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21 July 2023

Oppenheimer’s tormented soul

In this perspective-shifting biopic, Christopher Nolan frames the father of the atom bomb as a tortured Prometheus.

By Pippa Bailey

There are few stories that lend themselves to aggrandising analogy as well as the creation of the atom bomb. It is Pandora’s Box, a terrible power unleashed. It is Frankenstein’s monster. This is the stuff of gods and men. But the parallel chosen by Christopher Nolan in Oppenheimer (and by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, authors of the Pulitzer-winning book on which it is based) is that of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, gave it to man and was tormented for eternity as punishment. This is how Nolan invites us to see J Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atom bomb.

Oppenheimer was born to a Jewish family in New York in 1904. He was a brilliant and neurotic physicist appointed director of the Los Alamos lab during the Second World War, where he oversaw the development of the atom bomb. Later, when he spoke out against the hydrogen bomb and for the need to prevent a nuclear arms race, the government he served turned against him and in 1954 stripped him of his security clearance on account of his supposed communist sympathies.

Of course, Oppenheimer is a film by Time Lord Christopher Nolan, and so isn’t told so simply. There are two perspectives. The first – “Fission” – is shot in colour and is Oppenheimer’s; the camera never leaves his side. The cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, working with Nolan for the fourth time, has created a film that feels intimate even at Imax scale.

In this strand, we see Oppenheimer wrestle with the ethical consequences – first theoretical, then realised – of what is euphemistically called “the gadget”. His reality is interrupted by dizzying visions of a hidden universe of stars and particles. The score by Ludwig Göransson makes way for the skull-crushing “womp” of a blast wave, or a train-like hammering that turns out to be the stamping feet of his baying fans. Such descents into emotional instability could be overripe but Cillian Murphy plays Oppenheimer with great subtlety, his face flickering from serenity to distress and back almost imperceptibly. With his wiriness and palest blue eyes, he is a likeness so strong you have to wonder if Nolan had this role in mind when he first cast Murphy as a villainous doctor in Batman Begins in 2005.

[See also: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny: a feeble last crack of the whip]

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The second perspective, “Fusion”, is straighter. Shot in black and white (a first for Imax – Kodak made the film stock specially), it follows Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), a chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Oppenheimer’s antagonist. This clever conceit allows Nolan to air criticisms of Oppenheimer and his bomb without impinging on the viewer’s empathy with him. Both perspectives feature a trial: Oppenheimer’s hearing over his security clearance and Strauss’s 1959 Senate confirmation hearing for his nomination as Eisenhower’s commerce secretary, at which his hostility towards the scientist is unveiled.

The visual signalling between the two points of view is an unusual kindness from Nolan, who prefers to wheel and deal with his audience. But the Time Lord does not dare patronise viewers with date stamps, and so we must follow jumps in time ourselves. The opening words of his 2006 film The Prestige apply here, just as they do to the rest of Nolan’s work: “Are you listening closely?”

It is difficult, too, to keep track of the revolving cast of white, male scientists, though there are recognisable faces: Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Benny Safdie and a barely used Rami Malek. Matt Damon is competent as gruff (when are they not?) military man Leslie Groves. As is often the case with Nolan’s films, there is little here for women to do – though Florence Pugh (Jean Tatlock) and Emily Blunt (Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty) do a lot with a little; the best shot in the film is shared by them.

Nolan’s script does not always find the balance between foreshadowing and exposition; one senses his hokier instincts were reined in by his brother Jonathan when they wrote together. The quote from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer supposedly recited at Trinity, “And now I am become death, destroyer of worlds”, is said not once but twice, and Oppenheimer’s line “when I was a kid I thought if I could find a way to combine physics and New Mexico my life would be complete” is groan-inducing. But the perennially smug Kenneth Branagh (who was gifted the clanging line “Home” in Dunkirk) is for once largely spared from sentimentality.

At three hours, it is too long – as, sigh, all films are these days – but compared with the dimension-bending twists and trickery of the films that made Nolan a superstar director, Oppenheimer feels classier, more serious. Just the atom to split this time.

“Oppenheimer” is in cinemas now

[See also: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie: The art of selling out]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world