Review: Oppenheimer: A Destroyer of Biopics
“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer – 100%
Reviewer Flickchart Ranking: 7/2548
In 1942, a theoretical physicist and professor, a child of Jewish immigrants from Germany, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was recruited to lead the United States’ nuclear weapons program against the Nazis. His efforts culminated in the world’s first successful atomic bomb, a weapon that changed warfare forevermore. The atom bomb was the culmination of decades of scientific research, if not centuries. From John Dalton’s discoveries of atomic theory, to the speculations of Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, and even Winston Churchill about the energy that might be wielded by using the microscopic forces that comprise the universe, and to Leo Szilard patenting the concept of a nuclear chain reaction occurring via neutrons, this long line of discoveries led towards a paradigm-shifting outcome. Oppenheimer fulfilled that speculation by directing a team to finally create a weapon that could channel a fundamental force of the universe into destructive powers beyond reckoning.
I have long believed that humanity’s greatest mistake was invention of the nuclear bomb. While there are many deadly forces on our planet that can cause mass death and ruin, the nuclear bomb is a tool unlike any other. With its invention, humanity gained the ability to wipe itself out permanently, with no chance of recovery. Not only are the explosions from atomic weapons titanic, but the fallout has a way of poisoning our world in a manner that could put an end to millennia of evolutionary efforts. It is a poison with no true antidote.
As Cillian Murphy‘s Oppenheimer removes his goggles during the momentous Trinity test sequence, the camera moves close as we see the beautiful, horrific carnage reflected in his eyes. They widen as the film cuts to a full-frame IMAX shot of fiery clouds filling the entire screen, plumes of smoke rolling about, and a changing fireball of utter destruction thrust upon us. There is silence as this occurs. Light moves faster than sound, and we need more than a moment before we can fully comprehend the impact of what just occurred.
Then, finally, we feel it. Sound rushes over us and hits the characters observing the test as the dawn of nuclear age crests and a world is left to ponder what will become of itself. The science is a stunning achievement for humanity and would be unrecognizable from sorcery if used centuries earlier. Yet, at what cost?
Oppenheimer is the universe’s fulfillment of my one existential nightmare, brought to life by my favorite director. It is a film that resonates on the questions that haunt all biopics: what makes someone who they are and someone that history should remember, and how ought they be remembered?
Few are the biopics that don’t lionize their subjects. Even ones that ostensibly set out to be truthful and critical still end up celebrating their subject matter. Oppenheimer destroys that mold with a sharply-written script built entirely on questioning the legacy Oppenheimer left the world, whether he can be considered a hero, and whether Oppenheimer himself even felt true guilt for what he had done. The complex shape of his character is fitting for a film predicated on this question of legacy and what makes someone who they are. Undoubtedly, Oppenheimer can’t be considered the first biopic to truly critique its protagonist, but it is the grandest and most notable in recent memory. Like Walk Hard did before it, the biopic formula will not be able to move forward without dealing with the legacy of this one.
This review comes late, as I waited to see the film on 70mm IMAX as director Christopher Nolan intended. And it was well worth the wait. Oppenheimer is a film built on dichotomy, and the dichotomy of this massive film on large filmstock with an abundance of close-up scenes of Cillian Murphy’s face encapsulates that juxtaposition. The massive intimacy granted by this approach may seem like a waste of the IMAX screen, but it is not. These moments consume you as a viewer due to the grand scale that they have.
And Oppenheimer doesn’t lack in majestic shots. Aside from the aforementioned bomb sequence, the depiction of Los Alamos being built uses the wide scope well, as does the scene of the test bomb being hoisted up the tower. There are also lovely sequences of Murphy and Emily Blunt, playing Oppenheimer’s wife, riding on horseback across the New Mexico countryside. The excellent editing and pacing of these romantic scenes and beauty of the American West on film makes you want to see a Nolan Western. So much powerful emotion is conveyed in a few short moments due to his talented filmmaking.
The editing of Oppenheimer is another triumph. Nolan’s films have long used a hurtling sense of editorial pacing to convey an epic scope. His films cut quick when they need to, but they also slow down to breathe. Oppenheimer feels like a culmination of his editorial skills, as he masterfully works with editor Jennifer Lane to build tension, disperse it, and build it back up to a crescendo. Aside from the gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema, it is the editing that makes sequences like the Trinity test so pulse-pounding. Despite knowing the outcome, the chance that the world might end via nuclear destruction still feels like a possibility. Another sequence where one of many surprise guest stars, Casey Affleck, interrogates Oppenheimer while the film cuts forward in time for Matt Damon‘s General Leslie Groves to comment on Affleck’s character, uses this editorial style to such great effect to generate tension that is simply a masterwork.
The nonlinear narrative is also a trick of editing. Where Nolan used it in Memento to mirror the effects of short-term memory loss, in Oppenheimer the technique of cutting across timelines serves to reinforce the film’s central idea of interrogating the past. It seems easy to look back from the future in black and white, but life is lived in color and all the shades that come with it. This technique justifies what at first seems like an overly drawn-out third act that winds up being an excellent capstone for the film. The score from Ludwig Goransson also aids this effort. While sounding very much at times like a Hans Zimmer imitation, Goransson has his own touch, and the lesser use of electric instruments perhaps brings a more operatic quality to the music. Music has always driven Nolan’s scenes and does so here to great effect.
It nearly goes without saying that the cast is truly excellent. There are far too many notable actors in this film to talk about them all here, but highlights include Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and Casey Affleck. Affleck’s scene in particular is such an excellent use of the peculiar nature of the Affleck celebrity and Casey’s acting style that it feels award-worthy despite the very limited time and dialogue. Downey’s character of Lewis Strauss is a role he vanishes into, and he helps cement the film’s dichotomous take on people. His character, and every character of note, have a dual nature to them that seems in conflict, and yet the film seems to answer that both natures are part of what make the person tick.
This couldn’t be truer than with Oppenheimer himself. He is a man driven by scientific compulsion to create, even as the film introduces the idea of his controversial political leanings and whether he was truly committed to them or any belief that he held. Uncommitted is a trait the film floats about Oppenheimer. Does he feels guilt about helping to create nuclear weapons, or does he just put on a show of it while enjoying the attention and the martyrdom complex he builds around himself afterward? The film offers no clear answers, though again, perhaps both can be true at once. It is a performance that Murphy brings to life with such craft. Whether via twitches of the mouth or flickers in his eyes, his performance has sufficient complexity to make this character endlessly compelling. And while it might be easy to pull viewers along when there are so many close-ups of your face, a lesser actor would fumble these chances and turn intimate moments into farcical or shallow ones. There is no such danger with Murphy in front of the camera.
It is hard for me to call this anything but an unmitigated triumph. Does the film have flaws? Perhaps. Female characters are mostly nonexistent (though not entirely, and one of the best scenes in the film comes from Blunt squaring off against a ruthless government attorney), no character besides Oppenheimer and maybe Strauss have real arcs, and as usual with Nolan films, details are swept away in the majesty of the editing. Nolan’s films are sweeping dramatic works with big, pulse-pounding scores and moments. His detractors feel his approach has a shallowness to it.
Yet I see what Nolan sees, that plot machinations only mean so much in the face of what cinema is about: conveying moods and feelings, whether melodramatic emotional journeys or cerebral mind-turners. Oppenheimer is cinema that invites you to get swept away in the epic of its ideas, performances, and visuals. Here, we have a film that asks what happens when the genie is let out of the bottle. How can a man who created a permanent kill switch for society move on? How can society move on? And for all of the critical comments, Nolan conveys such an intimate understanding of the details behind World War II society that it all resounds as genuine and depthful. They may not be details directly stated on screen at all times, but are there in the ways that matter.
The film’s final scene and line seems to somewhat answer the question driving much of the film. It is an answer I share in, one that left me with tears shimmering in my own eyes. The reality is that nuclear weapons have advanced very far from the ones depicted in this film. An endless nuclear winter is not far off. But for all of its ponderings, Oppenheimer never feels like an issues film. It’s not a film with much in the way of political commentary on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is a film concerned with the existential question of a post-nuclear world, and how one man’s life is wrapped in and changed by this reality. How does one live knowing the horror they unleashed, especially when they personally benefitted so much from it?
This film opens with a line about how Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. As punishment, he was chained to a rock and tortured for all eternity. Oppenheimer asks: What if he deserved it?