Nolan builds & burns Oppenheimer’s Pro-Me Thesis

Director: Christopher Nolan Starring: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Bennie Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, David Krumholtz, Tom Conti Running Time: 180 minutes

The mega-blockbusters of Christopher Nolan have always been works of ambition, and contradiction. Cold crowd pleasers, IMAX on film, an innovator riffing and reflecting on a wide range of forefathers from Mann to Lumet to Hitchcock. They’re also often seen as films of excessive scale and complexity, but those things spring forth from very simple starting points. Like splitting an atom. He continues to experiment and extend himself formally, for better and worse, disinterested in standing still, and yet what capital letters Christopher Nolan, the idea, the image, is, has long grown beyond him. It’s box office, it’s trade headlines, it’s forum posts and Twitter threads. Forever hurtling forwards in the world he created, but forever frozen in a moment of Dark Knight time.

Ambition and contradiction. It’s no surprise then that he would be drawn to a story that of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Drawing from American Prometheus, Nolan positions the infamous man behind the atomic bomb as the protagonist of a blockbuster that is part thriller, part heist, part courtroom drama. The lead figures of those stories rarely come out unblemished in the wash, and Nolan’s own fascination in subjecting the scientist to scrutiny makes for infectious viewing.

With it’s sprawling timeline, exhaustive cast and explosive subject matter, Oppenheimer seems every bit the big summer blockbuster. What it is though, is using world changing events of the 20th century as an access point for the psychology of one man, and from that one man back out into all of us. The result is an impressive feat of engineering. Oppenheimer’s efforts to establish himself, reckon with his creation, assess and reassess and reposition his image are sifted through with all Nolan’s usual precision, and the result is some of his best work.

The film is divided into Oppenheimer’s life leading up to his work on the Manhattan Project and the use of atomic bombs by the U.S. against Japan in WWII, and the confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss for the U.S. Senate in the 1950s, at which his own history with Oppenheimer, and the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, are discussed. With one timeline looking forwards and the other back, Nolan continues his predilection for playing with time, a man moving towards the defining moment of his life, and dealing with the, sorry, fallout of it.

Those contrasts are seized on by Cillian Murphy in an excellent performance. Oppenheimer commands the attention of large rooms on one side of the timeline and shrinks into the corner of tiny ones in the next, Murphy’s striking electric blue eyes blazing with ambition, then glazing with wide-eyed regret. Murphy’s elastic body language, smouldering with arrogance in some of his sexiest performances and a jittery spider too big for his body when anxious, keep him a character you can’t take your eyes off, across timelines, across changing perceptions of the man that he plays.

Part of what makes Oppenheimer one of Nolan’s most mature works, certainly his strongest screenplay since the impish back-patting of his early films, is the film’s willingness to question how much of this behaviour is performance within the performance. Oppenheimer’s moral relativism drives those closest to him to distraction, even as his actions appear inarguably black or white. The tension in the Strauss timeline comes entirely from the irreconcilable idea of the scientist as the Peace Keeping Destroyer of Worlds. Robert Downey Jrs’ theatrical, self-righteously self-satisfied performance of Strauss, relaying his conflict with Oppenheimer, makes that side of the story compelling. It makes an underdog out of a man on the cover of Time, RDJ’s charisma and natural smarm turning a series of scenes of men talking to each other in a room just as narratively propulsive as a literal ticking time bomb against the Nazis.

Scenes at Los Alamos of Oppie and pals at work are fraught and frenetic, clashing ideas and egos under pressure to deliver, along with morally compromised camaraderie. It’s a lot of talking, which is common in Nolan’s films, but they’re smarter, broader, uncomfortable conversations. A lack of definitive answers races towards a very definitive event.

The score by Ludwig Göransson, somber strings and ominous synth, is a gentler guiding hand than Zimmer has been for Nolan, making the big ideas more emotionally accessible. The alienatingly enormous vistas of Hoyte van Hoytema contrast with claustrophobic interrogation rooms, awkward post-coital positioning, tensely close up arguing. Everything big that ever happened took place inside something small, and across three hours, and incalculable scale, Nolan teases out that tension. It’s excitingly uncomfortable.

The post-bomb arguments are much the same, big political ideas, outlooks and actions that really boil down to personal proclivities and pettiness. Much of the film revolves around tensions around Oppenheimer’s Communist sympathies. The man himself doesn’t seem to have a straight answer where they lie, and the film identifies how little the substance behind ideas actually matters to the record. The idea of the thing is more powerful than what it might do. Nolan’s movies are just well manufactured action, but the micro-industry around them expands indefinitely. His haunted scientist’s own struggle seems to be less with the bomb that he built, and more the fact that he built it. The fire, after all, is ultimately immaterial to the story of Prometheus.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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