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‘Oppenheimer’ review: The fragility of an atomic bomb

Christopher Nolan turns the making of the world's first atomic bomb into a startlingly intimate story of human frailty, ambition and hubris

Cillian Murphy in 'Oppenheimer'
Cillian Murphy in 'Oppenheimer'

Oppenheimer opens with a minute of silence, and then the chatter begins. Talk fills the scenes, cannot be contained by the scenes, continues even after a cut to a different time and place. Conversation upon conversation… and when no one’s speaking, Ludwig Göransson’s wintry strings rush in to fill the space. Even with no Hans Zimmer around to reverberate the seats, it adheres the stereotype of a Christopher Nolan film as persistently loud. And then, at the moment when it should be loudest, he takes the sound out.

The few minutes following the controlled detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon is one of the best things Nolan has directed. We only hear Oppenheimer’s breathing, an intimate, almost sexual sound. The pre-dawn desert is ablaze. The leaping flames are reflected in the dark glasses of scientist Edward Teller, who grins with delight. Teller allows himself to feel what Oppenheimer can’t: pride in what they’ve achieved, wonder at the sight of an apocalyptic sky. Even though this will mean the deaths of tens of thousands, it is, to him, in that moment, a beautiful bomb. 

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Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is the leading light of the hot new science of quantum physics, a leftist sympathizer—he’s especially sympathetic towards passionate card-carrying women—and a restless genius looking for something important to do when he’s approached by General Leslie Groves (a gruff Matt Damon) to build an atomic bomb. He recruits Teller (Benny Safdie), Isidor Isaac Rabi (David Krumholtz), Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid) and a host of other scientists. He gets a township custom-built in the desert—Los Alamos—and presides over it like an animated cult leader. He also insists the scientists be allowed to bring along their wives and children—that’s the only way they’ll work happily, he says. Ironically, his own wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), is the unhappiest person in town, even more than Groves (who wants results now, dammit) and Teller (who wants to build a hydrogen bomb, which even for this group is a bridge too far).

When Oppenheimer takes on the project, it's with the idea that an atomic bomb would conclusively end the war, end all wars. Whether this is something he tells himself to ease his conscience isn’t entirely clear. But by the time the Trinity test happens, a war that looked unwinnable without the bomb now points to eventual but assured victory for the Allies. Hitler is dead, Germany is on the verge of surrender, only Japan fights on. Dropping the bomb on Japan would certainly help end the war—sooner. But the moral imperative of making nuclear weapons before Hitler does no longer exists. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki await. No wonder the music after Trinity isn’t triumphal but the same tense, sawing strings Göransson uses throughout. No wonder Oppenheimer, called in for congratulations by President Truman after Japan’s surrender, says: “I have blood on my hands.”

Oppenheimer is a restless, incessantly mobile film. From the start, Nolan is cross-cutting across geography and time. Every so often, there’s a flash of something stunning and apocalyptic—giant rings of light, a horizon on fire. The film charges ahead with such pace it feels like it’s generating its own energy. Scenes don’t transition so much as collide into each other. Hoyte Hoytema’s camera catches specks of dust suspended like radioactive ash. Nolan doesn’t just want us to see nuclear fission. He wants us to feel like we’re inside a nuclear reaction. 

Running alongside the events at Los Alamos are two other timelines, both from after the war. One is in black-and-white, at a confirmation hearing for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, the other in colour, a now-pacifist Oppenheimer being grilled by a committee in a closed room about his Communist past. This sort of cross-cutting is, of course, a familiar Nolan play, but there’s less reason for it here than in, say, Dunkirk or Inception. It’s the closest thing to a gimmick in Oppenheimer—a signature move for the fans. I admire the film’s resolve to be about something more than the bomb, tying Oppenheimer’s increasing political troubles to McCarthyism, Cold War paranoia and America’s mistrust of pacifism. But the film is most compelling when the bomb is in focus.  

In all the talk about Nolan’s technical and structural strategems, what sometimes gets lost is that he makes stunning-looking films that move unlike any other director’s. Hoytema uses the beautiful desert light filtering through windows, and gives us huge haunted closeups of Murphy’s face in black and white. Leading a vast, expert cast, Murphy is devastatingly effective. His Oppenheimer is gaunt, impulsive, brilliant, vain, charismatic. With a different actor, the scientist's self-flagellation after Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have felt convenient and dishonest. But Murphy manages to make Oppenheimer’s contradictory impulses seem like one complicated human. Oppenheimer denounces himself as a destroyer of worlds, but we’ve seen the gleam in Murphy’s eyes when the bomb is tantalizingly within reach. And there’s Strauss’ warning: “If he could do it again, he’d do it all the same.”

This is a film of dueling creation myths. Oppenheimer is compared more than once to Prometheus and described as the ‘father’ of the A-bomb (pointedly, he’s shown to be a less than interested parent to his own boy). Strauss angrily stakes his own claim, saying he allowed Oppenheimer to be associated with Trinity rather than the devastation of Japan. And Truman brushes aside Oppenheimer’s guilt, placing himself squarely as the protagonist, saying bluntly, “Hiroshima isn’t about you.” Nolan reminds us that even behind history-changing decisions there are incredibly small human hangups: a troubled lover, a slight recalled years later. Not long after the film begins, we see Oppenheimer take in Picasso, Stravinsky, The Wasteland. “Can you hear the music, Robert?” Neils Bohr asks him. He can—and we can sense that Oppenheimer regards his science, even with its logical extension as a weapon of mass destruction, at one with this creative moment. He starts off loving the bomb. Only much later does he learn to hate it.   

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