In brief, Oppenheimer is good, though I find some of the rapturous praise for it curiously overblown. Even allowing for the fact that I am fairly lukewarm on Christopher Nolan in general, it seems to me like a well-made, overlong, ultimately rather conventional biopic. As such, it’s not without merit. Cillian Murphy has long deserved a showcase like this, and he sets himself to the conflicting figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer with gusto, conveying the man’s arrogance, vulnerability, and guilt. Matt Damon gives a delightfully dry performance as army engineer Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer’s partner in bringing the Manhattan Project to fruition. A parade of every white (and white-passing) male actor in Hollywood each get a scene or two to memorably embody some major figure in early 20th century nuclear physics. There are some interesting observations about the complex political realities of the period, such as the way that Oppenheimer and his colleagues, most of whom have left-wing sympathies and, in some cases, affiliations, have to tiptoe between the raindrops if they want to be permitted to work on projects relevant to national security. Ludwig Göransson’s score, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, both combine to create a powerful cinematic experience.
Ultimately, however, Oppenheimer‘s conviction that it has to take us through J. Robert’s whole life before he splits the atom renders the film so much less interesting than it might have been. Though broadly chronological, the film intercuts the story of the Manhattan Project with two additional storylines, the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing in which Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, and the 1958 confirmation hearings of former AEC chair Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), in which Strauss’s nomination to the post of secretary of commerce was scuttled by lingering anger over his mistreatment of Oppenheimer. It’s in those last two storylines, I feel, that the film’s thematic weight lies. A stronger movie, one less indebted to the biopic structure, would have placed its emphasis on them from the start instead of waiting until its final hour to do so.
Before that, however, we get the history of Oppenheimer’s growth as a physicist and administrator, from his studies in Europe to establishing his own lab in the US to the Manhattan Project. Cheryl will, I’m sure, be along to expand on these scenes and their accuracy, but even to the layperson there are points of interest. The way that, to begin with, the “new physics” feels like a thrilling intellectual—or perhaps philosophical—exercise, useful for theorizing the existence of black holes but with no practical application. The moment where, after the first experimental nuclear fission is achieved, Oppenheimer bemusedly explains to his student that their field will now instantly reorient itself to research a bomb.
But for the most part, it all feels fairly pedestrian, a series of scenes in which some luminary of nuclear physics is introduced, he and Oppenheimer throw some ideas around, and then on to the next one. Even the more personal details—Oppenheimer’s left-wing politics, the insouciance with which he pursues women, often the wives of his colleagues (Nolan must be thrilled to have chosen a story in which there’s an excuse for women to be defined solely through their relationships to men)—feel well-executed but rote. Unlike other recent mega-length movies (looking at you, Mission: Impossible 7), Oppenheimer never drags or makes you wonder when the credits will finally roll, but neither does it persuasively argue that we needed every one of these intermediate steps. Frankly, the man’s early life was just not that interesting.
Things don’t exactly improve when the action moves to Los Alamos. Once again, everything here is well-done—the odd couple partnership of Oppenheimer and Groves, their journeys across the country to recruit scientists without revealing to them what the project is, the inherent absurdity of plopping a ready-made town in the middle of the desert. But there’s an irony to this “let’s put on a show” structure—in which the “show” is a weapon of mass destruction—that the film only fitfully explores. An interesting throughline involves Oppenheimer’s increasing clashes with military security, chiefly Kenneth Nichols (Dane DeHaan, excellently creepy), over his own communist connections and those of other scientists, in which it quickly becomes clear that these officers care more about keeping nuclear technology out of the Soviets’ hands than producing a weapon to fight the Nazis. But this is a thread that will only be fully picked up in the film’s final third.
(One question that this segment raised for me—and which, to be fair, the film is hardly equipped to answer—is whether there would have been a bomb without WWII. Would so many scientists have been willing to drop their lives and research in order to help produce a weapon if the threat of a Nazi bomb were not raised before them? Do we have Hitler to blame for a 20th century spent under the threat of nuclear annihilation?)
What it’s all leading up to, of course, is Trinity. I have a sneaking suspicion that the reason we needed all that dutiful, step-by-step progress through Oppenheimer’s career and the Manhattan Project is that Nolan wanted the proper storytelling foundation for this moment of visual grandeur (perhaps not unlike the way that Damien Chazelle seems to have made First Man largely because he wanted to recreate the moon landing in HD). The scene itself is, of course, expertly constructed and incredibly tense (though visually I think it falls short of what David Lynch achieved, on what was probably a fraction of its budget, in Twin Peaks: The Return). But it’s only after the bomb goes off that the film finds what is, to me, its queasy and disquieting heart, in the punchdrunk revels of the Manhattan Project scientists (Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid) on the bongos) after the successful test, and later, in the Boschian nightmare of a celebration that ensues when Oppenheimer informs the project’s workers about the successful deployment of the bomb over Hiroshima. (On this last point, however, I feel that the film misses a trick by failing to acknowledge the role that anti-Asian racism played in both the decision to drop the bomb, and the American public’s acceptance of it.)
Oppenheimer‘s final third is, to me, what the whole of the movie should have been about, a story about the intersection of science and politics, and the question of a scientist’s power over, and their responsibility for, how their work is used. It begins when the news of Hitler’s death causes the Los Alamos scientist to wonder whether they should halt their work, while Oppenheimer argues that deploying the bomb once means it will never be used again. It continues when the completed bombs are removed from Los Alamos, and Oppenheimer—who until that point had been accustomed to having a voice in the question of deployment, for example being present in the meeting where potential Japanese targets were discussed—realizes that as far as the military is concerned, his role is concluded. While the scientist characters in the movie seem united in terrified awe of the power they’ve unleashed, the military and government figures take a far more utilitarian approach, treating it as yet another tool in their arsenal. As Oppenheimer becomes increasingly haunted by images of nuclear annihilation (a much more successful visual flourish, I’d argue, than the recreation of the bomb itself) he is also clearly troubled by the question of who he has handed his life’s work to, and whether they deserve that power.
Unlike the relatively straightforward narrative of the film’s earlier segments, the years following the war are full of uncomfortable questions. Was Oppenheimer a glory hound who reveled in his new persona as the father of the atomic age? Did he slow-walk the hydrogen bomb project? Was he too cavalier about the dangers of sharing nuclear information and materials with allied countries, where it might make its way to the Soviet Union? Did he overstep in calling for nuclear non-proliferation, over the voices of elected officials? When it reaches these more thorny chapters of Oppenheimer’s life, however, the movie that bears his name suddenly pulls back. Whereas his rise had been depicted beat by beat, his fall is reported secondhand, major incidents in his post-war career coming up in a line of dialogue rather than being dramatized.
And yet it’s precisely in this part of the film that its most interesting questions arise, ones that feel achingly relevant to our present moment. Does Oppenheimer have blood on his hands, or is the truth, as a contemptuous Harry Truman (Gary Oldman) informs him, that the man who built the bomb is irrelevant next to the man who dropped it? Is his objection to the hydrogen bomb a genuine evolution of his views in light of the atomic age’s development post-WWII, or is it a mixture of personal enmity against Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and a desire to set himself apart as the “good” nuclear scientist? Was the 1954 hearing a personal vendetta against a man whose arrogance had won him too many enemies, or an attempt to silence a voice speaking out against nuclear proliferation?
When Strauss is called to account for his treatment of Oppenheimer, he insists that he gave the other man exactly what he wanted: martyrdom. That Oppenheimer—who wanted to be remembered for “Trinity, not Hiroshima”, to get the glory for ushering in a new scientific age, but not the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths—was eager to be punished so that he could be pitied, rather than reviled. At the same time, however, Strauss rants about “these scientists” who feel entitled to lecture the public and politicians about how their work should be used. It’s hard not to think of similar conflicts surrounding COVID and climate change, in which short-sighted politicians seem to want only the benefits of scientific progress, and not the uncomfortable opinions of the people who produce them.
There’s a scene around Oppenheimer‘s midpoint that encapsulates, to me, the movie’s missed opportunities. As they begin to plan the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer explains to Groves that one of America’s secret weapons in catching up to the Nazi nuclear program is anti-semitism. Hitler, he explains, not only chased many Jewish physicists out of Europe, but decried particle physics as “degenerate” science and stymied research into it. We seem to be entering a similar period, in which politicians seek to exert power over what academia can study, what departments should remain open, and what views are acceptable for scientists to espouse. As we saw recently with COVID, and continue to see with issues of reproductive health, politicians will even invent science out of whole cloth, and then decry scientists when they refuse to pretend that it is real.
Oppenheimer could have been a movie about how that thread in American politics first emerged. With more focus on the 1954 hearings and less on Los Alamos, it could have been a movie about how leaders embraces science when it’s useful, then discard scientists when they refuse to toe the party line. And it could have been a movie about the responsibility of not only the scientific community, but the public as a whole, to think seriously about these issues. Unsurprisingly for a Christopher Nolan movie, however, the film ends up defaulting to the narrative of a single man, to the—increasingly fruitless, I would say—question of his guilt, and to the “destroyer of worlds” image. When the truth is, no one person can destroy the world. We all do that together, and we could use more movies that talk about that.