If Barbie offers the abrasive pink shock of the new, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is very much a throwback to the kind of high-quality, reflective period drama that cinema has previously been built on; it must be the most sober, serious-minded film to open with a nuclear $93 million weekend in the US. A big starry cast and Nolan’s studied style obviously help, but like Barbie, Oppenheimer takes a big name that you think you know and conjures a developed narrative that informs, educates and involves as it unpacks the backstory. It’s the kind of movie that often gets buried in awards seasons, but as a summer blockbuster, it’s an uncommonly literate and effective historical drama, adapted from the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin.
For once, Nolan doesn’t fracture the narrative strands too much; framed by an investigation set in the 1950’s, we flash-back to see Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) recruited to the Manhattan Project after a formal scientific education establishes that he’s the best of his generation. But Oppenheimer is troubled from the get-go; we see him inject an apple with poison and leave it on the desk of his tutor, only to retrieve it before it can be eaten. In this instance, Oppenheimer is able to take back his mistake before any effect is caused, but he can’t help leave a deeper footprint in the Los Alamos desert sands as we get to understand the dog-eat-dog power struggles behind the genesis of the atomic bomb, leading to the first test at Trinity, and then the mass destruction of human life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film’s final act reveals a specific antagonist behind Oppenheimer’s fall from grace, but that identity should remain secret until you see the movie. The conclusion addresses the opening quote ‘Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.’ And Nolan and Murphy get us into Oppenheimer’s head as we see the creator of the atomic bomb haunted by horrors that reflect his responsibility for actions he cannot take back, chained to that rock forever and a day.
If the women’s roles, adeptly played by Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt, feel a little undernourished, that’s probably because men were the primary drivers of this narrative; Murphy does an excellent, un-showy turn as the scientist, with Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr and others all rising to the challenge of making history come alive, and Tom Conti a pleasingly gnomic Albert Einstein. The pyrotechnics are also handled in a careful manner; this is a story of technical success, but moral turpitude, and while the war was won, the personal cost is high for those who made the bomb as well as for those whose lives were destroyed by its detonation. Oppenheimer the movie isn’t an act of hero worship, but a fairly matter-of-fact look at his rise and fall from grace; the huge tragedies that he helped create are kept off-screen, a directorial choice to keep scope narrow and precise.
Those who know their history will already know where Oppenheimer the movie is going, but there’s some fresh detail about how the witch-hunt of supposed communists led him to become a cropper, and there’s an aside about John F Kennedy (not seen here) that’s worth exploring. This kind of film can be caviar to the general, but slick marketing and the Barbenheimer effect have somehow brought Nolan’s film to the wide audience it deserves. There’s a lot of committee meetings, and a lot of white male angst, a lot of men in suits barking or following orders, but it’s all appropriate to telling an involved, compelling story that asks some serious questions about how weapons physically work, and how appropriate they are to be used in a world currently blighted by mass irresponsibility.