Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece is more than a work of technical bravado – it is a thoughtful, nuanced and vivid examination of humanity’s triumphs and deformities, explored through the lens of the father of the atomic bomb, Robert J. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy).

Based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, this 3-hour film begins by leading us through key events of Oppenheimer’s formative years. We witness his early years as a student, his involvement in bringing quantum physics to Berkley, and the various individuals that have influenced his scientific and political views.

That we share Oppenheimer’s perspective should not be mistaken for the director endorsing the character – Nolan puts much effort into establishing Oppenheimer as a troubled and morally hazy individual. This is done not just through biographical means – and here I’m referring to the inclusion of an incident involving Oppenheimer, a Cambridge professor, and a poisoned apple – but through sounds and images. Scenes with Oppenheimer are frequently interrupted by jittery visuals of quantum phenomena as well as loud and sudden noises. These audio-visual intrusions induce not only the psychological torment experienced by the main character, but a foreboding sense of catastrophe to come.

Upon a second rewatch, I came to the realisation that these sounds and images may not even belong to the individual we are witnessing on screen, but to an older Oppenheimer, as he looks back on the past. This is but one of the many ways Nolan references the concept of trauma, and he does particularly well in demonstrating how it can manifest outside of the context that caused it, re-materializing itself in situations far removed from its source.

The film develops a sense of rhythm when the setting shifts to Los Alamos. The stakes are high, not only because the fate of the war seemingly rests on the scientists’ shoulders, but because there is an air of confusion as to what is actually on the line. Alongside concerns surrounding the feasibility of the project, there is the concern of whether the bomb should be made, particularly when news gets out of Nazi Germany’s impeding surrender. Expressing such reservations, however, is treated harshly; not to mention that the restriction of travel and strict enforcement of security protocol has led to an environment in which the scientists easily succumb to irritability and paranoia. When one of the scientists quits his position, the military overseer, Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), jokes about having him killed. This does not go down well with Oppenheimer, who is all to familiar with the state’s suspicion towards its own scientists. 

There comes a point when the scientists find themselves gambling something much greater than they could have possibly imagined. Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) stirs panic at a meeting when he reveals calculations predicting that an atomic explosion would set off an unstoppable chain reaction, igniting the earth’s atmosphere. In reality, this concern never took hold, but it leads to incredibly poignant cinematic moments where the war mentality, characterised by a drive to destroy, shifts to its opposite. In the moments when we do see glimpses of humanity, however, there remains the question as to whether they are revealing something genuine, or if they are simply a front for self-preservation.

Nolan employs a very visceral approach to exploring Oppenheimer’s guilt post Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a particularly memorable scene, Oppenheimer gives a speech shortly after the bombings to a joyous crowd of attendees. The mood in the hall is clear – relief for the success of the mission, a sense of pride, and euphoria for being amongst the victors. Oppenheimer does not share this mood, as is evident in close-ups of his unmoved expression alongside the muffled roar of the crowd. Despite this disconnect, he incites the crowd, and in so doing, implicates himself in the energy present in the room. He could be acting in this way to appease others, but I think there is a deeper reason, perhaps a self-flagellating urge to walk the dark path, knowing full well that he cannot escape responsibility. In this heightened period of introspection, Oppenheimer witnesses the bomb he created go off for a second time: the sudden flash of light, the noise, followed by a solemn and grisly aftermath. We see the skin of an attendee get seared away, a sight apparent only to Oppenheimer, as the crowd continues to revel in their feelings of ecstasy.

To reap the most from this scene, one must consider what Nolan is foregrounding within the historical context. This is a celebratory event to mark a sudden end to a long and horrifying war. For the crowd, the successful detonation of the bombs is viewed as an end to tyranny, bringing the last remaining axis power to its knees. It is equally true that what these people are actually celebrating is the mass extermination of innocents. There is a focus on outcome and a disregard for cost. That only Oppenheimer can see this is a clear message that the desire to achieve peace, by any means necessary, is a desire that exists across the political landscape, a desire that is as understandable as it is incomprehensible.

Nolan could have ended the film here, and he would have had a technically proficient and thematically rich cinematic exploration of the man who made the first atom bomb. But it would not have reached the emotional and intellectual heights of Inception and Interstellar.

Forget the money shot, what makes this film is everything that happens in the final act, as Oppenheimer sits through a kangaroo court and attempts to defend himself against allegations of being a Soviet agent. The consequences of the verdict cannot be understated. Should the court find him guilty, he would be denied his security clearance and be unable to voice his opposition to the advancement and production of nuclear weaponry. The entire process, whilst seeming on the surface to be a product of cold war paranoia, is revealed to be driven by nothing but grudges and petty grievances.

The tragedy to be found in this unveiling of the ugly state of our world reaches its strongest point when Nolan ends his film with a fictional exchange between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti). Upon catching Einstein’s attention, Oppenheimer utters a few words under his breath, revealing a terrible truth. This truth bares no solution, and being fully cognizant of this, Einstein walks away, defeated.

I will not spoil what was said in this review, but I will say this: the ending to Oppenheimer is as beautiful, as illuminating, as haunting and as alarming as the cinematic medium can allow.

10/10

Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia
Written by Ashley Roohizadegan
Ashley Roohizadegan

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