I have found Christopher Nolan's films deeply frustrating. I regard him as our most accomplished technical film-maker since Stanley Kubrick. And yet I have serially struggled to be truly emotionally involved in his films. I admired them. I was intellectually provoked by them. But they were arid, sterile things that failed to move me or to tell me anything insightful about the human condition.
With OPPENHEIMER everything has changed. For the first time, Nolan has trained his IMAX camera onto a deeply personal, ethical, political, sexual story of a great but troubled man. He has given us a film that feels at times more like an Oliver Stone political conspiracy film that takes us under the skin of American history. But at the same time, he gives us images and sound design of surpassing beauty and power. Best of all, he allows us to view it on actual celluloid IMAX film.
Nolan's film is an interrogation of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the genius physicist who ran the US government's Manhattan Project and delivered them the atomic bomb that was controversially used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One might think this would earn him a nation's grateful respect but in the Cold War anti-Soviet hysteria of the McCarthy witch-hunts, Oppenheimer was refused his security clearance on the basis of his 1930s sympathy with left-wing causes and effectively publicly silenced. Was Oppenheimer a Communist? No. But he was a fellow traveller who donated to worthy causes that were Communist front organisations. After all, as a Jew who was funding the escape of fellow Jews from Nazi Germany he was deeply sensitive to the plight of refugees. Was Oppenheimer a traitor? No. He hated Hitler and feared what would happen if the Nazis got the A-bomb. It was Klaus Fuchs who was leaking Los Alamos' secrets to the Soviets. Oppenheimer - even after everything his country did to him - loved it to the end.
Oppenheimer was not, then, a traitor. But he was indeed guilty of naivety and highhandedness. He was naive about how far his celebrity would protect him from the political machine. He was naive about how far a prurient establishment would excuse his incessant womanising, not least with the actual Communist Jean Tatlock. He was naive about how far he could cover up for his Communist friend Haakon Chevalier without being seen as complicit.
Oppenheimer was also high-handed. Perhaps this should be no surprise for the wealthy son of first generation Jewish immigrants who grew up in an apartment filled with expensive art and who had the resources to travel throughout Europe to lear from the champions of the New Physics. For a man who could be devastatingly charming at a dinner party, he was careless of appearing rude to powerful politicians. He had no time for the Game, and Game beat him in the end.
In this film, politics is embodied in and personified by Oppenheimer's nemesis, Lewis Strauss. Strauss was also a second generation Jewish immigrant but unlike Oppenheimer didn't have the money to study physics at university, becoming a shoe salesman to raise the tuition fees. Despite later wild financial success and political success he never lost his insecurity over this lack of formal education. After World War Two, Strauss maintained his interest in science by chairing the Atomic Energy Commission, and so butted heads with Oppenheimer. While never publicly regretting creating the A-bomb, or its use against Japan, Oppenheimer used all of his influence to try and steer US policy toward collaboration, containment, and against developing the H-bomb. By contrast, the pragmatist Strauss simply wanted the US to be better armed than the Soviets.
Nolan's framing device for his film are the two trials in all but name of these two men that took place in the febrile McCarthyite political climate of the 1950s. The latter is the 1958 Senate hearing of Strauss, shot in black and white, where he fails to be confirmed for a Cabinet position. The reason? The vindictive kangaroo court he inflicted upon Oppenheimer in 1954 when the AEC refused to renew his top security clearance, and all but accused him of being a Soviet spy. Publicly shamed, Oppenheimer public life was effectively ended.
The vast centre of the film within this framing device is the story of Oppenheimer's life as told by him in his statement to the 1954 Gray Commission. In this part of the film we are in vivid colour and firmly in the subjective experience of our protagonist. From young student in Europe to charismatic Berkeley professor, to impressively driven manager of the Manhattan project. We see him trying to balance his politics with his top security cleared job, and his ethics with the need to win the war against Hitler. This becomes infinitely more muddy when Nazi Germany surrenders and it becomes clear that the bomb will be used against civilian subjects in Japan. That decision is still debated, and it's unclear how much influence the scientists ever really had on the politicians. But Oppenheimer's self justification went along the lines that a demonstration of the awesome power of the A-bomb would scare politicians into co-operation within the United Nations for arms control. Evidently, this was not the case.
What can we say about this infinitely complex, nuanced, moving drama? Nolan's writing is a masterclass in concision and precision. Every line is considered - every intertwining of timelines adds meaning. His direction is masterful. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema he conjures up the magisterial beauty of New Mexico; the claustrophobia of the Commission's interrogation room; the vivid abstraction of quantum physics; and the awesome power of nuclear fire. Working with composer Ludwig Goransson, Nolan creates a sound design and complementary soundscape that is at moments tender, at moments tellingly silent, and at moments so powerful and literally awesome that it shakes your entire body. And working with his actors, well Nolan is simply a master.
Let's start with Cillian Murphy's haunting central performance as Oppenheimer - arrogant, haughty, stubborn, guilt-ridden, hunted. But let's also speak of Robert Downey Junior as Strauss - puffed up, prickly, wiser, harder. And then we have the balancing presence of Matt Damon as General Groves - physically intimidating, no nonsense, practical, but humane. In smaller roles, I loved the interrogatory intensity of Jason Clarke's Roger Robb; Dane De Haan's sinister precision as security officer Nichols; and a truly intimidating cameo by Casey Affleck as his superior, Boris Pash.
For the women, well, this is Nolan's weakness. I feel that both of the female stars are given short shrift. Florence Pugh is all too brief a presence as Oppenheimer's true love, Jean Tatlock. She is reduced to being naked, demanding, capricious. We don't see her brilliance. But we get something of her brave, troubled nature. I also think (but need to rewatch to confirm) that Nolan inserts a slippery quick shot of a gloved hand intervening in her narrative. Similarly Emily Blunt has little to do for much of the film as Oppenheimer's wife Kitty. A brilliant botanist who resented giving up her career to be stuck at Los Alamos with the kids, Kitty is a brittle alcoholic from the start in this version of her life. She exists to urge Oppenheimer to fight back - perhaps cathartically for the audience. And to provide a channel for our anger when he is intent on being a martyr.
The short-changing of the female characters is a minor blemish on an outstanding film that pushes Nolan from technical mastery into the realm of "complete" film-making. He is now to be considered with the true masters of cinema. This is a film that is intellectually and emotionally provocative, that excites visually and aurally, and that showcases outstanding performances. Please try to see it on IMAX celluloid.
OPPENHEIMER is rated R in the USA and 15 in the UK and has a running time of 180 minutes.