movie review

Oppenheimer Is a Tragedy of Operatic Grandeur

Christopher Nolan’s movie about the invention of the atomic bomb is almost too big to wrap your head around. Photo: Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan is drawn to stories about obsessive men, men who are consumed by their callings — space travel, dream stealing, stage magic — even when it comes at a catastrophic cost. J. Robert Oppenheimer is the latest of these men, though in this case his focus is one the world is willing to bend itself around. When Robert, played in Oppenheimer by Cillian Murphy at his most angular, gets appointed as head of the Manhattan Project, he has a whole town built at the remote site so the scientists he recruits won’t have to leave their families behind in order to develop the nuclear bomb. Even the location of Los Alamos, which he selects himself, is dear to him. “When I was a kid, I thought if I could find a way to combine physics and New Mexico, my life would be perfect,” he muses while on one of his trips out there to ride horses through the mountains. Robert has it all for a while, though the price turns out to be so much higher than he could have imagined.

Oppenheimer is a movie so sprawling it’s difficult to contend with. It’s rich, uncompromising, and borderline unwieldy, but more than anything, it’s a tragedy of operatic grandeur despite so many of its scenes consisting of men talking in rooms — conference rooms, Senate chambers, university classrooms, and emptied-out restaurants, all the prosaic places where the fate of the earth gets hashed out. Its scope comes from Murphy’s haunted performance and the way the movie (with help from Ludwig Göransson’s panic attack of a score) submerges you in the mind-set of its protagonist as though it can create a psychic connection to the past. Robert isn’t an easy character to understand; he’s arrogant, blunt, and aloof and possesses an intelligence about the unseen world of physics that makes him seem half-alien. But Nolan doesn’t want Robert to be relatable. He just wants to explore how his flawed humanity co-exists with his genius in what is ultimately a film about moral slippage and how someone who feels so certain of his own clear-eyed ideals finds himself standing in front of a screaming crowd celebrating the deaths of thousands of people in Japan.

The earlier Nolan film that Oppenheimer has the most resonance with isn’t one of those studies of obsessive men but his other work about World War II, Dunkirk. If Dunkirk was about the collective urge that spurs individual acts of heroism and sacrifice in the face of death, Oppenheimer is about how that same force can push people to act against what they believe is right. While it doesn’t go for the same temporal trickery as Dunkirk, Oppenheimer does skip between timelines, hopping between a linear account of Robert’s life from his college days, the 1954 security hearings engineered by a resentful Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., overplaying the wiliness), and Strauss’s own confirmation hearings for secretary of Commerce in 1959. The latter scenes are shot in a black-and-white that gives them a paradoxical feeling of modernity, as though the feverish days of discovery and unity were in the past, and the future is one for bureaucrats, rather than visionaries.

Beginning with Robert’s time as a rising star on campus and a left-wing dabbler, there’s a constant flow of figures through his life, and rather than streamline them, Nolan allows the names and faces to become a disorienting barrage. It works because Robert himself is the still point in the film’s turning world and because Nolan puts people with distinctive faces in these dozens of smaller roles. Oppenheimer is a testament to the power of casting and how much an actor’s look and presence alone can fill out a character. David Dastmalchian, with his glorious hangdog mug, is Robert’s betrayer, William Borden, while Benny Safdie is memorably abrasive as H-bomb pioneer Edward Teller. David Krumholtz, as physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi, is a standout for providing Robert with tender, down-to-earth counsel, while Jason Clarke preens as the menacing attorney Roger Robb. Josh Hartnett is Robert’s frustrated counterpart Ernest Lawrence, Kenneth Branagh is a jolly Niels Bohr, Rami Malek turns up in a small but key role as David Hill, and James Urbaniak — it would basically be illegal to make this movie without James Urbaniak — shows up in a wordless appearance as a frightened Kurt Gödel.

In a meatier part, Matt Damon is the impatient Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who has the cat-herding task of managing Robert but ultimately reveals himself to be an ally. There are women in the movie too, though not many. Emily Blunt brings an air of old Hollywood and an impressive bitterness to the part of Robert’s wife, Kitty, a mercurial alcoholic who was with someone else when they first met. As Jean Tatlock, the troubled grad student, psychiatrist, and Communist Party member with whom Robert has an off-and-on romance, Florence Pugh is just playing a dead-wife type in waiting. Nolan has never been great with female characters, but it matters less in a movie that is so much about men making momentous decisions for everyone else while pretending they aren’t bringing their own histories and personal baggage to the table. Lewis, meanwhile, goes from Robert’s alleged admirer to his stealth foe after a petty humiliation, all those grand ideals about the good of the country and the world subsumed in a desire for power and revenge.

Real power is found in those closed-off rooms, not out in the New Mexico desert where the first nuclear weapon was detonated. But when Oppenheimer does show the Trinity test, it’s a feat of monstrous awe, especially in Imax. A vast column of fire casts an unearthly glow on the faces in the audience, like a mirror of the characters onscreen crouched in the dirt clutching plates of welder’s glass to peer through. It’s terrible and splendid, a weapon meant to be so frightening that it would end the use of weapons forever — though, of course, that didn’t happen. Did Robert really believe it would, or had he deluded himself in the moment to justify the thrill of invention? Oppenheimer suggests it was unclear even to him until he’s confronted with the stomping feet of an ecstatic crowd cheering his name. That pounding, which recurs throughout the film, could just as easily be the sound of soldiers marching off to another war — the specter of which, it turns out, can’t be banished, even by the sight of destruction so terrible it leaves its creator forever haunted.

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Oppenheimer Is a Tragedy of Operatic Grandeur