Inventive, creative and „engineering” filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Inception) brings us J. Robert Oppenheimer’s jaw dropping story in IMAX. One of the most important figures of the last century, Oppenheimer is in the center stage of Nolan’s ambitious new film. Oppenheimer was in charge of the Los Alamos Laboratory operated by the military under the infamous WWII Manhattan Project. The well-known physicist is also frequently called the „father of the atomic bomb”, his memento is ethically controversial to say the least. The ever so popular British director took the approach of telling his story from the inside out. He focuses both on the mindset and turbulent emotional world of Oppenheimer as well as on his work as a scientist turned politician.
Nolan based his work on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel „The American Prometheus’ ‘ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. He in medias res draws a parallel between Oppenheimer and Prometheus. As it is known, Prometheus is a prominent figure in Greek mythology, the titan in who stole fire and gave it to mankind. He was celebrated by the mortals and was cruelly punished by the gods for his remarkable action. Eventually, Prometheus was chained to a rock, sentenced to eternal torment by Zeus. This is a wonderful analogy for not only Oppenheimer and his troubled life in the aftermath of the first atomic bombings, but for all the scientists and other big thinkers who get tossed and turned in power plays.
First and foremost, Nolan’s latest work is a story of very relatable ethical dilemmas. Zooms in on right and wrong when it comes to relationships, friendships, loyalty, career among others. It is a movie that aims to pose questions, most importantly, I as an audience member started pondering, about what happens with people without a moral compass. How about those making the most influential decisions. Can they silence their inner voice, if they have one?
The key scientists we see, working for years on the atomic bomb, knew there was a possibility to wipe the human species off the planet by the pushing of a button. Yet they did not only push that button, they also made bets on how bad the impact was going to be. The movie’s aspect of how deforming and demoralizing a blindfolded sense of duty can be is particularly intriguing. People deliver on orders without letting morals and emotions interfere at all. I was strongly reminded of Death Is My Trade by Robert Merle where Rudolf Lang, the protagonist, fulfills Natzi orders without a shred of doubt. Once he wakes up, it is too late. Just like it is for the naive genius, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
One of the highlights of the film, the sequence of the Trinity bomb testing is masterfully – and anti self-indulgently – constructed. The testing took place in dramatic conditions in the New Mexican desert shortly before the momentous conference in Potsdam. Right after the successful test, a surreal celebration takes place in the military-science laboratory and within days the new technology is taken out of Oppenheimer and his team’s hands. Pandora’s box is open.
In the aftermath of World War II, Oppenheimer was first put on a pedestal then thrown into security clearance hearings based on fabricated charges. He was accused of disloyalty to the U.S. and spying for the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer was outspoken and straightforward, warning against a global nuclear arms race and fought for higher national security through strict governmental control. He stepped on a number of toes in Washington – including that of Lewis Strauss played brilliantly by the top-notch playful Robert Downey Jr. As Oppenheimer turned into a national spokesman for science in the post-war era, he quickly got caught up in the web of political hyenas.
In 1954, he was stripped of all his position of political influence. This alone did not stop the eager physicist, he was convinced that certain scientific inventions imposed threat to humanity. He kept on giving lectures, worked at Princeton and established the World Academy of Art and Science with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russel and other important scientists of the time. Eventually, „the father of the atomic bomb” was rehabilitated in 1963.
The first third of Nolan’s opus has a strange tempo. It pulsates with danger but with no evenness. Nolan set out to create a Beethoven-esque tour de france piece, no doubt about that. However, besides the tempo, at first choices in editing are off-putting too. Many moments in acting are fractured by small but teeming continuity issues, and scenes beautifully reliant on acting-reacting, are cut abruptly short or told from too many angles. (Think: the scene where the Oppenheimer brothers are camping in the desert.) Later, approximately one third in, the movie starts flowing, finding its own rhythm effortlessly. The wings of the little bird are healed, and it has suddenly grown into being an eagle.
Raindrops draw circles on the surface of a pond, stars’ born just to turn into black holes. From the opening sequence on, the filmmaker establishes: we are taking a peek in the mindset of this complicated man. We are welcomed his visions, impressions and resonances. I have found that approach captivating and unusual – especially for mainstream blockbuster movies. It felt Nolan could have gone even further with boldness and craziness in symbolic imagery. We see how Oppenheimer perceives molecules, forces and reactions in everything that surrounds him, but a notch more of the visualization of that could have been still consumable by the wider public.
Kudos for Nolan for his rigid approach in avoiding CGI as much as possible, and for using an actual explosion for the testing scene. It does look – and probably more importantly feel – very real. He also took the experimental road with colors. Depending on time lines, we switch between black and white and color. He even invented a new letter in the language of cinema along the way. Oppenheimer contains the first ever black and white sequences shot in IMAX. Tipping of the hats, clapping of the hands!
Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), sixth time collaborating with Nolan, carries the movie on his back with generous and meticulously crafted support from the rest of the cast. The supporting cast includes Emily Blunt (Sicario), Matt Damon (The Martian) and Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man). Murphy’s lightning blue eyes and gentle lantern-jaws definitely deserved the 70 mm look. His fragile look was reportedly due to his commitment to adding full-on authenticity to the role. Murphy stuck with a rigorous diet that included declining every dinner invitation his cast members would make. The Irish star is definitely the greatest reason you should see this film, he is one of the most exciting actors of his generation.
It is wonderful to see how Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) brings out the rarely seen emotional side of Oppenheimer. Whenever we see them together, they push and pull each other through difficulties. There is no BS involved in their marriage. Emily Blunt brilliantly nailed the forceful yet loving nature her real-life character had. No doubt, the Oppenheimers must have been a difficult family to have as your next door neighbors.
The only problem the all star cast brings to the project is paradoxically its all star nature. From the tiniest parts to the most significant supporting roles, everyone is an A-list player. From Rami Malek to Kenneth Branagh, from Florence Pugh to Josh Hartnett, you get at least two charismatic, well-known actors per scene. And as the movie progresses, new ones just keep on coming! Sometimes this becomes distracting, almost to the point, it starts pulling the project more to opposite corners than to its focal point. Just the same that often happens to sports teams that sign the biggest players. Thankfully, Murphy’s constant and full presence manages to gently level that out.
On a side note, as a Hungarian, I must say it was wonderful to see the two geniuses, Leo Szilard and Ede Teller, being wonderfully brought to life by Peter Haumann (fellow Hungarian) and Benny Safdie (Licorice Pizza). The world-acclaimed inventor and scientist Szilard was also famous for his petition trying to avert the USA’s use of the atomic bomb against Japan. A faint but heartening example of standing on principles.
As Nolan has claimed before, he does not make documentaries nor definitive statements, he simply wants audiences to be involved in dilemmas of his characters. That is what the greatest achievement of Oppenheimer is. Nolan crafted a drama of high-stakes, paradoxes, dilemmas and our collective responsibility. We make the world a place we want it to be. It is all up to us.
Oppenheimer is now in cinemas.
~ by Dora Endre ~