nolan, it is the Cold War–era ideological lynching of the leftist Oppenheimer, which effectively transformed him from a war hero and global figurehead into a pensioned nobody. Not, you’d think, the hot raw stuff of blockbusterousness.
At first, I wondered how wonky the capriciously wonky Nolan would get with all that cutting-edge science, as opposed to the other Hollywood treatment of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, Roland Joffé’s prosaic Fat Man and Little Boy (1989). Joffé focused on supervising officer Col. Leslie Groves (played by Paul Newman; Nolan nabbed Matt Damon), and added in a fictional radiation poisoning on the site (suffered by young scientist John Cusack) in order to illustrate the lethality of what was happening. Nolan has no patience for such embroidery, nor for actual quantum mechanics and nuclear physics, which as always is relegated to math on a blackboard. The trajectory of Oppenheimer’s life is tracked in retrospect via two official interrogations: first, the closed-door investigation into Oppenheimer by a hand-picked Atomic Energy Commission board, in 1953–54, essentially accusing him of Communist leanings and espionage, and then AEC bigwig Lewis Strauss’s hearing in front of the Senate, trying to get his secretary of commerce nomination confirmed, five years later. (Strauss’s affiliation with Oppy made him suspect, at first. It’s a Wikimovie, no question.) In each case, the McCarthy-era hardliners dig through the minutest lefty aspects of Oppenheimer’s messy history, much of it draining down to what they keep calling “the Chevalier incident,” which was no more than a fellow Berkeley prof divulging to Oppy, during the war, that he knows a man who’d be willing to pass atomic secrets to the allied Soviets….
There’s a lot more detailed history than that to keep straight, and Nolan manages to get the whole mess into a lather. Still, relative to the later Red Scare intrigue, the middle hour, once Damon’s no-BS military ramrod shows up to get the atomic ball rolling, is a concise and exciting procedural about how to build a town in the desert (could the proximate release date of Asteroid City be a coincidence?) intended solely for the creation of a city-flattening weapon. Maybe Nolan’s primary achievement here is how little he explains — dozens of characters come and go in a torrential swirl, some famous but unidentified, and the director handles the sprawling company with verve. At three hours, the film has the elbow room to let actors find their prickly moments, in particular the redoubtable Florence Pugh (as an unstable Communist lover of Oppy’s), Casey Affleck (as a scarily quiet intelligence officer famous for torture), Benny Safdie (an inspired choice for Edward Teller, eventual father of the even more destructive hydrogen bomb), Gary Oldman (as a pandering President Truman), and, most of all Robert Downey Jr. as the duplicitous Strauss, handling the bulk of the film’s political exposition with a restless, imperious intelligence.
In interviews, Nolan has called Oppenheimer “ambiguous,” and he is: You don’t know what to make of the guy, except as a brilliant somebody who allowed himself to be used and suckered and abused by history. He’s a mystery, and yet so much of the film — seemingly a full hour of its running time, added up — is devoted to cinematizing his inner turmoil, often with booming cosmic cutaways. Nolan’s thunderous Sturm und Drang never lets up, even after you realize that, for a postwar Oppy, the nerve-shredding stakes on hand are merely his security clearance and his role in the U.S. government’s atomic age development. (He was wealthy, and eventually retired to the Virgin Islands.) Oppenheimer never committed treason, of course, so you can be forgiven for wondering if the story warrants all this muscly filmmaking energy. You can practically smell the friction between Nolan’s Wagnerian ambition and the familiar biopic rulebook: the life boiled down to illustrative vignettes, the timeline hopscotch, the parachuting in of terrific actors impersonating real people for two or three scenes, and, most of all, the stubborn fact that most lives are not shaped like stories at all.
Oppenheimer’s life had plenty of conflict — he seemed to have been tolerated by the powers that be despite his politics, his Jewishness, and his instability, until he wasn’t. But is that the same as a narrative? The sometimes repetitive stretch of Nolan’s film gives you plenty of time to think about it. (Incidentally, for those understandably maddened by Nolan’s history with what-the-fuck sound mixes, the dialogue in Oppenheimer is perfectly clear.) All the same, Nolan dresses to impress, and deserves a handshake for dedicating the equivalent of a small nation’s resources to reminding us, with so much detail and fidelity, how American power has so happily and so often eaten its own. Just as Nolan is a recalcitrant advocate for old-school celluloid and large-screen formats, we shouldn’t overlook how he’s tried to buck the summer-season teenage-wasteland devolution; for what it’s worth, Oppenheimer is by many calculations the first “big” summer studio film targeted to adult interests and attention spans since Dunkirk. Before that, you’d have to go back to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, in 1992. Nolan has blown the clarion, so now we’ll see if the Boomer-to-Millennial contingent will quit complaining, get off their sofas, and answer the call. I’d say step up, just so movies with this sort of deep-dish historical appetite have a chance of being made in America again. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.