Christopher Nolan presents an account of Robert Oppenheimer’s career as the “father of the atomic bomb,” and the controversy surrounding him.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American physicist who was assigned to be the head of the Manhattan Project, a team of scientists tasked with developing an atomic bomb during World War II. Once American intelligence knew that German scientists were working on creating such a bomb, it was a race against time for the United States to get there first, given the existential threat posed by Hitler. In 1945, when Germany was defeated, the project continued, and a bomb was successfully detonated in New Mexico. It was used to destroy two Japanese cities that year, ending the Pacific war.
It’s an extremely complex historical subject, as was Oppenheimer’s life, character, and career. To make a good dramatic film out of it would be a daunting prospect. But British director Christopher Nolan is accustomed to being challenged. He likes to do big movies: big budgets, big stories, on big wide screens. And with film, not digital. Fascinated by this “father of the atomic bomb,” he presents us now with his latest epic, Oppenheimer, something different from what he’s done before, a film about important issues and ideas in recent American history.
Cillian Murphy, in the role of a lifetime, plays Robert Oppenheimer, with his fedora and his pipe: a brooding and enigmatic character, a man of contradictions. Nolan, in a gutsy move, uses as his narrative framing device, two hearings: one in the 1940s, after the war, in which Oppenheimer and other witnesses are cross-examined by a military intelligence panel determined to take away Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and a Senate hearing from the 1950s, in black and white, interrogating the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey, Jr., about his relationship with Oppenheimer. I call it gutsy because in what is marketed as a blockbuster, there is a lot of talk in these hearings, a lot of debate, all taken from the actual transcripts, and Nolan respects the audience enough to let them absorb a lot of information in the course of the film.
The flashbacks emerge from the hearings: Oppenheimer at Harvard, and later studying in Germany. His interest in progressive causes in the ‘30s, his donating to help the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. His encounter with Communists during this period, although he never joined the party. And then the center of the narrative: the Manhattan Project itself, with Matt Damon as General Groves, the military supervisor of the effort, and featuring a lot of other significant characters, such as Neils Bohr and Edward Teller. The climax, the detonation at Los Alamos, is stunning.
Oppenheimer had doubts about the morality of using the bomb that haunted him throughout his life. The story Nolan tells is of a scientist who devoted himself to helping his country defeat the most evil regime ever known—Nazi Germany—sacrificing his time, his career, and even his personal judgment for this greater good. But the American establishment, freaked out after the war about the Soviet threat, turned on him and used his past association with Communists to destroy him. Oppenheimer himself is conflicted—we see him making an awkward, bellicose speech after Hiroshima, to please a crowd—but we also see him sharing his feeling of guilt with President Truman (Gary Oldman), who dismisses him with contempt. Despite some missteps, I think this admission of inner uncertainty is what makes Oppenheimer a moving experience. America is still conflicted, and the film isn’t afraid to show this.