Availability: Showing widely in theaters; not yet streaming; predictions are late in the year on Peacock; Prime Video Spring 2024 (but best seen in a theater).
“I Am Become Death”
Christopher Nolan’s sprawling yet intricate “Oppenheimer” is a biopic like no other. Using three time periods and moving between them, with each following its own chronology, Nolan turns a personal story into a mystery, not of the creation of the atomic bomb, but of the measure of a man.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, front) created a secret "company town"--Los Alamos--to develop the bomb. Note the street sign "Trinity Drive"--the bomb was named by Oppenheimer "Trinity." Whole families were moved to Los Alamos, which had all the community services of a town. Oppenheimer was described as "founder, mayor and sheriff." Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), to whom Oppenheimer reported, is in the center of the three men at Oppenheimer's left.
Playing with time—and with our heads—is a Nolan signature.
Ostentatious displays of Oppenheimer’s genius open the film: not-too-subtle visions of his whirring mind, facile learning of foreign languages (Dutch in a month to deliver a scientific paper; Sanskrit for its poetry—while having sex). Thankfully these in-your-face genius scenes are over quickly, giving way to the more complex human. Soon the viewer is thrust into overlapping time frames: Oppenheimer’s personal and professional life from university (1920s) on; a closed-door hearing to renew his national security clearance in 1954; and the 1959 Senate hearing for Lewis Strauss, whom Eisenhower had nominated to be Secretary of Commerce—the last in black and white. While multiple time frames and flashbacks are not unusual, Nolan’s use of them is more difficult to understand than most, in part because the black-and-white scenes, which normally suggest an earlier time period, depict the most recent events. Playing with time—and with our heads—is a signature of his, whether in “Memento” (2000) or “Inception” (2010) or 2017’s “Dunkirk” (which had a similar three-part, back-and-forth construction).
Albert Einstein (Tim Conti), left,
with Oppenheimer (Murphy),
is one of several (too many)
distinguished scientists given
cameo appearances in the script.
The pinnacle (or is it what hikers call a false summit?) of Oppenheimer’s trajectory is the Manhattan Project, the U.S. vehicle for developing the world’s first nuclear weapon. Magnificently portrayed by the Nolan regular, Irish actor Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer was tapped to lead the project by Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, a very good Matt Damon, though he never ceases to be Matt Damon. Oppenheimer recruited some of the world’s most distinguished physicists, including two awarded the Nobel prize, Italian Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari) and Dane Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Jews who fled the Fascists and Nazis, respectively. Foremost among those featured by Nolan as involved in the project are Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and David Hill (a late appearance by Rami Malek).
The number of scientists with whom Oppenheimer interacts challenges our grasp of the plot and smacks of name-dropping by Nolan, who employs Albert Einstein (Tim Conti) and Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer) in cameo-like appearances. One wishes scriptwriter Nolan (who used Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”) had employed the literary device of combining several characters into one.
It’s the collective effort of these world-class thinkers that produces the bomb, named “Trinity” by Oppenheimer (shades of playing God) and first tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. In Nolan’s narrative, the bomb is detonated at the 2-hour mark, leaving another hour to unravel the complications of Oppenheimer’s life.
Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) had a secret signal so she would know if the bomb test was successful: "Bring in the laundry."
“Oppie” is presented as a fallible man (he’s a bumbler in the laboratory—“I’m a theorist” he acknowledges) with myriad interpersonal relationships, including with the scientists he leads. Early on he flirts with communism and the Communist Party, to which his brother and his first real love, Jean Tatlock, belonged. He’s labeled a “womanizer,” and not without reason. The film boils his many liaisons down to three women, two of whom are presented as interesting (if neurotic), not the one-dimensional partners one usually associates with “great men”: Tatlock (a sexy Florence Pugh) and acerbic, alcoholic Kitty (Emily Blunt), to whom Oppenheimer was married until his death.
Oppenheimer is depicted debating his ethical responsibility in building the bomb, at first enthusiastically—“this will end all wars.”
The ethical issues the film raises are trimmed and focused onto the persona of Oppenheimer, but are relevant to 1945 and today. There’s the obvious one: should the U.S., as it did in early August 1945, have dropped nuclear bombs on the populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The head of the Manhattan Project is depicted debating his ethical responsibility in building the bomb, at first enthusiastically—“this will end all wars”—and then more ambiguously, as a nuclear arms race becomes increasingly likely. Addressing a wildly appreciative crowd at Los Alamos after the bombing of the Japanese cities, he acknowledges the achievement, but, in Nolan’s telling, hallucinates a nightmare vision of the burned and maimed victims of the bombing. His angst is deepened by the way in which he’s treated as a hero, at least in 1945.
Jean Tatlock (a sexy Florence Pugh), left,
is a tortured first real love
By the 1950s, Oppenheimer’s loyalty is challenged, in part because, during this era of McCarthyism, of his “association” with communists. His straight-talking (even while drunk) wife Kitty accuses him of complicity in his own martyrdom, complicity to allay his guilt for killing civilians. He’s inconsistent when talking about the hydrogen bomb, being developed by Teller. Does he oppose it as the trigger for an arms race, or because he believes U.S. resources could be better allocated? Nolan is unsparing in presenting Oppenheimer’s “muddled” thinking, a term used even by his colleagues and friends, including Teller.
The film's denouement is not the A-bomb, but the ostensibly banal 1959 Senate hearing, shown in black and white, for Lewis Strauss (a nuanced performance by Robert Downey, Jr.) above, to become President Eisenhower's Secretary of Commerce.
The film’s denouement is not the A-bomb, but what seems a banal event, the hearing for Strauss, a non-scientist, one-time shoe salesman, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s, now an anxious, status-conscious nominee for a cabinet post he covets. That black-and-white hearing (as well as the closed-door effort to deprive Oppenheimer of his clearance) evokes today’s Republican Congressional hearings: plenty of bluster and posturing, attack-dog tactics, facts be damned. As Strauss (a fascinating characterization by Robert Downey, Jr., whom you might not recognize) affirms, anything can be said, any lies perpetrated. It doesn’t matter.
The immensity of the production is apparent in its soundtrack, with loud, thumping music at times intentionally drowning out dialogue; its use of computerized images to display the inner workings of a scientist’s mind; its 3-hour length; and its digital scale—the film has been distributed in multiple formats including IMAX 70 mm (available in only 19 theaters in the US). The 5-times Oscar-nominated Nolan, with his considerable talent, has harnessed this behemoth into a taut exploration of a complicated, obsessive, sometimes confused man—an embodiment of the doubts and fears of the American people—as well as a platform for posing ethical questions. Though the events took place as long as 80 years ago, “Oppenheimer” is for our times.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Tom Conti, Danny Deferrari, Matthias Schweighöfer, Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholtz, Josh Hartnett, Benny Safdie, Rami Malek
Country: United States
Runtime: 180 minutes
Other Awards: 1 nomination to date