Christopher Nolan Makes Paradoxically Workmanlike Poetry from Oppenheimer

Movies Reviews Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan Makes Paradoxically Workmanlike Poetry from Oppenheimer

For a visionary director of big-budget, big-studio, big-idea sci-fi/fantasy movies, Christopher Nolan has often seemed, if not exactly at war with himself, somehow prone to both methodically ascending his big, obvious building blocks and attempting to take wilder, more ambitious leaps. In many of his movies, this emerges thematically as a struggle for control: Of crime (in his Batman trilogy), of memory (Memento), of space and time (Interstellar), or even the seemingly uncontrollable realm of dreams (Inception). That last movie’s exacting, heist-picture portrait of dream-surfing caused some to wonder if Nolan was too literal-minded for the neo-Spielbergian job, but that was exactly the tension that wound the film so tight. The real test of Nolan’s mettle is something like the great-man biopic – not because he’s insufficiently reverent (or dad-ish in his WWII-era interests), but because of the temptation to give himself fully to that innate squareness. Is the guy who evoked terrorism, the surveillance state, and Occupy Wall Street in service of Batman-movie plot points really up for a nuanced exploration of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb?

Yes and no. Nolan’s Oppenheimer isn’t so much a great-man biopic as a great-man-but-maybe-not biopic, and at times, the writer-director seems hell-bent on channeling the instinctive, ethereal ambivalence of a Terrence Malick trip. It’s a fascinating spectacle in large part because Nolan isn’t especially Malickian at all (though at least that frame of reference might temporarily ease the overworked, underbaked Kubrick comparisons). Throughout the film, especially as it builds during its first hour, theoretical physicist Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is beset by cutaway visions of stars, waves, and eventually all-consuming fire, fragments of zoomed-in science, blown up to eye-dazzling, seat-rattling IMAX scale. Is he communing with a higher power of science, or is he having horror-movie visions of the hell he could help to create?

In the early going, this version of Oppenheimer would likely have answered the question with a bit of reasoned pontificating, self-attributed to his intellectual curiosity. Though Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), the military man who recruits Oppenheimer to organize the Manhattan Project, rattles off a litany of unflattering descriptors (womanizer, theatrical, neurotic), the one that comes through most clearly in the film’s characterization arrives later, and is more of a backhanded compliment: “You’re not just self-important; you’re actually important.” It’s a line that could have been spun by that master of self-importance, Aaron Sorkin. The similarities don’t end there; Nolan may not be in love with screwball banter like Sorkin, but he borrows the favored Sorkin structure of narrative via hearing, with a time-twisty Nolan-y twist. A private early-50s hearing with Oppenheimer about his loyalties to his country prompts flashbacks to his younger years, while a congressional confirmation hearing for prospect secretary of commerce Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), shot in black-and-white, inspires a different set of flashbacks to post-war strife (though the linear path through the Manhattan Project years ultimately and understandably takes up more screen time).

All of this proceeds with Nolan’s usual score-heavy propulsion that makes half the movie feel like a montage and three-quarters of it feel like a thriller; the clandestine elements of the Manhattan Project and the talk of Soviet spies give the movie a feeling of buttoned-up espionage. (Oppie, as several colleagues call him, even has a moment where he dons his signature hat and pipe as if suiting up for a costumed-avenger mission.) A showcase piece, of course, is the first atomic bomb test, where bits of nervous comic relief pop up until the blast drops out Nolan’s usually-booming sound mix, leaving only the sound of breathing for a minute or two. It’s an awe-inspiring and discomfiting climax that hurtles Oppenheimer out of his preferred theoretical realm and into a void of reality. After the test, in the movie’s telling, the scientist is almost immediately sidelined, left waiting by the radio like everyone else to find out when and where the bomb might drop – and, once it does, he’s haunted by the unseen destruction he has wrought. After the war, he argues against nuclear proliferation and the development of the hydrogen bomb. Intellectually, he is simply reasoning things out based on his research and experiences. Politically, he’s committing a provocation. Spiritually, it may be far too late.

Oppenheimer sometimes gives the impression, not uncommon in Nolan’s work, that it’s more emotionally complex than the text really offers. (His specialty, in fact, is plot convolutions with mostly intuitive emotional reasoning; he said as much in Tenet, his last sci-fi picture.) Yet there is a clenched, impacted sadness to this semi-opaque figure who spearheads the creation of a bomb whose purpose is all too scrutable in the broader historical view. As played by Murphy, Oppenheimer isn’t quite the volatile hot-shot that Damon’s character describes – he’s more aloof, a nerd who knows he can be coaxed into showing off (which may, come to think of it, be a Nolan version of a hot-shot), which is how he first delivers “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” as a Sanskrit translation while ridden by a half-naked Florence Pugh.

Pugh is playing Oppenheimer’s on-and-off paramour Jean Tatlock, the most interesting of maybe two-dozen intriguing characters played by familiar actors – the film has enough names for three or four well-stocked indie movies – who nonetheless can only appear briefly in this intimate-yet-epic, IMAX-with-close-ups undertaking. She’s most notable for raising and then dashing hopes for a hornier, more carnal iteration of Nolan, though perhaps the glimmer Pugh provides through her ill-fated character will spark into more down the road. Emily Blunt is also on hand, wasted in two senses of the word as Kitty, the woman Oppenheimer winds up marrying. She’s due credit for helping to turn the concerned-wife standby into a seething lush who actively resents motherhood, and for nailing one terrific late-movie interrogation scene, but, like Pugh, the performance feels like an audition for Blunt to do more in a future Nolan project. Maybe they can become semi-regulars like Damon, who Nolan has refashioned into a curt asshole, knowing just how brusque this former golden boy can get before he becomes genuinely unlikable.

As much peripheral stargazing as the movie offers, it’s more interested in wrapping its mind around a 20th century horror that is, for many Americans, both abstract and intensely nightmarish. This Oppenheimer seems to quietly pride himself, to some degree, on his ability to build his blackboard discussions of physics (and the leftist politics that get him into trouble despite a chin-stroking aversion to actually joining the Communist Party in the U.S.) into something more practical and tactile, without fully realizing how little control he will have once it is accomplished. This might seem awfully limiting, to filter this defining event and the thousands dead in its wake through the psychology of a famous man who might lose his security clearance. It might also seem reductive to relate Oppenheimer’s merging of theoretical physics and practical project management to the way Nolan balances indelible images with practicality, creating an unlikely workmanlike poetry. It does explain, though, where some of that poetry comes from, and why even some of the movie’s more obvious points are able to shake up the audience, not just the premium-large-format multiplex seats. Nolan-via-Oppenheimer offers an explanation for this early in the movie, talking about his chosen field: “It’s paradoxical, and yet it works”

Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., David Krumholtz, Benny Safdie, Josh Hartnett, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek
Release Date: July 21, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin