Review: Oppenheimer is pure visual poetry

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer
Enlarge / Cillian Murphy gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the “father of the atomic bomb” in Oppenheimer

YouTube/Universal Pictures

I’ll admit I had my doubts when I first heard that director Christopher Nolan was planning to make a film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the research effort to develop the first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. This is one of the most well-documented periods of 20th century American history, after all, and there have already been so many books, films, and TV series about the race for the bomb, of varying quality. (As always, let me give a shout-out to Manhattan, a stellar fictional series that was tragically canceled after just two seasons.) How would Nolan make this very well-trodden material his own?

I needn’t have fretted. With Oppenheimer, Nolan has gifted us a truly unique, unflinching, nuanced portrait of the enigmatic, complicated man who spearheaded the Manhattan Project and subsequently ran afoul of the “red-baiting” politics of the McCarthy era. Technically it’s a biopic, but it doesn’t play like one. It’s more like Nolan carefully selected various threads running through Oppenheimer’s life and wove them into richly textured tapestry that somehow transcends those raw materials. The result is pure visual poetry.

(Spoilers below, although this is very well-documented history.)

Nolan’s film is largely based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (which I highly recommend). The trailers understandably focused on on the drama surrounding the birth of the atomic bomb leading up to the Trinity Test, but I had hoped that the film as a whole would follow the book’s arc and include Oppenheimer’s subsequent fall from grace. And so it does. In fact, that later, darker part of Oppenheimer’s life provides the lens through which his earlier successes play out in Nolan’s film.  

There are two basic storylines, and the film shifts back and forth between them; Nolan has never been one to strictly adhere to a chronological timeline. “Fission” is shot in color and follows Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) through his early years as a graduate student and college professor; his leadership of the Manhattan Project culminating with the Trinity Test; his simultaneous triumph and torment in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the eventual loss of his security clearance thanks in large part to early Communist connections and his outspoken opposition to developing a hydrogen bomb.

“Fusion” is shot in IMAX black-and-white analog photography and follows the 1959 Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission who—as the film gradually reveals—played a critical role in stripping away Oppenheimer’s security clearance five years earlier, angering many in the physics community. The black mark against Oppenheimer’s name wasn’t fully cleared until December 2022—right around the time the first trailer for Oppenheimer appeared.

Nolan has assembled an amazing cast. David Krumholtz is almost unrecognizable as I.I. Rabi and Benny Safdie is perfection as Edward Teller, who sharply disagrees with Oppenheimer about the hydrogen bomb and eventually betrays him during the security hearings. Emily Blunt shines in a relatively small role as Kitty Oppenheimer, who suffered from depression and had a volatile relationship with her philandering husband, but remained fiercely loyal to him. (She really did refuse to shake Teller’s hand when Oppenheimer was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963.)  But the film ultimately belongs to Murphy and Downey Jr., both of whom give Oscar-worthy performances. Their mutual antagonism is arguably the heart of the film.

Physics fans should have fun picking out the various physics luminaries who make brief cameos. Jack Quaid’s Richard Feynman has few lines but is recognizable due to his bongos—an anachronism, since Feynman didn’t take up the bongos until later in life, but an entertaining anachronism. Hey, there’s Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Leo Szilard (Máté Haumann), Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari), Luis Alvarez (Alex Wolff), Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), Vannevar Bush (Matthew Moline), Kenneth Bainbridge (Josh Peck), and the infamous Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham).

Christopher Nolan directing a scene from <em>Oppenheimer</em>
Enlarge / Christopher Nolan directing a scene from Oppenheimer

Universal Pictures

Nolan brings an impressive degree of historical accuracy to the film without resorting to a slavish recitation of facts, seeding it with oodles of throwaway details and characters as ornamental flourishes. For instance, the truth about whether a young Oppenheimer really injected cyanide into an apple intended for one of his professors (future Nobel Prize winning physicist Patrick. Blackett) is hotly debated by historians, but it was not invented for the film. I was pleased to see mention of the paper Oppenheimer co-authored with a student while at Berkeley in 1939 predicting black holes—a topic largely forgotten until John Wheeler’s work in the 1960s. Even his signature cocktail gets a shout-out.

Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) did commit suicide, and there is an assassination conspiracy theory that she was murdered and her suicide staged—something barely hinted at in the film, but present nonetheless. There was a certain amount of online shock at the nudity and sex scenes between Murphy and Pugh, but I thought they were carefully handled and weren’t remotely gratuitous—especially the touching post-coital scene where the pair are simply sitting naked, having an intensely intimate conversation.

President Truman did call Oppenheimer a “crybaby” (albeit not to his face) when the latter met with him after the war and confessed he felt he had blood on his hands. It’s also true that Oppenheimer never publicly expressed regret for his role in building a bomb that killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people. (The exact number is still a matter of debate.) As he says in the film, his thinking was that it would be better to make dropping the first nuclear weapon so horrifying that nobody would ever want to use them again.

The dialogue during the openly hostile interrogation of Oppenheimer at the security hearings was drawn almost verbatim from the official transcripts—delivered to dramatic perfection by Nolan’s outstanding cast. One of the most powerful scenes is the (verbatim) testimony of physicist David Hill (Rami Malek) during Strauss’ Senate confirmation hearing to be Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce.

Robert Downey Jr. gives a powerful performance as former AEC chair Lewis Strauss.
Enlarge / Robert Downey Jr. gives a powerful performance as former AEC chair Lewis Strauss.

Universal Pictures

Strauss had hoped Hill, then chair of the Federation of American Scientists, would speak in his favor. Instead, Hill declared that “most of the scientists in this country would prefer to see Mr. Strauss completely out of the Government,” and went on to provide a devastating critique of Strauss, citing his arrogance, lack of integrity, and personal vindictiveness toward Oppenheimer in particular. (Nolan dug up the transcript himself from Senate records.) Strauss was not confirmed—the first failure of a Cabinet nomination since 1925—and the rejection effectively ended his political career. He remained bitter about that for the rest of his life. Some might call it karma.

That said, this is not a documentary and naturally a few liberties were taken. Most notably, the powerful final conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), referencing an earlier conversation they’d had in the past, is entirely fictional. Nor is the actual physics front and center, since thematically, Nolan is far more interested in exploring questions of power, politics, patriotism, and personal internal paradoxes. Still, the film handily captures the world of physics and physicists. Case in point: in one scene, Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) questions Oppenheimer about the possible risk of igniting the atmosphere and destroying the world when they push the detonator button for the Trinity Test. “Chances are near zero,” Oppie responds. “What do you want from theory alone?” Groves responds, “Zero would be nice.”

Those less familiar with this period in history might not pick up on all the ornamental details, but that shouldn’t hamper their enjoyment of the film. Ars Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson had quibbles with the sound quality, however, citing “mumbling, background noise obscuring the dialog, and putting VFX behind dialog so the sound overpowered everything else.” That wasn’t the case at the screening I attended (or at least, I didn’t notice). Still, forewarned is forearmed, and there was also criticism about the sound mixing for Nolan’s 2020 film, Tenet. Audiophiles, take note.

Clocking in at three hours’ running time, with many scenes featuring a bunch of white man sitting around talking about physics and defense strategy, Oppenheimer is the antithesis of what is usually deemed summer fare. Yet Nolan’s skill in telling the story is such that it never seems to drag. Small wonder audiences have been flocking to theaters to see the film. (Many made it a double feature with Barbie, hence the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.) Oppenheimer greatly exceeded its initial box office projections and has already grossed over $400 million worldwide. It’s my pick for best film of 2023 thus far, and a worthy addition to my growing list of films about the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer is now playing in theaters.

A look at Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

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