Few filmmakers have captured a generation of moviegoers like Christopher Nolan. Emerging from a passionate indie scene, the director broke into the mainstream with his incredible Dark Knight Trilogy and The Prestige. The rest is history: one Oscar nomination for Best Director and several borderline masterpieces later, Nolan packs in fanboys like few other directors. After a very public breakup with WB over Tenet, his first film for Universal Studios results in some of the highest highs of his career. Oppenheimer, a biopic about the iconic physicist behind the Manhattan Project, showcases many of Nolan’s most experimental choices since Memento. Yet a divisive final act, a dissection of America, and the return of issues writing women rear their heads again.

Nolan employs a three-timeline structure once again, allowing the audience to bounce through the story in a mostly linear fashion. The primary section follows a young Robert J. Oppenheimer (a brilliant Cillian Murphy) who embraces monomania. He travels around the globe to learn from the best minds in theoretical physics. While at Berkley he meets open Communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and the two begin a torrid affair. However, Robert eventually settles down with divorcee Kitty Vissering (Emily Blunt). When World War II breaks out, Oppenheimer finds US General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) recruiting him to join the effort. They will overlook his checkered past with the Communist Party if he assembles a team to build a bomb before the Nazis.

The second timeline follows Oppenheimer’s appeal to retain his Q-level security clearance in 1954. In this timeline, Oppenheimer’s ties to the Communist Party are put under a microscope. The third black-and-white future explores Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) and his Salieri-like relationship with Oppenheimer during Strauss’ confirmation hearing in the Senate. During Strauss’ employment at the United States Atomic Energy Commission, the two men fought over the nuclear and atomic future policies of the United States.

In many ways, the expansive story that Nolan sets out to conquer requires every minute of its three-hour runtime. As a man, Oppenheimer signifies Nolan’s ideal “great man.” He is brilliant in all the ways that matter, he has a razor-sharp wit, and he maintains an obsessive focus on the small details. Oppenheimer chased what he felt was the most important work of his life until he grew to define it as something he hated. He did not stop to think if this course of action was right. He wants to rid his research of imperfection. Only testing in the real world can prove his theories. “Theory can only take you so far” becomes a refrain throughout the tale. In the end, he was willing to destroy the world to prove that he could finally quiet the visions in his mind.

Nolan and Murphy stunningly bring Oppenheimer to life in the best and worst ways. We see his callous disregard for others and willingness to compromise his values for whatever suits his fancy. Murphy plays the man with a gaunt frame and uneasy smile as someone who pretends to care about people. Yet, through his eyes, you can always tell his mind is elsewhere. He’s willing to burn bridges, publicly humiliate other scientists, and embarrass his wife without regard for their feelings. Murphy walks a tightrope for the audience, displaying Oppenheimer’s purely sociopathic tendencies with an overwhelming emotional fragility. All the while, Oppenheimer embraces American exceptionalist attitudes, not because he believes in the systems that empower him, but because they have empowered him to do whatever is necessary. It’s Murphy’s best work in years, and with Nolan adding unbelievable visual images around him, it’s impossible not to feel engaged.

While Murphy turns a black hole of a man into a compelling character study, Nolan goes to work. He literally bends light and science to his whims to craft stunning visuals. Hallucinations peer into the mind of our protagonist, and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema creates visual earthquakes around Murphy. With extreme close-ups and whip-fast dialogue, Nolan puts the audience in the middle of sparring conversations. Editor Jennifer Lame ensures we get hooked by the passion. Even discussions about deep scientific theory communicate the emotional power Nolan wants us to feel. Soon, Oppenheimer becomes much more than a biopic, but instead a question about the future of America.

In fact, American Exceptionalism and its place in the modern world seem top of mind for Nolan. For all the times America sought to play world police and maintain its moral superiority, those arguments became hazier after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Nolan makes Oppenheimer because of how close we’ve come to ending the world. Yet the imperfections in the story of America, created by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began a national reckoning with the myth we created. We know other countries were working on these devices, but no one took the plunge until America proved it possible. Only in America could we roll the dice on the world’s destruction for a weapon to finish off a broken enemy.

Nolan interrogates the subject through Oppenheimer’s defiance of reason to complete the Manhattan Project after Germany falls. This leads to the incredible Trinity Test, the best sequence in any Nolan film. As Nolan showcases the pure power of the weapon in a stunning column of fire, the wind and rain beat down in the darkness. The force of the explosion hits the characters and audience with enough force to rattle your organs. Once again, Nolan’s experimentation with the power of sound feels unrivaled. That is, until a bomb is dropped. Oppenheimer proceeds to give a speech to a nightmarish crowd. Existence bends once more. That moment proves particularly hallucinatory and horrifying.

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Yet as Oppenheimer begins to question its American values and ultimately decides the project has never been worth the cost, Nolan suddenly seems to lose his fastball. Over the last hour of the film, the director seems content with letting Oppenheimer wrestle with the quandary he created. However, this is where his traditional multi-timeline storytelling comes back to bite Nolan. We already know he lost his clearance (with several scenes questioning why the clearance was pulled in the Strauss timeline). We know that he feels guilty because the 1954 version of Oppenheimer appears broken. Instead, we relive characters explicitly stating their changing approach to politics, atomic weapons, and their lust for power.

Much has been made about Oppenheimer as a subjective work of art. By telling the story through Oppenheimer’s eyes, we see how the inquiry about his American patriotism hurts. The promises made to ignore his faults are broken. At the same time, he wrestles with the fact that he is the villain who brought about a weapon powerful enough to end it all. Yet Nolan does not take the final steps to fully understand the man.

On one hand, Nolan has Oppenheimer push back against his friends who question his wife’s ability to testify on his behalf. While he chastises them for trying to understand his relationship, Nolan leaves that footage on the cutting room floor. Oppenheimer’s subjective view of his own relationship is absent, and even if he only sees Kitty as a drunken, uncaring mother, we are supposed to believe his belief in her. Meanwhile, we are supposed to believe Pugh’s Tatlock is the love of his life, but within this subjective view, she’s degraded to little more than a sex doll.

The subjective viewpoint argument falls by refusing to show the images of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Oppenheimer changes his mind about the weapons. He begins to push back on further tests from Edward Teller (an incredible Benny Safdie). He knows what these weapons are capable of. There is no moment in the film where this is more apparent than in a slide show.

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These images remain unwanted by the general public. Yet, if we do not reckon with this destruction in the Oppenheimer movie, when will we? Right now, in my home state, the education system is trying to teach slavery in a positive light. Florida is not the only state attempting to install this kind of curriculum. Many of us fight back against disinformation, while others ignore the wrongs we have committed in the name of “freedom.” Many know these lessons, but the ones who need to see them most are not doing the research. An earth-shattering pop culture event like Oppenheimer is the opportunity to reach that audience.

That is American Exceptionalism, to ignore the past when we know better. Nolan had a moment to remind generations of moviegoers about the horrors inflicted upon a nation on its knees. Instead, he had audiences watch a man squirm uncomfortably in his chair while trying to avoid the truth. It would have been uncomfortable, but it also would have been a teachable moment. It is not up to Nolan to fix the world with a single movie. Yet, he knows these images changed Oppenheimer’s ethics and view on life. Imagine what impact thirty seconds of the ten thousand seconds in this movie might have done on a global scale.

Most importantly, we would reckon with an image that changed this man. It was the evil that he unleashed that caused his change of heart. Without exploring those images and what they did to Oppenheimer the man, Oppenheimer the movie cannot fully tell his story.

Despite this blunder, Oppenheimer features impeccable performances, brilliant artistic strides, and an essential discussion about America’s past, present, and future. Nolan opens the door for plenty of conversations with this one. In the following decades, it will likely live on as a great work. However, it is not a daring feat of filmmaking. Instead, it is a technically brilliant but ultimately predictable biopic of another great man.

What do you think of Oppenheimer? Let us know in the comments below! Watch Oppenheimer in theaters now! Complete the Barbenheimer Double Feature here.

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