Film Review: Oppenheimer


Christopher Nolan directs his first biopic, depicting the scientist who developed the atomic bombs that would devastate and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring an end to the Second World War. The British director’s twelfth feature is a fascinating and accomplished cinematic object, but as a study of greatness, Oppenheimer’s subject is often obscured by its author’s auteurist preoccupations.

In the box office and culturally, Oppenheimer is proving nothing short of a phenomenon, one which surely goes beyond Nolan’s popularity as a mainstream filmmaker. His film has captured a moment in the zeitgeist that has been cannily exploited by viral marketers and internet culture as Barbenheimer – a portmanteau from Nolan’s film and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which released on the same day. The films couldn’t be further apart, yet both appear to be capturing two halves of the same public mood, and a popular desire for popular mainstream event cinema that doesn’t involve superheroes, deep continuity or multiverses.

It is as a cinematic object that Oppenheimer is most successful. Over the course of his career, Nolan has cultivated a predisposition for the grand, the operatic and the aspirationally classical. In the film, much is made of Oppenheimer’s famous line, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, but also of the scientist as a modern Prometheus. Nolan’s signature techniques – his nonlinear use of time and perspective, which increasingly collapses as the film progresses, his grandiloquent themes and emotional coldness, his use of sound to drown out dialogue and of course his love of the IMAX format – are all present here. But what they do, uniquely, is to transform the film itself into a Promethean object of spectacle, with the bomb as its terrible centre.

We will leave the ethics of such representation for others to discuss, though the narrative – especially during the film’s second half – explores the toll on Oppenheimer’s conscious of the terrible loss of life he has wrought following the bombing of the Japanese cities. Oppenheimer the film is more interested in the existential and symbolic tear that the bomb represents: a spectacle so terrible that it has changed reality and may yet destroy it. There is a brilliance to Oppenheimer and it is impossible to deny Nolan’s technical genius at marshalling such a project: at times it is a truly sublime piece of work which in other hands would be little more than worthy Oscar bait.

But it is also, often, a frustrating film, so often preoccupied with the tremendous burden that great men must shoulder: a theme which is neither as original nor as interesting as the film appears to think. While it may be a mistake to read too much of the artist into their art, it is hard not to see Nolan: the Great Filmmaker inserting himself into Oppenheimer: the Terrible Spectacle Maker. And so with Nolan’s auteurist signatures come his clichés, too, number one among them his damaged, desirable brunettes in Florence Pugh’s Communist Jean Tatlock and Emily Blunt’s suffering wife Kitty, both doing good work in thankless roles. More successful is the chemistry between Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon’s General Leslie Groves, while Robert Downey Jr. does a great job of mumbling his way through his role as duplicitous businessman Lewis Strauss (even if he is saddled with some utter clangers).

Ever the craftsperson, rarely the artist, Nolan has constructed a grand and terrible machine, a fascinating object of cinema and a deeply frustrating work of imagination. Oppenheimer represents much of what is great about Nolan as a filmmaker and is devoid, mercifully, of many of the indulgences of his previous pictures. Nevertheless, it is perhaps the purest example yet of the director’s vision of history: as one bent by great men, who are in turn moulded by its arc; never was it clearer just how much Nolan aspires to that arc himself.

Christopher Machell