The story of Robert Oppenheimer may be perfect fodder for Christopher Nolan as a director, but his lack of prudence when it comes to storytelling causes his latest film to implode. By Christos Tsiolkas.


Matt Damon as Leslie Groves and Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
Matt Damon as Leslie Groves and Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
Credit: Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer begins with an image of a nuclear fireball. Titles superimposed over the inferno succinctly detail the fate of Prometheus, the Titan doomed to eternal punishment for daring to steal fire from the gods in order to give it to mortals. An uneasy tension will be at play throughout the film, between the desire to fashion a modern myth about aspiration and hubris and the need to create a much more straightforward biographical portrait of the man often called the “father of the atomic age”. The failure of the film is that it never finds a cinematic language to reconcile these contradictory intentions.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant theoretician of quantum mechanics, a child of Jewish immigrants to the United States who, as a student at Cambridge University and a young scientist in the Netherlands and Germany, was witness to the perils faced by Jewish people in Europe as fascist movements emerged. It was that threat that saw him take on a leading role in the development of the atomic bomb, although his previous political inclinations were left-wing and pacifist. With the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, Oppenheimer’s conflicted feelings about the cataclysmic potential of nuclear power saw him actively argue against the development of the H-bomb, a position that led to his hounding by US national security in the early years of the Cold War. He was stripped of his security clearance in 1954 and his political rehabilitation only began when he was awarded honours during John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

It is easy to see why Oppenheimer’s character and story was so enticing for Nolan. The director is obsessed by the possibilities of technological change, with films such as Inception (2010) and Tenet (2020) exploring the plastic and storytelling potential of innovations in film technology. At the same time, he is clearly concerned by the existential threat to traditional cinema posed by such developments. Oppenheimer was shot on 70-millimetre film, a deliberate attempt to advocate for both the primacy of that medium and also the importance of the theatrical space for experiencing film. As with his scientist hero, there is a sense of conflicted emotions about the role Nolan himself has played in the technological advancement of his metier. Nolan is the right director for this subject. The problem with Oppenheimer is that he is the wrong writer for it.

There is no denying Nolan’s strength as a director, his ability to create visually elating sequences that are breathtaking in their precision and execution. There is a key moment in Oppenheimer when the first atomic bomb is detonated in New Mexico. The filmmaking here is sublime, not only in the care taken with the imagery and framing but also in the attention to the reactions and emotional commitment of his cast of actors. The editing is propulsive yet never overwrought. Nolan successfully makes the explosion both truly beautiful and truly terrifying.

Yet whatever his abilities as a filmmaker, ill-discipline when it comes to narrative has been Nolan’s Achilles heel almost from the beginning of his career. His inability to rein in his excesses when it comes to storytelling was detrimental to the overall effectiveness of Inception, which would have been a dazzling science-fiction thriller if it had been shorn of 50 minutes and had one less meta-world with which the audience had to contend. I thought Tenet was a shambolic mess – all smoke and mirrors. This lack of prudence in his storytelling marred Insomnia (2002) and The Prestige (2006). His most successful films have been Memento (2000), The Dark Knight (2008) and Dunkirk (2017), which had less convoluted narratives, or were anchored by the force of their central performances.

Oppenheimer’s structure revolves around three chronological time frames. There is the straightforward biographical arc of Oppenheimer’s life as a student and then his professorship at the University of Berkeley, leading to him being offered the role of director of the scientific unit at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II. Intercut with these traditional biopic elements, there are scenes involving Oppenheimer’s interrogation in 1954 by a panel investigating whether to revoke his security clearance. On top of this, there are scenes involving the 1959 senate confirmation hearings of Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr) for the role of secretary of commerce in the Eisenhower administration. The film indicts Strauss, who worked alongside Oppenheimer on the Atomic Energy Commission, as the man largely responsible for the destruction of Oppenheimer’s political career.

There is never any clear integration between the three temporal elements in the film. The strongest plotline is the one that is most traditionally structured as biography. Cillian Murphy, who has often worked with Nolan, plays the title character with a thoughtful and risky detachment. He isn’t afraid to show us the scientist’s arrogance and intellectual coldness. There is a recurring motif in Oppenheimer between the noble goals of theoreticians and the quiet achievements made possible by pragmatists. This duality plays throughout the film, especially in the relationship between Oppenheimer and Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the military man who assigns him to the Manhattan Project. Groves is played by Matt Damon, who gives the finest performance in the film, using his physical heft to enhance the sense of Groves’ phlegmatic, no-nonsense personality. Damon also lends the film some much-needed comedy, without once undermining the audience’s respect for the dignity of his character.

This tension between theory and practice is also mirrored in Oppenheimer’s sexual relationships. His first love is Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), a committed communist whose Marxist commitments make her eschew notions of love and romance. He eventually married Kitty Puening (Emily Blunt), a biologist whose communist loyalties have been dashed by the realities of losing her first husband in the Spanish Civil War. The sketching of these women is some of the weakest writing in the film. It is ham-fistedly coy about Tatlock’s closeted sexuality and so she is a merely neurotic presence in the film, undercutting any points Nolan wants to make about the conflict between idealism and compromise. Blunt is given a chance to shine in a scene where she is being interrogated by the panel investigating her husband, but she is wasted in the rest of the film. We get no sense of Kitty’s career or her relationship to her own scientific work. The crudity of the writing in her scenes is risible. It’s also a waste of her fine talents as an actor.

Nolan wants us to be awed by the dangerous miracles spawned by revolutionary science but doesn’t have the patience to write any film scenes in which we are animated by intellectual argument. There are moments when I sat up in my seat, when ideas concerning quantum physics and the conflict of these new ideas with Einsteinian precepts are beginning to be discussed, but as soon as they are brought up Nolan cuts away to rhetorically empty images of star systems. This distrust of us as an audience, this belief that we can’t be thrilled by argument, is a disastrous flaw in the film.

There is an equivalent laziness in the moral questions at the heart of Oppenheimer. The scenes involving Strauss’s senate bid are filmed in black and white, and in this, alongside the Manichean conception of Strauss, there are echoes of the hyperbolic excesses of George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). These senate scenes dominate the film’s last hour and they are truly execrable. Any finesse Downey Jr brought to his early scenes is destroyed in the increasingly preposterous histrionics of his character. The scenes also undermine Nolan’s intentions to frame Oppenheimer’s life and legacy in mythic terms. Strauss is reduced to such a cartoonish villain that there is no equivalence between his succumbing to the seductions of power and that of Oppenheimer’s temptation. We experience no sense of the tragic.

After the premiere screening of Oppenheimer, milling with friends, we discussed the film a Robert Altman could have created from the material, how he would have given us a complete immersion in the construction of the township at Los Alamos, how useful his technique of overlapping dialogue could have been in giving us a sense of the tensions and conflicts and surprising moments of empathy between the scientists and the soldiers, between the refugee theoreticians and the women and men staffing the offices and canteen. We also discussed Philip Kaufman’s phenomenal 1983 film The Right Stuff, which trusted its audience to be entranced by the physical and moral engagement of its characters in the space race.

English-language American films are now dominated by an obsession with the adolescent. Oppenheimer is marketed as a return to truly adult filmmaking. Yet in its conception of science, and in its moral sentimentality, it is as undergraduate as anything from the Marvel franchise. Nolan’s self-conception as Hollywood’s saviour, the man who will bring maturity back to the movies, might be the real hubris.

Oppenheimer is showing in cinemas nationally.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 20, 2023 as "Oppenheimer".

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