J. Robert Oppenheimer was a very complex man with his views on nuclear bombs and his own personal life. The book American Prometheus, on which Oppenheimer is based, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. It dives into serious detail about “the father of the atomic bomb,” examining the triumphs and pains in his career. It is a vast book, and adapting it into a movie would be such an undertaking. Thankfully, one of those directors is Christopher Nolan. His interest in subject matter like this made him the perfect candidate to put Oppenheimer’s life onto an IMAX screen.
Recurring Nolan player Cillian Murphy gives his best performance to date as the theoretical physicist who goes from student to professor to hired government director of the Manhattan Project. Along the way, his personal life gets tangled with grad student Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and then moves on to marry his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), even though he still has complicated feelings for Jean. In addition, Oppenheimer espouses leftist views in his classes, with his friends, and with family who are members of the Communist Party. This comes back to hurt him when a security clearance hearing in 1954 questions whether he should be allowed to continue to work with the government.
Meanwhile, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) attends Senate Hearings to be confirmed for a Cabinet position in 1959. In crisp black-and-white, courtesy of DP Hoyte van Hoytema, Strauss argues about his time on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and why he saw Oppenheimer as dangerous. You may be forgiven for being confused by the tri-stroryline intercutting with each other, as the opening scenes are not completely clear. However, once it is settled, they run smoothly until they merge in the final thirty minutes of the film.
The massive ensemble where A-listers take on small roles shows the power of Nolan. It also shows why this story is so important. The scale of Oppenheimer is not limited to the supporting cast (Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branaugh, and Rami Malek). Nolan’s crusade on de-CGI-ing the visual and sound effects is apparent in the Trinity test scene. The motif of marching, ticking clocks, and the bomb detonating plays in Oppenheimer’s mind as the moral scruples of his work become obvious. It feels authentic and never half-baked, which Nolan never does. Oppenheimer goes back to a period of history to face the conundrum of ending the war and starting a dangerous arms race at the same time.
Taking on someone and the enormous history that comes with it is such a monumental task it would be easy for any writer/director to drop the ball. Nolan almost perfectly hammers it home with the enigma of Oppenheimer, who he was, and what others thought of him. Eighty years after the events at Los Alamos, the conflicting genius of one man and the legacy he created is still relevant. Current fears of nuclear testing and threats of expanding war resonate today. The cost of being a special type of intellectual, as Nolan constructs, is a modern tragedy.