Christopher Nolan’s much-awaited and much-hyped new film Oppenheimer hit the theatres yesterday, and was inevitably flooded with excited movie-goers. After Nolan’s 2017 World War II historical-drama Dunkirk, he once more combines grand narrative with personal history to masterfully reproduce the life of American physicist and “father of the atom bomb”, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography on the scientist, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Nolan’s film does not disappoint. The film intertwines the many fragments of the narrative, constructing a careful study of the making of the first atomic bomb and a touching post-detonation study of the minds that worked to create the weapon of mass destruction.
The film follows Oppenheimer, portrayed by an intense Cillian Murphy, as he navigates through several decades, starting in the 1920s as a young adult and continuing until old age when his hair turns gray.
The movie becomes a fast-paced slow-burner, but one easily finds himself intimately drawn to the plot, traversing closely through Oppenheimer’s tale. The narrative flows into his involvement in creating the bomb, the controversies that surround the Manhattan Project, his Communist beliefs and how these were attacked later, almost destroying him. As the viewer, we become acquainted with both man and scientist, laid open before the monstrosity of his creation, including the nuances of his personal relationships with friends, colleagues and lovers, and his surfacing ethical dilemmas.
Oppenheimer, being a Nolan film inarguably has a well-founded plot and dense, vivid structure. The film is cut up in two sections: fission (the breaking apart) and fusion (the merging), spanning over two alternate narratives, one in lush colour, and the other in a high-contrast black and white. The young Oppenheimer is ambitious, inspiring and ruthless, and we discover the path he takes as his vocation rules over the ethics concerned with the making of a nuclear bomb. Nolan explores keenly, and perhaps in a way also offers a criticism of the vigour and ambition characteristic of a scientist, to whom an experiment is about achieving a desired result, often without taking into consideration the repercussions of the same when exposed to the rest of the world. True to the poster of the film, we are presented with a man standing to face his destructive creation, amid the flame, fume and smoke. This is J. Robert Oppenheimer facing trial for his beliefs – this is also J. Robert Oppenheimer faced with the devastation and death his creation caused. The line quoted by him from the Bhagavad Gita comes up again “Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds,” our scientist in frame lays dissected masterfully as he faces his own vanity after chaos is wrought by it upon innocent unsuspecting lives.
What Nolan might have done a bit too much of is perhaps the sentimentality and simplicity he presents Oppenheimer with. Although the viewer sitting in the dark of the theatre is deeply moved, not solely by the irony and repeated climactic exhilarations of the film, but also by the astounding range of emotions Cillian Murphy’s acting presents, the emotions often end up being familiar and cliched, still belonging under the umbrella that any Hollywood biographical film offers.
Another point that invites debate and criticism is Nolan’s choice of intentional avoidance of the true horrors that Fat Man and Little Boy wreaked over Nagasaki and Hiroshima on August 9th and August 6th respectively. This avoidance, in a way, reflects Oppenheimer’s own flinching away from the pictures captured in the two cities.
After the cinematography, perhaps the most enticing of all in the film is the cast and crew that Nolan assembles for the film. The star-studded brilliant cast does justice to such a huge production. We have Robert Downey Jr, Benny Safdie of the Safdie Brothers, Dane DeHaan Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman and Emily Blunt, not to mention Cillian Murphy himself in the title role.
Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson’s mammoth of a soundtrack adds another most essential layer to the film, not only supporting the action on-screen, but also building and relaxing tension with the utmost masterfulness.
Oppenheimer turns out to break the structure of the conventional Nolan film in spite of incorporating the classic Nolan signature elements like fragmented chronology and the intensive use of music to create an extremely immersive experience for the audience. Like he did in Dunkirk, the director once again brings the audience down to the central site of the film, we become as involved in the process as the scientists on the screen themselves are.
Oppenheimer, however is less explosive than Nolan’s other films, being much more dialogue-heavy. Unlike Dunkirk or Interstellar, Oppenheimer is much more a psychological drama and exploration of man’s mind. Unlike these other films, where Nolan gave more emphasis on the setting and staging of the scenarios, Oppenheimer takes place in moderately down-to-earth sets, using minimal special effects, giving us a thrilling, emotional, sensational, and most importantly unadorned and intimate story.