Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer is a gigantic work in every sense. Filmed in 65mm on Imax cameras, it lasts three hours and condenses the most important years in the life of J Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most important scientists who ever lived, into a compelling, thrilling narrative. It’s one of the great films of our time, truly an epic: see it on the biggest screen you can find.
The film is divided into two parts. The first couple of hours are mostly historical biopic, tracing Oppenheimer’s upward career path as a theoretical physicist, from troubled early years studying in Europe (including an unhappy time at Cambridge where he tried to poison one of his lecturers) to director of the Manhattan Project which culminated with the detonation of the first ever nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert.
The final hour is much more of a political thriller which explores the way post-war politicians in the USA sought to undermine Oppenheimer’s credibility and destroy his reputation, because they were increasingly spooked by the thought that the Soviet Union had nuclear capability because of espionage from within the Manhattan team.
A complex story
Nolan handles this complex story by using his signature flashback technique to show how events connect across the years. Meetings with key figures, and a romantic involvement earlier in the story, turn out to haunt him later.
The film demands concentration but Nolan’s storytelling ability (plus expert editing) ensures you don’t lose track of events. He sets a brisk pace throughout, without getting bogged down in complex scientific discussions or explanations that would lose the audience. Explaining the enormous power of an atomic bomb is presented in accessible language: “Neutrons smash into nuclei, releasing neutrons to smash into other nuclei. Criticality, a point of no return, a massive explosive force. But this time, the chain reaction doesn’t stop.’’ This also effectively emphasises the possible destruction of the planet – for the scientists, a terrifying unknown.
Oppenheimer’s quote from the Hindu epic, Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of Worlds” illustrates this perfectly.
Nolan’s impressive achievement in writing and directing the film would be wasted if the cast were not up to the job. Fortunately they are.
Cillian Murphy is magnetic in the title role and the support he gets from a galaxy of stars, from both sides of the Atlantic, is extraordinary. Matt Damon is perfectly cast as Leslie Groves, the no-nonsense Army general who has the task of assembling the Manhattan team. Robert Downey Jnr is excellent too as the unpleasant Lewis Strauss who never forgives Oppenheimer for what he feels is an insult to him earlier in his career.
Gary Oldman (as Harry S Truman) and Tom Conti (as Einstein) have cameo roles as do Bennie Safdie (Edward Teller) and Kenneth Branagh (Niels Bohr). None feels out of place. Only Florence Pugh (as Jean Tatlock) and Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Katherine don’t get enough in their roles to make the best use of their talents.
But this, without doubt, is Murphy’s film from beginning to end. Nolan had worked with him many times before and had him in mind for the role as the film was being developed. His face (often shot in close up) convinces as someone who faces the enormity of what he is doing and what it will lead to.
It reflects his internal struggles as he grapples with the personalities and egos he had to manage and the outcomes of his work – the human cost for the victims of the bomb and the political cost of the arms race he is sure will follow – he knows he has no choice to avoid: “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon”, he says, “but I know the Nazis can’t.”
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp
And there is also the scientific issue: Murphy’s performance convinced me that in spite of his reservations, Oppenheimer wanted to see it through because he wanted to know whether the theories were right and the bomb would work. This project was his destiny: he did save the world when it was needed, but he changed it irretrievably too.
As the poet Robert Browning put it:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”