Christopher Nolan had a far more divisive second full decade that his first. Two lauded Batman films, including one that led directly to a change in the rules for Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, gave way to by far the weakest of the eventual trilogy. A decade that ended in the extraordinary Inception, gave way to a decade ending in the self-important and impenetrable tribute act that was Tenet. A film such as The Prestige where we got real insights into our leads’ drives and motivations, gave way to Dunkirk, a technical marvel but one in which we did not even get to know any of the names of the characters. A cold and distant filmmaker was becoming ever more of both of those things, all whilst seeming to be more interested in ideas and technical innovation than in people and their stories. He remained a fine filmmaker, but…
It is a wonderful surprise to note that Nolan’s twelfth feature is all about character study. Oppenheimer tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (portrayed here by Cillian Murphy), programme director of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II, in 1945. The film focuses on three main time periods. The first, and longest runs from round 1926, when the then-22-year-old Oppenheimer is studying and working in Europe whilst suffering significantly with homesickness. The bulk of the film is set in this time period, and tells his story right through his recruitment by Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to run the Manhattan Project, to just after the end of the war, where he will begin to feel uneasy about the project’s big ‘victory’.
There are two framing time periods reflecting back on his actions and life and helping to explain why he fell from grace so publicly. The first is in the late-40s and early 1950s where Oppenheimer is an advisor on the Atomic Energy Commission, chaired by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a period which ends in Strauss being humiliated by Oppenheimer’s opposition to his plan to export radioisotopes, plus Strauss believes Oppenheimer has turned Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) against him – the truth of which we shall learn late in the film’s running time. This period is to demonstrate to us his growing unease with the effects of his work, as America pushes to develop an even more powerful hydrogen bomb, something he believes could lead to worldwide catastrophe. He lobbies presidents and congress not to pursue this path.
The final time period that is laced through the film is, in fact, two different years, but presented as though happening almost in parallel. We see a closed hearing in 1954 to decide whether to revoke our lead’s security clearance. This is led by Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) and serves to examine events of the main timeline, the second timeline, and Oppenheimer’s decisions in both. As we progress and we hear from his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and other figures key to the events of the film, it becomes clear that this is a one-sided hearing that is not painting Oppenheimer in the best light, illuminating his extra marital affairs, most notably with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), his links to communism and communist causes, and approaches to him to entice him into treason.
The events happening alongside this hearing are actually from five years later and relate to Lewis Strauss’s senate confirmation hearing for appointment to the cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. This is a mixture of public testimony and Strauss talking off the record with one of his aides (Aiden Ehrenreich as the unnamed character). Again, this is to challenge and illuminate characters and events. This section is in black and white. One theory as to why could be that this is the one section that is mainly public record. The hearings happened and, as such, are presented as though historical footage. The rest of the film is a dramatisation.
That dramatisation does line up as a reasonably accurate telling of events as recorded by history, some things that happened some time apart – such as a character dying some months after last seeing Oppenheimer – are suggested to be much closer together in time, but that is more inference than misdirection. So, the film appears to be a faithful telling of events. There is also a great deal of accurate period detail, such as using the correct version of the US flag before Hawaii had joined the Union. Nolan has sweated the intricate details and at least some of that will be noticed by audiences.
Oppenheimer is almost entirely a film consisting of – mainly – men sat in rooms talking to each other. It feels its three hours also, so we cannot even say time flew whilst watching. It is, however, Nolan’s strongest film since Inception, and his most involving, human story since The Prestige, and it will be in the conversation for his finest work. Even at that length we could not take our eyes of the screen, we wanted to take in every plot point, every character conflict, and every decision people in the story were making. Much of this is due to the twin lead performances of Murphy and Downey.
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On the latter, this is the opposite of Tony Stark; Strauss is not a naturally charismatic man, he is a quiet man that can turn on the public performance when he has to, and much of the character is internalised – precisely the opposite of what this actor has been doing for the last fifteen years. Murphy is a marvel in that he has to play character development from around 22-to-early-50s, with just some subtle make-up and hair dye. He is playing a complex character, a man who is both cold and analytical, but also a well-liked womaniser with a range of interests. He is a distant genius of a boss, but a man tuned in enough to people to understand the importance of catering to people’s family needs. He is also amoral, rather than immoral, behaving in whatever way he sees fit, rather than having any inherent malice about him. He is complemented by a wife who actually understands his foibles, and really does not show the world any negative emotions about them.
Finally, this is Nolan structuring a film in a way that suits the story rather any wish to impress. We do not leave thinking how clever it was, as any and all complexity to the film’s structure is to illuminate, inform, and give the story an epic, multi-era feel. With the framing device of the senate hearing, we feel we are breathing an historical document that outlines what might yet prove to be humankind’s biggest folly, and we feel the chill that courses through Oppenheimer as he considers his life’s work. Quite simply, 2023 has woken up, with a terrific Mission: Impossible entry and Barbie film that exceeded all expectations. When the end of year baubles are handed out, however, at the head of the class we can confidently predict will be this extraordinary work, a work that could only have been commissioned for a filmmaker with this degree of credit in the bank. Magnificent.
Oppenheimer is out now in cinemas.