The film’s most striking feature turns out to be something else: the human face. Despite all the pre-release excitement about how analog epic-maker Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” would recreate the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
This J. Robert Oppenheimer biopic, starring Cillian Murphy, runs for more than three hours. They converse often. They give ear. When there is good or bad news, they react. And sometimes they get caught up in their own thoughts—none more so than the title character, the team leader of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons program who earned the moniker The American Prometheus for his apocalyptic scientific contribution (as per the title of Nolan’s primary source, the biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman). Oppenheimer was a brilliant mathematician, low-key showman, and leader whose impulsive nature and insatiable sexual appetites made his private life a disaster. His greatest contribution to civilization was a weapon that could destroy it. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema use the large-format IMAX film system to contrast the external coolness and internal turmoil of Oppenheimer. When Oppenheimer dissociates from uncomfortable situations or becomes immersed in recollections, fantasies, and waking nightmares, close-up after close-up reveals star Cillian Murphy’s face gazing into the middle distance, off-screen, and occasionally right into the lens. As they struggle with who they are, who other people have determined they are, and what they have done to themselves and others, the characters in “Oppenheimer” realize the power of enormous closeups of their faces.
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The close-ups of people’s faces may occasionally be broken up by flashbacks of unfinished or recent events. In addition to non-incendiary pictures that remind us of other terrible, personal tragedies, there are repeating images of flame, debris, and smaller chain-reaction explosions that resemble strings of firecrackers. (This movie uses a lot of progressively growing flashbacks where you first see a glimpse of something, then a little more of it, and then ultimately the whole thing.) These, however, are not just about the large bomb that Oppenheimer’s team plans to detonate in the desert or the smaller ones that are constantly going off in Oppenheimer’s life, sometimes because he personally pushed the big red button in a fit of rage, pride, or lust, and other times because he made an innocent or careless mistake that irritated someone long ago, and the wronged person responded with the equivalent of a time-delayed bomb. A metaphor for the domino effect brought on by individual actions and the subsequent sequence of events is the “fissile” cutting, to use a term from physics. The opening close-up of raindrops igniting expanding circles on the surface foreshadows both the end of Oppenheimer’s career as a government advisor and public figure and the explosion of the first nuclear bomb at Los Alamos, while repeated images of ripples in water serve to further illustrate this principle (which observers see, then hear, then finally feel, in all its awful impact).
The faces in the movie carry the weight of the story’s themes and interests, not just those of Oppenheimer but also those of other significant characters like General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Los Alamos’ military commander; Robert Oppenheimer’s suffering wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), whose strategic thinking could have prevented many disasters if her husband would have only listened; and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Atomic Energy Commission The latter is a separate nearby full-length narrative about pettyness, mediocrity, and jealousy. Oppenheimer is the Mozart to Strauss’ Salieri; he frequently and pitifully reminds people that he once studied physics as well and that he is a wonderful guy, in contrast to Oppenheimer the adulterous and communist sympathizer. (This movie claims that Strauss gave a third party the FBI dossier on his progressive and communist affiliations so they could write to J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the agency.)
The movie frequently refers to a principle of quantum physics, according to which an experiment’s conclusions can be affected by detecting quantum processes with a detector or other device. The writing accomplishes it by including fresh material that undermines, contradicts, or widens our impression of why a character did something, or if they even knew why they did it. The editing exemplifies it by repeatedly re-framing an event to change its meaning.
I think that’s more important than the atom bomb itself, or even its effects on the war and the Japanese civilian population, which are discussed but never demonstrated in “Oppenheimer.” The movie depicts what the atom bomb does to human flesh, but it’s not an exact reproduction of the bombings on Japan; instead, the horrified Oppenheimer imagines what it must have been like for Americans. This choice in filmmaking is likely to enrage viewers who wanted a more direct examination of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as those who believe the justifications put forth by Strauss and others that the bombs had to be dropped because Japan would never have capitulated otherwise. The movie doesn’t make it clear if it agrees with Oppenheimer and others who maintained that Japan was already losing the war and would have surrendered without the atomic bombings that killed hundreds of thousands of people, or whether it agrees more with the former. The liberties and excesses of writers, poets, and opera composers are not denied to this film. It accomplishes what we expect it to: Dramatize Oppenheimer’s life and the lives of other historically significant figures in his sphere in a visually daring way, while also allowing all of the people and all of the events to be used metaphorically and symbolically, so that they become pointillistic elements in a much larger canvas that’s about the mysteries of the human personality and the unanticipated effects of individual and societal decisions.
Another noteworthy feature of “Oppenheimer” is this. Despite the fact that Murphy’s ominous visage and menacing but opaque eyes dominate the film, Oppenheimer isn’t the only subject. It also explores how Oppenheimer’s personality and actions affected other people, including the other strong-willed members of his atomic bomb development team (such as Edwin Teller, played by Benny Safdie, who wanted to advance to the much more potent hydrogen bomb and ultimately did), the troubled Kitty, Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh, who possesses some of Gloria Grahame’s self-immolating smolder),
The editing style of Jennifer Lame, which frequently has a subtle Terrence Malick quality, is prismatic and persistent, cutting between three or more time periods in a matter of seconds. It’s accompanied by Ludwig Göransson’s nearly nonstop score, which combines with the film’s relentless dialogue and monologues to create a peculiar but distinctive sort of scientifically expository aria. Reading American Prometheus while listening to a playlist of Philip Glass film scores probably gives you the same sensation. The pinball-machine movements of human cognition are more captured in non-linear films like this one than they are in linear ones, and they also depict what it feels like to read a third-person omniscient book (or a biography that permits itself to imagine what its subjects might have been thinking or feeling). The contradictory mental process of reading a text and responding to it viscerally, emotionally, and intellectually is also captured. The text remains fixed in the mind. Yet, it also ventures beyond it, making connections between the text and other texts, with outside information, as well as with personal experience and imagination.
Not because it isn’t important—it is—but rather because, as is often the case with Nolan, the major draw is not the tale itself but how the director presents it. This review hasn’t gone into the film’s storyline or the historical context that inspired it. Nolan has come under fire for producing bombastic, overly complex, but ultimately convoluted and unsophisticated blockbusters that are more like puzzles than tales and is regarded as less of a playwright and more of a half showman, half mathematician. Yet when you see how intelligently and fruitfully it has been used to a biography of a real person, it becomes irrelevant whether that characterisation was ever wholly true (and I’m more sure that it never was). It appears possible that “Oppenheimer” could look backwards like a turning point in the director’s filmography, when he turns all of the stylistic and technical practices he’d been honing for the previous 20 years in intellectualized pulp blockbusters inward, using them to explore the deepest reaches of the mind and heart instead of just moving human pieces around on a series of interconnected, multi-dimensional storytelling boards.
The film is an academic-psychedelic biography in the style of those tightly cut Oliver Stone movies from the 1990s (at points, it feels like the park bench scene from “JFK” was extended to three hours). In the style of Stanley Kubrick, there are also elements of dark humor, such as when senior government figures discuss a list of potential Japanese targets for bombing and the man reading the list announces that he has just made an executive decision to strike Kyoto from the list because he and his wife honeymooned there. (The inclusion of “Full Metal Jacket” actor Matthew Modine, who co-stars as American engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush, further solidifies the Kubrick link.) “Oppenheimer” references “The Insider” by Michael Mann, “The Pawnbroker,” “All That Jazz,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” and late-period Terrence Malick in addition to “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “The Pawnbroker,” “All That Jazz,” and “Citizen Kane” (there’s even a Rosebud-like mystery surrounding what Oppenheimer and his hero Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, Most of the performers deliver their lines quickly and don’t move their faces as much as they would in a more contemporary plot, giving off an impression of a “old movie” in most of the performances. A large portion of the speech is spoken swiftly, giving it a screwball comedy feel. The scenes between Strauss and a Senate aide (Alden Ehrenreich) who is advising him as he testifies before a committee that he hopes will approve him to serve in President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet, as well as the arguments between Robert and Kitty about his sexual indiscretions and refusal to listen to her generally excellent advice, are where this comes through most strongly.
Yet “Oppenheimer” is much different as a bodily experience; it’s difficult to describe what, and that’s what makes it so intriguing. It’s perversely self-defeating to devote so much of the running time, including the majority of the third hour, to a pair of governmental hearings: the one where Oppenheimer seeks to renew his security clearance and the one where Strauss seeks to be approved for Eisenhauer. I’ve already heard complaints that the movie is “too long,” that it could have ended with the first bomb detonating, could have done without the bits about Oppenheimer’s The academic explanations of the hows and whys of the individual and collective personality, however, are complemented by the movie’s violently entropic tendencies. All of the characters are testifying before a court to answer for their inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and misdeeds to varying degrees. There, in the pitch black, lies the tribunal. The material has been provided to us without any direction on how to decide, which is how it should be.