'Oppenheimer' movie review: Nolan’s bleak biopic is measured and masterful

I enjoyed that Nolan doesn’t slot any character into extremes—and it’s a relief not to see a biopic being a hagiography.
Poster of the movie 'Oppenheimer'
Poster of the movie 'Oppenheimer'

At around the two-hour mark of Oppenheimer, we see the big event. The detonation, dubbed the Trinity test. Fire and smoke are locked in a mesmerising embrace, as mortals, hiding behind protective shields and screens, are bathed in momentary, artificial glow. Christopher Nolan doesn’t extract this titanic moment for thrills; he doesn’t utilise it for fear either… He presents it as an incredible moment of meditation. There’s no music from the fantastic Ludwig Goransson; there’s utter quiet, characters and viewers all united in stunned silence. And then, when you don’t expect it at all, the boom—of transformation, of realisation that the world has been irreversibly altered. The moments leading up to this potential end-of-the-world detonation scream suspense. Oppenheimer is a biopic; so yes, you’d expect it to be a drama full of dialogue—which it is, but what it also is, is a thriller, a mystery, and as you’re walking away reeling from the film’s last moment, you realise it’s, at its heart, horror.

In a film about a bomb and the man behind it, the dialogues are fittingly explosive and full of wit and brevity. This is of particular importance because Oppenheimer is a film run by dialogue. There are several achievements in this film—and chief among them is making a three-hour film full of chatter, often on not-so-easily-understood topics, and never once letting us feel a sense of tedium. It wouldn’t be a Nolan film if the screenplay were linear; here, there’s more than one back-and-forth idea. The film has us revisiting scenes and dialogues, each time with a bit more urgency, with a bit more background that offers us more insight. It’s impossible not to think of The Social Network, which too was a film about a mysterious personality, told through snapshots that were stitched through the prism of a trial. That film too didn’t declare its conclusions and instead, allowed us to make up our mind about the protagonist.

And it’s not easy to make up your mind about Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer at all. This man with a gaunt face and sharp blue eyes that reveal so little, feels like a creature from another world. Haunted by Nolanesque visions, he’s a man of many dualities. He has the mind to make a weapon of mass destruction but lacks the capacity for aggression or fight. He loves America so dearly but is drawn to communist ideas. He is horrible at the ‘practicals’ but consider the ramifications of what happened when he got good. He isn’t a man of many words but is persuasive to a fault. Is it a surprise then that his method towards peace has him devising a horrific weapon of war? Cilian Murphy, as you’ve surely heard by now, is fantastic. In one unforgettable scene, he is the toast of the nation, the centre of applause and attention—but finds himself split, like an atom during fission. He is conflicted by the disastrous effects of his bomb but can’t help saying the opposite, including being boastful and vain. Cilian, in this scene, plays Oppenheimer like he were a possessed conduit, like his words weren’t really his own, like the whole scene is an out-of-body experience. The line from Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” is then a fitting mythical equivalent. Krishna might have saved Arjuna’s soul in Bhagavad Gita, but did Oppenheimer manage to save his?

I enjoyed that Nolan doesn’t slot any character into extremes—and it’s a relief not to see a biopic being a hagiography. The people and events are all deliciously gray in Oppenheimer. The gray is in the ominousness of it all. It is in the film’s presentation of Oppenheimer as a torn person, who’s not sure of his own stand—something he’s repeatedly asked about and mocked for. There’s gray, even concerning the morality of Oppenheimer’s personal relationships, both with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), and Kitty (Emily Blunt). However, the women needed to be written better in this film that has many male characters making an impact, even with little screen time (like Rami Malek’s David Hill and Kenneth Branagh’s Niels Bohr). Tatlock’s loss and Oppenheimer’s devastation about it hardly registers; as for Kitty, there’s not too much insight to be gained about her (the ‘baby-neglect scene’ doesn’t feel well-integrated at all). None of this is Emily Blunt’s fault though.

Robert Downey Jr. is wonderful as the crafty, smooth-talking Lewis Strauss. His line about power being in the shadows is one of many memorable lines. While there are definite problems in a rather tacky reveal of his character—especially after all the mystery leading up to it—I liked that the film seems to go back a bit on projecting Strauss as a villain. This isn’t a film about heroes and villains; this is a film about flawed people following twisted routes. Oppenheimer is drawn to a twisted route towards peace; Strauss is drawn to a twisted route towards power (is there any other?). America and the world itself is drawn to a twisted route towards victory, even if self-righteous.

There’s incredible density in Oppenheimer, layers and layers that merit days of conversation. At the heart of the film, of course, is the race for the atom bomb. There’s also the whole witch-hunting concerning communism—with Oppenheimer at one point even probing into definitions of what constitutes a ‘communist’. There’s the question of patriotism and freedom of expression. And as you can imagine, there’s much war talk. World War 2, the cold war, the ideological war between the scientific and the political community, and then, perhaps more importantly, the war between ego and conscience that consumes Oppenheimer so much. To be able to create a gripping three-hour film predominantly led by dialogue, based on such dense material, is by itself no mean task—let alone come out with flying colours, concerning the accuracy of it all. This is a film that so comfortably tackles unrest—both the geopolitical and the psychological.

Nolan can never be accused of making his films accessible, and in this film based on volumes of information, there wouldn’t have been any point even trying. There’s no time to go through the differences between fission and fusion. Why even bother lecturing that fission is about neutrons slamming into atoms and creating a chain reaction, when your film itself is an equivalent… in which scenes slam into each other, creating a chain of consequences, and slowly, surely, revealing more and more, until the final bang… that explosive revelation that the atmosphere might not have been destroyed, but that peace, on some level, has been.

The success of the film is in how when it’s all over, you realise that much of the film concerns itself with incredibly dry bureaucratic decisions. Administrative approvals, security clearances, appointments to meet government authorities, recruitment, the pressure of deadlines… But my god, does Nolan present all of this with excitement and urgency. There’s more adrenaline, more sadness, more thrills, more dread… than a superhero film with heroism and plot. Oppenheimer is never still, not for long anyway, with each exchange shot like it were the most momentous one. There isn’t a whole lot of head-scratching you’ll have to do with time shifts in this film though. Like in Interstellar, there’s a scene involving a time countdown, and like in that film, here too, it’s riveting.

Oppenheimer, the man, may or may not possess a soul, but the film definitely does. It’s also heartening to see Nolan continue to mature as a filmmaker. Previous films of his have been about high concepts, complex to comprehend but bewitching to behold. Time dilation, wormholes and black holes, dreams within dreams, human clones… I could go on. But this time, he’s handled something real, something historical. 

And yet, this central topic of the human mind and its relation to the conscience feels like the most complex topic of them all. After his underwhelming last film, Tenet, which too fascinatingly was about wanting to go back on an invention, Oppenheimer marks a welcome return to form for Nolan, a preeminent champion of the big-screen experience. This is good news for all.

Oppenheimer

Cast: Cilian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh
Director: Christopher Nolan

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