“Oppenheimer” explores one of the most cataclysmic events in human history – the birth of the atomic bomb. This film captivates through its technical brilliance, superb cast, and thematic depth, but loses momentum when it comes to presenting the complexity of its central character and the historical context.
Taking inspiration from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer-winning biography, “American Prometheus,” Christopher Nolan’s three-hour-long biopic follows the dual life of Robert Oppenheimer: his groundbreaking scientific achievements and his leftist leanings, which eventually led to his downfall in the aftermath of the postwar anti-Communist fervor. The film allows us to accompany Oppenheimer, brilliantly portrayed by Cillian Murphy, on his intellectual journey through the European science capitals of the 1920s before he settles back in the US with joint appointments at Caltech and Berkeley.
There, he begins to involve himself in political activities, aligning himself with Communist-affiliated groups. Though not an official Communist Party member, his associations, including his relationship with a Communist medical student named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), draw the watchful eyes of the F.B.I.
Oppenheimer’s life takes a dramatic turn in 1942 when General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) appoints him to lead the Manhattan Project. Despite political suspicions surrounding him, Groves backs him, merging Oppenheimer’s scientific and political lives into an explosive intersection. He proves himself as a master administrator and a science prodigy, but his proximity to known Communists and his pacifist efforts after the war make him a target during the Red Scare, resulting in him losing his security clearance in 1954.
The film, edited meticulously by Jennifer Lame, pieces together Oppenheimer’s life’s chapters—his rise, struggle, fall, and aftermath—constantly drawing parallels between his early leftism, post-war pacifism, and tribulations during the McCarthy era. The scattered chronology, which might seem like a classic Nolan move, actually simplifies “Oppenheimer” rather than complicating it. Events are carefully dissected to fit a larger morality narrative, leaving out contradictory, subtle, or peculiar details.
The core tension of “Oppenheimer” lies between the abstraction of physics and the harsh realities of war, between the academic’s unfettered research and the project manager’s pursuit of tangible objectives. After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the atomic bomb’s development doesn’t cease but accelerates, putting Oppenheimer in a moral quandary that shapes the rest of his life and the film. His involvement in the Manhattan Project irreversibly compromises him, tying him to the creation of an unimaginably destructive weapon while leaving him powerless over its use.
Yet, the film often overlooks Oppenheimer’s character depth, focusing too heavily on making him a symbol of a conflicted conscience. His charisma, ambition, and personal struggles, such as his physical ailments, are barely touched upon. Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer as a haunted, wraithlike figure, further abstracts the protagonist, reducing him to a figure to be analyzed, rather than a human to empathize with.
A distinctive aesthetic choice by Nolan undersells the moral reckoning within the film’s dramatic arc. After the bombing of Hiroshima, a vision of Oppenheimer’s imagined destruction is portrayed. This silent visual representation does not, however, accurately depict the inner conflict within such a mind at a horrific moment. A moment that, dare I say, is also visually lackluster. I don’t fully understand Chistopher Nolan’s reluctance in using CGI (perhaps for budgetary reasons, perhaps a display of his self-importance and overconfidence), however this scene could have used a more meticulous touch, if anything in the make-up department.
In intimate discussions with his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), Oppenheimer is rarely shown expressing his guilt. His only moment of vocalizing regret comes during a meeting with Harry S. Truman after the war, where he admits to feeling like he has blood on his hands. This powerful scene, however, loses its impact due to Nolan’s inability to convey Oppenheimer’s opinion of Truman, the man who ordered the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The ensemble cast delivers power-packed performances that leave a lasting impression. Cillian Murphy shines in the role of the genius Oppenheimer, embodying the collapsing duality of the character. Robert Downey Jr. is compelling in his portrayal of the envious contender, Lewis Strauss, seamlessly shifting between calculated pretenses. Matt Damon’s role as General Leslie Groves resonates with strength and honor, while Florence Pugh impresses with her nuanced performance. And Emily Blunt? She’s a force to be reckoned with, delivering one of the most captivating performances of her career.
While “Oppenheimer” is rich in sentimentality and melodrama, it lacks the level of detail that would truly bring Oppenheimer’s multifaceted life to the screen. The film plays out more like a connect-the-dots version of Oppenheimer’s life, missing the complexities, idiosyncrasies, and outlandish details that actually defined his journey. Christopher Nolan’s execution is mostly literal, focusing on efficiently delivering dialogue, lacking the signature visual magic and chronological complexities typically found in his works.
“Oppenheimer” covers an important historical figure and significant era, but it sacrifices its dramatic force to its own perceived importance, perhaps falling victim to its own self-importance.
Oversimplification Tarnishes Historical Canvas
The movie reduces the complex dynamics of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent bombings of Japan to a linear narrative. The movie also underrepresents other key elements like the weakened state of Japan prior to the bombings and the Soviet Union’s role in the surrender.
“Oppenheimer” prompts critical thinking about our past and our understanding of history, but it could have benefitted from a more nuanced portrayal of the complex life and personality of J. Robert Oppenheimer. As it stands, the audience is left with an entertaining yet somewhat simplified history lesson that lacks the complexity and richness that a figure like Oppenheimer truly deserves.