Made for an estimated, fairly astronomical, $180 million, the high-impact biopic has grossed almost one billion dollars globally, at least partially propelled by its unlikely provenance as one-half of the Barbenheimer theatrical dynamic duo. But now that the dust has cleared, discerning spectators are better able to detect creeping critical fallout amid all the ticker-tape praise. How much of Oppenheimer’s figures is a factual biography of legendary U.S. physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer, and how much is sneaky, bio-hazardous radioactive waste dropped on an unsuspecting public?
Oppenheimer: From Book to Screen
To opine that Oppenheimer takes liberties with the massive (800-plus pages) 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin is a little like saying Nolan’s dark, ponderous Batman reboots toe the same line as TV’s spoofy, goofy 1960s Batman series. To start with, Nolan’s non-fiction source is a meticulous, sometimes laborious, molecular-level chronicle of the titanic rise and fall of Oppenheimer, whose brilliant leadership of the U.S. Manhattan Project from 1943 to 1945 led to the development of the first atomic bomb—and with it, the quick, horrific end to the Allied campaign against Japan in World War II.
Nolan, however, characteristically declares war on any and all logical timelines from the opening shot. It’s a film that not only plays fast with the facts but shakes and splinters Oppenheimer’s uber-complicated life and times into thousands of jigsaw-puzzle pieces, jerking the spectator to and fro and across time and place from the 1920s to the 1950s. Postulate last year’s Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once, but set in a physics lab, not a laundromat.
If Oppenheimer was the main man who smashed and weaponized the atom, Nolan mashes Oppenheimer the movie into a galaxy of fissile bits; however kinetic, together their staying power is less than the sum of the parts. He seems to take Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous managerial mantra (Move fast and break things) literally, and like the Facebook mastermind, never stops long enough to pick up—or add up—the pieces.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox
Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Given the barrage of kaleidoscopic images, including nebulous visual fireworks, audiences haven’t time to do much figuring either. What might have been presented as a weighty, deliberate three-hour dramatization of a pivotal scientific, military, and political chapter in 20th-century history (and prelude to the U.S.-USSR Cold War arms race) instead takes flight as a slick, tricked-up, even sensationalized Hollywood biopic. It’s a perpetual motion movie machine, but one that might have been powered by magic mushrooms, not enriched uranium.
Nevertheless, Oppenheimer is a triumph of sorts, though chiefly in the areas of hype, hoopla, and amazingly lucky timing. First in the equation is the name recognition and box-office draw of Nolan, probably the most bankable director of his generation, whose hits have ranged from serious non-fiction like Dunkirk to sci-fi fantasy like Inception. Then there’s the coincidental, but heaven-sent summer 2023 theatrical run in a post-Covid world where a long-suffering public was feverishly desperate to get off the couch. Lastly was its love-at-first-sight, blind-date pairing with the Barbie blockbuster, an X-factor opening weekend alchemy that got multiplied countless times into box-office gold.
Surprisingly, the lack of a major marquee star (like Leonardo DiCaprio or even Christian Bale) in the title role didn’t abort Oppenheimer’s blast-off. To play Oppie, Nolan opted for the Irish actor Cillian Murphy. Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s volatile wife Kitty, Gary Oldman stars as all-American (to a fault) President Harry Truman, and Ken Branaugh plays the pioneering Danish physicist Niels Bohr.
Skeptical critics may well question Nolan’s top-heavy U.K. roster, particularly Murphy, whose main acting modus operandi as Oppie is either a) wide-eyed focus and astonishment, or b) wide-eyed shock and regret. He’s abetted in his impersonation by Nolan’s hyperactive camera, which is nearly a constant close-up, in-your-face companion to the leads, so much so it chews up more scenery than does Robert Downey Jr. Jettisoning his Iron Man superhero armor, Downey dons a tie and goes gray to play Lewis Strauss, a petty, two-faced Wall Street political insider who is a catalyst in blowing up Oppenheimer’s postwar standing as America’s leading scientist-hero.
Fission and Frisson
While Nolan whiplashes the audience back and forth through the years, he’s loathe to label the times or places, treating them as if they were state secrets. The result is a dizzying centrifugal swirl of shots and scenes, some in color, some black-and-white, drawing on Oppenheimer’s heady college days in Europe and his first faculty job at the University of California-Berkeley and on to his date with destiny as director, founder, and philosopher-king of the WWII Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Why the black-and-white? It likely has something to do with Nolan’s film noir framing of the tale, which contrasts Oppie’s bright early decades leading up to the development of the bomb with the shadowy post-war era of the McCarthyist anti-communist witch hunts.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, much had changed in U.S. foreign and domestic politics, and many on the left were persecuted, prosecuted, or simply silenced. Oppenheimer, once the celebrated scientist and renaissance man who helped win the war (while still subject to debate, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs dropped in August 1945 did likely save millions of lives by averting the Allied land invasion of Japan), is stripped of his cherished top-secret security clearance. For many observers and colleagues, Oppenheimer was never the same afterward. He wasn’t exactly a beaten man, but he was effectively muted, defused, and disarmed. He became head of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he would spend the rest of his days in a near-monastic retreat.
Down in Flames
American Prometheus paints a portrait of Oppenheimer as a complicated, contradictory intellectual giant, both ambitious and genteel, shrewd and childishly reckless. Nolan, however, thinks, almost literally, in black and white. Ultimately a neo-Hollywood genre director, he’s always on the hunt for villains, and if he can’t find one or two to blame he will invent them. History reveals that Strauss indeed smuggled in loads of ammunition in the right-wing scheme to take down Oppenheimer, but it’s simplistic and plain wrong to let the other bad actors walk. Among them is the FBI’s autocratic director J. Edgar Hoover, whose G-men began illegally bugging Oppenheimer’s homes and phones in the early 1940s.
There’s also the back-stabbing, malicious physicist Edward Teller, who got cold revenge on his former Los Alamos padrone by testifying Oppie was an unstable security risk—all because he nixed Teller’s pet project to create the “super,” aka H-bomb. There’s even the feckless President Dwight Eisenhower, who did nothing to save Oppenheimer from the humiliating Atomic Energy Commission’s 1954 inquisition ordeal or its damning verdict.
However spotty with the facts, Nolan’s filmic inquiry into the shameful case of J. Robert Oppenheimer really misses the mark when it comes to Oppie’s star-crossed romance with Jean Tatlock who is played by Florence Pugh. Evidently seeing the need to add the sizzle of sex to his film equation, Nolan treats the audience to not one but three gratuitous (and weird) nude scenes.
Hit and Miss Delivery
Historical films necessarily condense, crop, and simplify, but Nolan cuts corners so many times he should be awarded the Ignoble Prize for Ignoring History. It’s not nitpicking to criticize how he turns Albert Einstein into a fatherly Yoda figure for Oppenheimer when in fact the two men weren’t particularly close even though Einstein was in residence at the prestigious New Jersey think tank during Oppenheimer’s tenure.
Their differences stemmed from Einstein’s unbending disbelief in the basic, uncanny tenets of modern quantum mechanics, e.g., that light can be both particle and wave. Nolan dreams up key scenes involving the two of them, one that expands to critical mass in Strauss’ mind as the rationale for his vendetta against Oppenheimer.
If the movie leans on a blitzkrieg of commercial formulaics to lighten up its heavy-duty subject matter, ironically its best moments are when Nolan falls back on old-school textbook filmmaking. While several of the leads fall under Nolan’s command to emote in a blustery, “Look at me, I’m Oscar-positive!” way (Blame Blunt here, with Downey Jr.), Matt Damon has the courage to act admirably at ease instead of acting out. As the brusque Army general who drafts Oppenheimer to assemble and lead the A-bomb dream team, Damon doesn’t quite nail the steely, hard-ass gravitas the role demands, but he deserves a medal for conspicuously cool reserve under fire.
Another exception to Nolan’s showy melodramatics is Oscar winner (Churchill) Gary Oldman. Never known to be camera-shy, Oldman refreshingly underplays his cameo as the folksy, small-minded President Truman, whose victorious handshake welcome to Oppenheimer slowly turns into a virtual slap in the face.
The Trinity Test Scene in Oppenheimer
Audiences may also want to see Oppenheimer for the chilling bravura sequence that culminates in the July 1945 Trinity A-bomb test in the New Mexico desert. Nolan marshals his cast, preps the sets and pyrotechnics, cues the unearthly sights and sounds, and counts down to the blinding mini-apocalypse that changed human history forever. Pondering only the science, theory, and engineering, the product of $2 billion then (around $25 billion today) yet only a few years of round-the-clock work by a team of the best and brightest young Western scientists, the entire endeavor was a magnificent, manifestly diabolical achievement. To date, in nearly 80 years since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki cataclysms, humanity and the planet have been spared the doomsday death and destruction such weapons were born and made to deliver. But for how long?