Is anyone else surprised by the popularity of Oppenheimer? The film has triggered a mammoth cultural explosion, igniting topics that range from the dangers of politicizing science, to the hermeneutics of the mushroom cloud, to the intricacies of IMAX, to AI military technology and “our Oppenheimer moment,” to the “subversive” nature of going to a movie theater in the age of streaming. Not to mention the whole “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.
Based on Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s 2005 biography, American Prometheus, Oppenheimer charts the brilliant career of its eponymous hero; but the career of director Christopher Nolan has a shimmer all its own. Nolan’s CV is every young filmmaker’s envy: artsy short film (Doodlebug), followed by bargain-basement debut that garners critical attention (Following); then a breakthrough art-house film that makes money (Memento); and finally off to Batman-land, rocketing Nolan from no-budget to mega-budget in just eight years. The rare director seemingly able to have it all, Nolan specializes in box-office blockbusters “pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment,” as Manohla Dargis wrote about The Dark Knight.
Nolan’s core obsessions were laid out in Memento (2000), a flashy neo-noir thriller that gave the term “retro” a whole new meaning. That film consists of short sequences that move forward but are arranged in reverse, tracking backwards in time from a revenge killing in the opening scene to the original crime that incited it. Memento’s devices of narrative uncertainty require some cognitive calisthenics on the part of viewers. In the two decades since, Nolan has returned to this sweet spot with films such as Inception (2010) and Tenet (2020), movies that reflected his abiding urge to drill down into, and manipulate, the fundamental structures of cinematic reality. No wonder a story about theoretical physics would attract him.
A three-hour biopic, Oppenheimer sets up as a bildungsroman, charting physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s education and character formation. We follow his youthful tour of European universities in the 1920s, where he meets science luminaries from Heisenberg to Niels Bohr; his eventual landing at Berkeley, where his ideas catch fire (an artful time-lapse sequence shows rising attendance as his classes become popular); and, finally, the unfolding of the Manhattan Project under his direction at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Well, not finally, in fact. A substantial chunk of the movie consists of layered-in testimony from two postwar political proceedings: a 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing to determine whether Oppenheimer would maintain his security clearance; and the 1959 Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce. Strauss was the man who hired Oppenheimer to head the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, then subsequently subverted his career, apparently for reasons of personal jealousy and resentment.
It is a lot of ground for a movie to cover, and let me lay my cards on the table: amid near-unanimous critical acclaim for Oppenheimer, I second the dissenting vote of the ever-acerbic New Yorker critic, Richard Brody, who likened it to “a movie-length Wikipedia article.” In contrast with the elusive and profound aura that enwraps Nolan’s storytelling in his best movies, here the director takes a kind of History Channel approach, in which private lives are stapled to a public timeline. Thus, for example, the publication of an important physics paper by Oppenheimer in a science journal on September 1, 1939, is upstaged by a screaming newspaper headline, “War in Europe!” There are history footnotes, as when we briefly meet a Los Alamos physicist named Klaus Fuchs—history buffs will register the future notorious spy. Ethical quandaries arising from the prospect of bombing the Japanese are limned for us in meetings where stakeholders hash it all out, seminar style. “Is there no way to demonstrate it first?” asks one of the physicists. “Oh, we intend to demonstrate it in the most convincing way possible—twice!” barks General Leslie Groves, Los Alamos’s Army overseer. It all feels conspicuously…educational.
As for the character of Oppenheimer, he is supposed to present the tragic paradox of a civilized humanist who lends his talents to the harnessing of a violence that could destroy civilization. By way of characterization, we are given visual gestures that juxtapose his various passions and preoccupations—a look around his office disclosing T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” along with prints of modernist art, followed by hallucinatory visions of cosmic particle-scapes set to thunderous music, followed by Oppenheimer quoting a John Donne sonnet to a baffled General Groves (an enjoyably gruff Matt Damon).
But what kind of man was Oppenheimer, really? A few stray moments in the film, clearly culled from the Bird-Sherwin biography, hint at a driven, impulsive, and eccentric bohemian with a dark side. In an early scene from his student days, he impulsively injects a disliked teacher’s apple with cyanide, and has to rush back later to avert calamity. Cyanide? Such behavior is so out of whack with the film’s portrayal of its protagonist that I found myself saying, “Really?”; and although General Groves calls Oppenheimer “theatrical, egotistical, and unstable,” we don’t see enough of these qualities in action. While Oppenheimer’s ethical dilemmas are laid out with teacherly clarity, his psychological and emotional complexities never really come into focus; oddly for a biopic, Nolan has made his subject less interesting than he was in life.
The one-note intensity of Cillian Murphy’s performance doesn’t help. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema fills the screen with closeups of Murphy’s strangely unearthly face, set in a far-off, suffering gaze. This haunted and passive bearing is at odds with the reality of Oppenheimer’s power, and it is disconcerting to see Murphy’s wraithlike figure striding down Los Alamos’s dusty main street in his fedora like a sheriff in a gunslinging town. “He was founder, mayor and sheriff, all rolled into one,” one visitor recalls. “You are an American Prometheus,” Niels Bohr tells him. But we get almost no sense of any megalomaniacal dimension to his character.
Yet power and its mesmerizing allure lie at the heart of the story. The film scrutinizes the scientists’ justifications for developing a weapon of supreme destructiveness—first and foremost, the fear that the Nazis would get there first. As it turned out, they weren’t particularly close; Hitler mistrusted the science and pursued conventional weapons such as the V-2 rocket, and then the war in Europe was over. But the Manhattan Project had developed an unstoppable momentum, and in Oppenheimer apparently most of all. In Jon Else’s illuminating 1980 documentary, The Day After Trinity, British physicist Freeman Dyson recalls that “the dream somehow got hold of him—to produce a nuclear weapon.” And Hans Bethe, another key player at Los Alamos, adds that Oppenheimer “completely changed to fit the new role.” This change—what it drew on in Oppenheimer, and how it ramified—goes largely missing from Oppenheimer, and its absence vitiates the drama, reducing tragedy to mere chronicle.
The film is three hours long, yet the portrait of its protagonist seems sketchy, and one wonders how Nolan might have allocated time differently. Take, for instance, the decision to showcase the hearings from the 1950s. Presumably, the intention was to dramatize the emerging political dynamic of the Cold War, with its rituals of character assassination. But the resulting “action” is bureaucratic and dense. Nolan’s script takes us deep in the weeds of political infighting surrounding Oppenheimer, his nemesis Strauss (played with cool cynicism by Robert Downey Jr.), and the controversy over the physicist’s security clearance, including extensive testimony about a long-ago conversation with an academic mentor who proposed sharing info on the Manhattan Project with the Soviets, and whether this constituted treason. The director’s attempt to wring drama from all the political maneuvering reaches a bizarre climax when he sets testimony from the hearings to the same tumultuous, thunderous music that he used to dramatize the advent of the bomb itself.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some terrific moments when Oppenheimer succeeds in conveying a sense of awed horror, and of a moral recklessness bordering on the obscene, such as one scene in which the physicists place bets on the likely kilotonnage of the blast (Oppenheimer bets on three kilotons), with Enrico Fermi taking side bets on the likelihood of “atmospheric ignition,” which would incinerate all of New Mexico. And the film’s best moment occurs after the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war, when Oppenheimer speaks to a jubilant crowd in Los Alamos. To the audience’s thunderously stamping feet and shouts of “Oppy! Oppy!” the physicist starts a conventional victory speech—“the world will remember this day”—but suddenly breaks off. Silent, sweating, he seems to dissociate, as everything around him slides into the surreal: a scream; noiseless applause; a blinding light and a vision of calamity, with people sick and dying and covered in ash. The disorienting power of the scene conveys both the calamity of nuclear war and Oppenheimer’s inner turmoil, his nauseating sense of complicity.
Oppenheimer needs more of this scene’s surreal energy; strangely, for a Christopher Nolan film, it needs more strangeness. But right after that hallucinatory episode, Nolan cuts to a cover of Oppenheimer on Time magazine, and from then on reverts to History Channel mode, dutifully covering the political hearings, as well as a brusque interview with President Truman in which the physicist agonizes about having “blood on my hands” and is scoffingly dismissed.
After watching Oppenheimer, I streamed The Day After Trinity. (“Trinity” refers to Oppenheimer’s name for the bomb test site, inspired by a Donne poem, and the “day after” refers to yet another hearing, in 1965, at which Oppenheimer was asked about talks on halting the spread of nukes, and responded, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”) It may seem paradoxical to suggest that a documentary more acutely conveys the tragedy of Los Alamos than a feature film does. Yet for me at least, it did. In the decades since the Manhattan Project, many commentators seeking to capture the dreadful awe that accompanied the advent of the atomic bomb have invoked Oppenheimer’s quotation from the Bhagavad Gita—“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—and Nolan leans heavily on it, using it not once but twice. The documentary pursues the horror more subtly, in a banality-of-evil way. It contains a small but terrible moment, when the Manhattan Project physicist Robert Serber displays a section of a wall removed from a classroom in Nagasaki, bearing the outline of a window sash imprinted on it photographically by the blast. “You see the angle here?” Serber says, holding it up. “That shows you that the bomb went off at exactly the height it was supposed to.” And Serber can’t quite suppress a smile—quickly followed by a look of sickly confusion. All these years later, he still feels pride.
That look does more to evoke the scientists’ moral disarray than does the pose of abject contrition in which the last third of Nolan’s film freezes Robert Oppenheimer. Serber’s smile reveals candor about the thrills of scientific discovery, even as his sickened look betrays an awareness of what resulted when those thrills were channeled into the priorities of what Eisenhower himself would call the military-industrial complex. What does it mean—for science and its practitioners, for civilization itself—when mass death becomes, well, a project?
The enormity of such questions mocked even the formidable intelligence assembled on the team at Los Alamos. Recalling the shocking power of the July 1945 test blast for Else’s documentary, Frank Oppenheimer, who worked on the Manhattan Project along with his older brother, becomes suddenly anxious, repeatedly rubbing his eyes and forehead as he describes being stunned by the heat of the blast, twenty miles away. “It was terrifying,” he recalls.
In the presence of that terror, Else asks, what was the first thing the assembled physicists said to one another? Frank Oppenheimer pauses. “‘It worked,’” he says. And upon learning just three weeks later that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima? Again Oppenheimer offers that stricken look, and again, candor. “Our first thought,” he recalls, “was, ‘Thank God it wasn’t a dud.’”