For all the pre-release speculation about how analog epic-maker Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” would re-create the explosion of the first atomic bomb, the film’s most spectacular attraction turns out to be something else: the human face.
This three-plus hour biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is a film about faces. They talk, a lot. They listen. They react to good and bad news. And sometimes they get lost in their own heads—none more so than the title character, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons team at Los Alamos whose apocalyptic contribution to science earned him the nickname The American Prometheus (as per the title of Nolan’s primary source, the biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman). Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema use the large-format IMAX film system not merely to capture the splendor of New Mexico’s desert panoramas but contrast the external coolness and internal turmoil of Oppenheimer, a brilliant mathematician and low-key showman and leader whose impulsive nature and insatiable sexual appetites made his private life a disaster, and whose greatest contribution to civilization was a weapon that could destroy it. Close-up after close-up shows star Cillian Murphy’s face staring into the middle distance, off-screen, and sometimes directly into the lens, while Oppenheimer dissociates from unpleasant interactions, or gets lost inside memories, fantasies, and waking nightmares. “Oppenheimer” rediscovers the power of huge closeups of people’s faces as they grapple with who they are, and who other people have decided that they are, and what they’ve done to themselves and others.
Sometimes the close-ups of people’s faces are interrupted by flash-cuts of events that haven’t happened, or already happened. There are recurring images of flame, debris, and smaller chain-reaction explosions that resemble strings of firecrackers, as well as non-incendiary images that evoke other awful, personal disasters. (There are a lot of gradually expanding flashbacks in this film, where you see a glimpse of something first, then a bit more of it, and then finally the entire thing.) But these don’t just relate to the big bomb that Oppenheimer’s team hopes to detonate in the desert, or the little ones that are constantly detonating in Oppenheimer’s life, sometimes because he personally pushed the big red button in a moment of anger, pride or lust, and other times because he made a naive or thoughtless mistake that pissed somebody off long ago, and the wronged person retaliated with the equivalent of a time-delayed bomb. The “fissile” cutting, to borrow a physics word, is also a metaphor for the domino effect caused by individual decisions, and the chain reaction that makes other things happen as a result. This principle is also visualized by repeated images of ripples in water, starting with the opening closeup of raindrops setting off expanding circles on the surface that foreshadow both the ending of Oppenheimer’s career as a government advisor and public figure and the explosion of the first nuke at Los Alamos (which observers see, then hear, then finally feel, in all its awful impact).
The weight of the film’s interests and meanings are carried by faces—not just Oppenheimer’s, but those of other significant characters, including General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), Los Alamos’ military supervisor; Robert’s suffering wife Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), whosej tactical mind could have averted a lot of disasters if her husband would have only listened; and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.), the Atomic Energy Commission chair who despised Oppenheimer for a lot of reasons, including his decision to distance himself from his Jewish roots, and who spent several years trying to derail Oppenheimer’s post-Los Alamos career. The latter constitutes its own adjacent full-length story about pettiness, mediocrity, and jealousy. Strauss is Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart, regularly and often pathetically reminding others that he studied physics, too, back in the day, and that he’s a good person, unlike Oppenheimer the adulterer and communist sympathizer. (This film asserts that Strauss leaked the FBI file on his progressive and communist associations to a third party who then wrote to the bureau’s director, J. Edgar Hoover.)
The film speaks quite often of one of the principles of quantum physics, which holds that observing quantum phenomena by a detector or an instrument can change the results of this experiment. The editing illustrates it by constantly re-framing our perception of an event to change its meaning, and the script does it by adding new information that undermines, contradicts, or expands our sense of why a character did something, or whether they even knew why they did it.
That, I believe, is really what “Oppenheimer” is about, much more so than the atom bomb itself, or even its impact on the war and the Japanese civilian population, which is talked about but never shown. The film does show what the atom bomb does to human flesh, but it’s not recreations of the actual attacks on Japan: the agonized Oppenheimer imagines Americans going through it. This filmmaking decision is likely to antagonize both viewers who wanted a more direct reckoning with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and those who have bought into the arguments advanced by Strauss and others that the bombs had to be dropped because Japan never would have surrendered otherwise. The movie doesn’t indicate whether it thinks that interpretation is true or if it sides more with Oppenheimer and others who insisted that Japan was on its knees by that point in World War II and would have eventually given up without atomic attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. No, this is a film that permits itself the freedoms and indulgences of novelists, poets, and opera composers. It does what we expect it to do: Dramatize the life of Oppenheimer and other historically significant people in his orbit in an aesthetically daring way while also letting all of the characters and all of the events be used metaphorically and symbolically as well, so that they become pointillistic elements in a much larger canvas that’s about the mysteries of the human personality and the unforeseen impact of decisions made by individuals and societies.
This is another striking thing about “Oppenheimer.” It’s not entirely about Oppenheimer even though Murphy’s baleful face and haunting yet opaque eyes dominate the movie. It’s also about the effect of Oppenheimer’s personality and decisions on other people, from the other strong-willed members of his atom bomb development team (including Benny Safdie’s Edwin Teller, who wanted to skip ahead to create the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, and eventually did) to the beleaguered Kitty; Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, who has some of Gloria Grahame’s self-immolating smolder); General Groves, who likes Oppenheimer in spite of his arrogance but isn’t going to side with him over the United States government; and even Harry Truman, the US president who ordered the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (played in a marvelous cameo by Gary Oldman) and who derides Oppenheimer as a naive and narcissistic “crybaby” who sees history mainly in terms of his own feelings.
Jennifer Lame’s editing is prismatic and relentless, often in a faintly Terrence Malick-y way, skipping between three or more time periods within seconds. It’s wedded to virtually nonstop music by Ludwig Göransson that fuses with the equally relentless dialogue and monologues to create an odd but distinctive sort of scientifically expository aria that’s probably what it would feel like to read American Prometheus while listening to a playlist of Philip Glass film scores. Non-linear movies like this one do a better job of capturing the pinball-machine motions of human consciousness than linear movies do, and they also capture what it’s like to read a third-person omniscient book (or a biography that permits itself to imagine what its subjects might have been thinking or feeling). It also paradoxically captures the mental process of reading a text and responding to it emotionally and viscerally as well as intellectually. The mind stays anchored to the text. But it also jumps outside of it, connecting the text to other texts, to external knowledge, and to one’s own experience and imaginings.
This review hasn’t delved into the plot of the film or the real-world history that inspired it, not because it isn’t important (of course it is) but because—as is always the case with Nolan—the main attraction is not the story, itself but how the filmmaker tells it. Nolan has been derided as less a dramatist than half showman, half mathematician, making bombastic, overcomplicated, but ultimately muddled and simplistic blockbusters that are as much puzzles as stories. But whether that characterization was ever entirely true (and I’m increasingly convinced that it never was) it seems beside the point when you see how thoughtfully and rewardingly it’s been applied to a biography of a real person. It seems possible that “Oppenheimer” could retrospectively seem like a turning point in the director’s filmography, when he takes all of the stylistic and technical practices that he’d been honing for the previous twenty years in intellectualized pulp blockbusters and turns them inward, using them to explore the innermost recesses of the mind and heart, not just to move human pieces around on a series of interlinked, multi-dimensional storytelling boards.
The movie is an academic-psychedelic biography in the vein of those 1990s Oliver Stone films that were edited within an inch of their lives (at times it’s as if the park bench scene in “JFK” had been expanded to three hours). There’s also a strain of pitch-black humor, in a Stanley Kubrick mode, as when top government officials meet to go over a list of possible Japanese cities to bomb, and the man reading the list says that he just made an executive decision to delete Kyoto from it because he and his wife honeymooned there. (The Kubrick connection is cemented further by the presence of “Full Metal Jacket” star Matthew Modine, who co-stars as American engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush.) As an example of top-of-the-line, studio-produced popular art with a dash of swagger, “Oppenheimer” draws on Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” late-period Terrence Malick, nonlinearly-edited art cinema touchstones like “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “The Pawnbroker,” “All That Jazz” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock“; and, inevitably, “Citizen Kane” (there’s even a Rosebud-like mystery surrounding what Oppenheimer and his hero Albert Einstein, played by Tom Conti, talked about on the banks of a Princeton pond). Most of the performances have a bit of an “old movie” feeling, with the actors snapping off their lines and not moving their faces as much as they would in a more modern story. A lot of the dialogue is delivered quickly, producing a screwball comedy energy. This comes through most strongly in the arguments between Robert and Kitty about his sexual indiscretions and refusal to listen to her mostly superb advice; the more abstract debates about power and responsibility between Robert and General Groves, and the scenes between Strauss and a Senate aide (Alden Ehrenreich) who is advising him as he testifies before a committee that he hopes will approve him to serve in President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet.
But as a physical experience, “Oppenheimer” is something else entirely—it’s hard to say exactly what, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. I’ve already heard complaints that the movie is “too long,” that it could’ve ended with the first bomb detonating, and could’ve done without the bits about Oppenheimer’s sex life and the enmity of Strauss, and that it’s perversely self-defeating to devote so much of the running time, including the most of the third hour, to a pair of governmental hearings: the one where Oppenheimer tries to get his security clearance renewed, and Strauss trying to get approved for Eisenhower’s cabinet. But the film’s furiously entropic tendencies complement the theoretical discussions of the how’s and why’s of the individual and collective personality. To greater and lesser degrees, all of the characters are appearing before a tribunal and bring called to account for their contradictions, hypocrisies, and sins. The tribunal is out there in the dark. We’ve been given the information but not told what to decide, which is as it should be.