It’s often said that the victors write history. Although the Allies won World War II, who ‘won’ the battle for influence and power within American politics and society in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a more difficult question to untangle. OPPENHEIMER doesn’t necessarily seek to do so, but its shifting chronology charts the personal viewpoints of those involved in these global conflicts.
Chief among those figures is J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the director of the Los Alamos laboratory and Manhattan Project. The film jumps across different periods of his life (progressing linearly but intercut in a typical piece of Nolan time manipulation) from his early studies, through the development of the atomic bomb and its deployment, the decision to strip his security clearance in 1954 at the height of the post-War Red Scare period, to Lewis Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jnr.) confirmation hearings for a US cabinet post in 1959 (where there was a strand of questioning over his role in ‘the Oppenheimer affair’).
The entwined time periods have a slightly disorienting effect as the film establishes itself, whirling at breakneck speed from a young-looking Cillian Murphy, through Oppenheimer’s tenure at Lewis Strauss’s Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, to a somewhat more haggard and aged appearance at the 1954 hearings. However, without the needlessly complex mechanics of TENET to contend with (their first collaboration), Nolan’s second film with editor Jennifer Lame bears more fruit this time. The momentum the film generates due to the chronological cross-cutting becomes relentless, and that runaway feeling is beautifully harmonious with the film’s broader interest in Oppenheimer’s legacy.
“The momentum the film generates due to the chronological cross-cutting becomes relentless, and that runaway feeling is beautifully harmonious with the film’s broader interest in Oppenheimer’s legacy.”
The bomb’s development and the Trinity test are, naturally, the plot’s pivot points. Still, the structure of OPPENHEIMER lends that literal explosive force metaphorically to the lead-up and aftermath of the detonation, conferring the same sense of urgency and impact. The film successfully imbues the postwar period with rising panic (the film’s final moments become a horrifying pit of dread) and the pre-bombing build-up with a horrible sense of inevitability. The chain reaction is not the literal one of a nuclear fission device but the paranoia, fear, and response it unleashed. A more conventional and linear biopic approach covering the time depicted here would probably be described as a ‘slow burn’ and perhaps a film that ‘peters out’, but OPPENHEIMER is neither despite its substantial three-hour runtime. Every scene beats with an urgency no matter the period depicted.
In particular, the decision to also focus segments of the film around Lewis Strauss’ 1959 senate confirmation hearings puts American politics and society squarely in the story’s blast radius. How did America’s individualism as a country contribute to how the bomb’s development and deployment played out? How did a failure to reconcile the celebrated individualism of its citizens against mistrust of non-conformism impact the post-war world? Strauss heralds the Institute for Advanced Study to Oppenheimer as “a haven for independent minds”, and Oppenheimer is feted with celebrity for his individual rhetorical flair and scientific aptitude. Yet, his non-conformism with previous left-wing attitudes, communist associations, and penchant for collective action place a cloud over his proclamations for measures to control nuclear proliferation and opposition to the subsequent development of the hydrogen bomb. The sense of individual exceptionalism – for both the USA and its great minds – hurtles the world to the atomic age and the Cold War. The distrust of non-conformist figures and collective action perpetuates that conflict indefinitely, an escalating positive feedback cycle that many thought could (and maybe still will) bring about Armageddon.
“American politics and society squarely in the story’s blast radius. How did America’s individualism as a country contribute to how the bomb’s development and deployment played out? How did a failure to reconcile the celebrated individualism of its citizens against mistrust of non-conformism impact the post-war world?”
The spectre of the US government apparatus hangs over the response to the atomic bomb’s deployment. Lewis Strauss’s role here comes down to his confirmation hearing in a reasonably minor cabinet role, which shows the global ramifications are viewed by many depicted here through a very insular prism. In this regard, it heightens the impact of this narrow focus that the effect on Japan goes unexamined. To do so would afford a global perspective many of the figures depicted in the film are simply not concerned about, aptly demonstrated by the depiction of US Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who spares Kyoto on account of having honeymooned there. Much is also made of how Oppenheimer’s left-wing leanings make him easier to control for General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who at one point barks, “You have the rights I give to you – no more, no less!”
“The spectre of the US government apparatus hangs over the response to the atomic bomb’s deployment. Lewis Strauss’s role here comes down to his confirmation hearing in a reasonably minor cabinet role, which shows the global ramifications are viewed by many depicted here through a very insular prism.”
Robert Downey Jnr. is the perfect vessel for Strauss, deploying an affable arrogance weaponised to hide that his frame of mind is almost the inversion of Oppenheimer’s. Strauss uses conciliatory charm and fig leaves of cooperation to hide a ruthless individualism and sense of entitlement. In contrast, Oppenheimer’s individual brilliance and personal arrogance undermine a communitarian world outlook and preference for collective action.
The film is not perfect by any means and bears some of the less effective hallmarks of Nolan’s recent work. Alden Ehrenreich’s role degenerates into the most recent example of expository vessels that have recurred in Nolan’s work, his advisor firing out leading questions like ChatGPT prompts, constructing open goals for Downey Jnr. to lay out the plot or character motivations. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s second collaboration fares better than the migraine-inducing TENET score but lacks either the impact of his work elsewhere (especially his work on The Mandalorian or with Ryan Coogler on CREED or BLACK PANTHER) or the emotional clarity of Nolan’s work with Hans Zimmer. However, the insistent drive of the film and the terrifically involving performances – no more so than Cillian Murphy’s – allow the film’s shockwave to hit regardless.
Focusing on personal viewpoints for this globally significant development may seem curiously narrow. Still, OPPENHEIMER achieves what the best biopics often do: using the personal lens to foreground and examine the wider ramifications of events. There are no more significant potential ramifications than the end of the world, and that awful looming mushroom cloud haunts every frame of this tense and emotionally violent portrait.