Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Film is an artistic medium built on conveying moral messages, but that doesn’t mean it’s imperative for people to watch any films. For instance, The Godfather (1972) is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, but if someone goes through their whole life not seeing it, it’s not a huge loss. There are only a handful of films so culturally important that everyone should watch them. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to love them (nor does it mean their assessment of the art is incorrect if they don’t love them), just that they should give these films a look for the significant societal messages that they convey. Director Christopher Nolan has occupied a strange space within film culture, as his many fans insist that all of his films qualify for this ‘must watch’ honour, which is not necessarily the case. Nolan is a phenomenal director with many classics under his belt, but that only guarantees artistic importance, not cultural importance. However, with his new historical epic Oppenheimer (2023), he may finally have hit this milestone.
Based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus, Oppenheimer follows the real life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a troubled theoretical physicist longing for his chance to prove himself as one of the greatest minds in the field. Apart from sharing knowledge with contemporaries such as Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), and Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), Oppenheimer spends his days frequenting events held by Communist sympathisers, where he meets his mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and eventual wife, Katherine (Emily Blunt). As the war against the Axis powers ramps up, Oppenheimer is approached by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), requesting that he lead a secret operation to create a weapon powerful enough to defeat the enemy. Oppenheimer enlists the greatest scientists of the era to join ‘The Manhattan Project’, developing an atomic device which could destroy all of mankind if not handled correctly. While Oppenheimer grapples with an internal moral crisis over his creation of the atomic bomb, a government official named Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) is using Oppenheimer’s Communist connections in order to discredit him, intending to stop his prevention of future weapons of mass destruction.
Like many iconic directors, Christopher Nolan has a series of unmistakable traits baked into his work. These include his use of black and white, non linear story structure, complex plots, percussive scores, IMAX cinematography and practical visual effects. Nolan’s signature even extends to his frequent narrative themes, including concepts of time, memory, personal identity, ego, obsession, existentialism, morality and knowledge. While all of these have emerged in one way or another across his films, Oppenheimer is notable for its complete mastery of Nolan’s entire bag of tricks. The obvious strength of Oppenheimer, is that it’s a culmination of the director’s entire career up to this point, displaying all of his greatest skills without any of his drawbacks. The structure is convoluted, yet it’s clear. The dialogue is dense, yet wonderfully compelling. The character motivations are overly expressionist, yet deeply emotive. This is Nolan operating in peak form, delivering his best work in years, and maybe his best work overall.
While Oppenheimer is a perfect showcase for the director’s considerable powers, it’s more than just a greatest hits album, as there’s many elements unique to this film. Most obviously, Nolan’s use of narrative perspective is operating on three main levels, one being Oppenheimer himself, one being Lewis Strauss, and one being the audience. From an objective lens, J. Robert Oppenheimer isn’t a character deserving of a sympathetic portrayal, given the fact that countless deaths resulted from his work. However, the film gives him many levels of nuance, appropriately outlining his ego-driven flaws, which led to his monstrous creation, while also conveying his crushingly powerful feelings of guilt. A parallel journey is given with Strauss, as we are shown a similar display of ego, leading him down an equally destructive path towards societal decay (with Downey Jr. practically revelling in his arc, delivering the best performance of his career). The viewer’s perspective is paramount in this structure, as we are positioned to understand the minds of these characters, yet are still able to pass judgement on them for the horrific, long term effects of their actions.
The omniscience of the viewer is challenged in fascinating ways throughout the film, as Nolan manages to make the viewer completely forget obvious history as the tension builds. For instance, Oppenheimer and his team surmise there is a chance the atmosphere may catch fire from the untested atomic explosion, setting off a chain reaction that could destroy the entire world. Considering that we are all here today, we know that this catastrophe didn’t happen, but Nolan successfully makes the viewer’s own historical knowledge fall by the wayside. The feeling of a possible disaster is so expertly conveyed that you are actually afraid for the world’s safety, which is the greatest marker for the film’s success. Part of this comes from the existential dread you’ll feel when you realise that these scientists pushed that button, despite knowing there was a chance it would result in the end of all things. That is a terrifying prospect, which may keep you up at night the more you think about it.
With that in mind, Oppenheimer adds additional layers of thought provoking concepts, mostly wrapped up in the political machinations surrounding this event. Specifically, Nolan dives deep into a discussion of power, and whether or not any man, government or country should be trusted with power. After eloquently explaining that these weapons have world ending, destructive force, the idea of seeing world leaders failing to understand the sheer magnitude of it, is potentially more unnerving than the bombs themselves. This is arguably the true point of the film, as we are given a detailed analysis of how political paranoia, fear of ‘the other’, and petty grievances are enough to make those in power want to arm themselves, or even drop bombs. All of these factors drive them to make terrible decisions, yet they never once consider the needless damage and deaths they may cause.
Even though all of this is very compelling on the page, Nolan could’ve made the mistake of glorifying the subject, as well as mystifying the invention of the atomic bomb. One only need to look at Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) to see how easily depiction of a real life tragedy can end up looking ‘cool’ or ‘fun’. This raises the question as to whether or not Oppenheimer paints this part of history in a positive light, which would definitely be a misguided approach. Thankfully, Nolan is a storyteller who understands the tragic circumstances of these events, thus never once taking the position that the creation and detonation of the bombs was a good thing. With the Trinity Test being the only major depiction of the bomb, Nolan forces us to feel a sombre sense of dread, as we begin to imagine the horror of such a weapon being used on people. As for the actual bombings, there is a high level of intelligence and sensitivity to their depiction, with Nolan never feeling the need to show the actual events, yet still managing to convey the shock, awe and sadness through emotionally expressionist means. It would have been cheap and easy to simply show the cities being levelled, but Nolan shows strength and respect by finding ways to emotionally affect the viewer without resorting to depictions of violence.
Oppenheimer will not be an easy watch for many people. With its punishing three hour runtime, and a relentlessly stressful tone, the film may not be all things to all people. Regardless of whether or not it’s enjoyable, Nolan has delivered his first true ‘must watch’ film, which definitely should be seen, understood and felt by all. With its expert craftsmanship, rich thematic analysis, and sobering final message, Oppenheimer is a film which makes sure we are aware of how easily humanity is falling into disaster.
Best way to watch it: In a double feature with Barbie (2023) of course.