I’ll admit I had my doubts when I first heard that director Christopher Nolan was planning to make a movie about it J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who led the research effort to develop the first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. This is one of the most well-documented periods of 20-year American history, after all, and there have already been many books, films, and TV series about the race for the bomb, of varying quality. (As always, let me shout it out ManhattanA hilarious comedy series that was sadly canceled after two seasons.) How will Nolan claim this well-trodden material as his own?
I don’t have to be angry. Along with Oppenheimer, Nolan has given us a truly unique, tense, unsettling portrait of the enigmatic, complex man who leads the The Manhattan Project and subsequently ran afoul of the “red-baiting” politics of the McCarthy era. Technically it’s a biopic, but it doesn’t play like one. It’s more like Nolan carefully selected the various threads running through Oppenheimer’s life and weaved them into a richly textured tapestry that somehow transcends those raw materials. The result is pure visual poetry.
(Spoilers below, though this is a very good story.)
Nolan’s film is loosely based on his 2005 Pulitzer-winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (which I highly recommend). The trailers understandably focus on the drama surrounding the birth of the atomic bomb leading to the Trinity test, but I hope the film as a whole will follow the arc of the book and include Oppenheimer’s subsequent fall from grace. And so too. In fact, that later, darker part of Oppenheimer’s life provides the lens through which his earlier achievements emerge in Nolan’s film.
There are two basic storylines, and the film shifts back and forth between them; Nolan has never been one to stick to a timetable. “Fission” is shot in color and follows Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) through his early years as a high school student and university professor; his leadership of the Manhattan Project that ended with the Trinity trial; His simultaneous triumph and suffering in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the eventual loss of his security clearance thanks in large part to his early communist connections and his opposition to the development of a hydrogen bomb.
“Fusion” is shot in IMAX black-and-white analog photography and follows the 1959 Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who—as the film gradually reveals—played a key role in withdrawing Oppenheimer’s security clearance five years ago, angering many in the physics community. The black mark against Oppenheimer’s name isn’t fully erased until December 2022—around the time of the first trailer for Oppenheimer appear
Nolan has assembled an amazing cast. David Krumholtz is almost unrecognizable as II Rabi, and Benny Safdie is perfect as Edward Teller, who disagrees with Oppenheimer about the hydrogen bomb and eventually exposes him during the defense hearings. Emily Blunt shines in a small role Kitty Oppenheimer, who is depressed and has an irrevocable relationship with her husband who is a believer, but she is loyal to him. (He actually refused to shake Teller’s hand when Oppenheimer won the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963.) But the film ultimately belongs to Murphy and Downey Jr., both for Oscar-worthy performances. Their antagonism is arguably the heart of the film.
Physics fans should enjoy playing the many physics-based flash cameras. Jack Quaid’s Richard Feynman has few lines but is recognizable because of his bongos—an anachronism, since Feynman didn’t get bongos until later in life, but a profitable anachronism. Hey, there it is Werner Heisenberg (Mathias Schweighöfer), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Leo Szilard (Máté Haumann), Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari), Luis Alvarez (Alex Wolff), Hans Bethe (Gustaf Skarsgård), Vannevar Bush (Matthew Moline), Kenneth Bainbridge (Josh Peck), and the infamous Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham).
Nolan brings an impressive degree of historical accuracy to the film without resorting to counting facts, peppered with oodles of throwaway details and characters as the scenery grows. For example, the truth about whether a young Oppenheimer actually injected cyanide into an apple intended for one of his professors (a future Nobel Prize-winning scientist Patrick Blackett) was hotly debated by historians, but was not designed for the film. I was pleased to see a mention of a paper Oppenheimer wrote with a student while at Berkeley in 1939 predicting black holes—a topic that was largely neglected until the work of John Wheeler in the 1960s. Even his signature cocktail gets a shout-out.
Ms. Oppenheimer, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), commits suicide, and there it is murder conspiracy knowledge that he had killed and committed suicide — something barely hinted at in the film, but still. There was a certain amount of online shock Nudity and sex scenes between Murphy and Pugh, but I think that they were carefully treated and were not remotely gratuitous-especially the swelling post-coital scene where the pair are simply sitting naked, having an intensely intimate conversation.
President Truman called Oppenheimer a “crybaby” (although not his face) when the latter met with him after the war and admitted that he thought he had blood on his hands. It is also true that Oppenheimer showed no public remorse for his role in building a bomb that killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people. (Them exact number is still a matter of debate.) As he said in the film, his thinking is that it would be better to make the first nuclear weapons so scary that no one wants to use them again.
The dialogue during Oppenheimer’s publicly hostile interrogation at the defense hearings is drawn almost verbatim from the staff’s transcripts—delivered to stunning perfection by Nolan’s key actors. One of the strongest scenarios is the testimony (verbatim) of the scientist David Hill (Rami Malek) during Senate Strauss hearing confirmation to be Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce.
Strauss had hoped that Hill, then president of the Federation of American Scientists, would speak in his favor. Instead, Hill declared that “many scientists in this country would like to see Mr. Strauss completely out of Government,” and continued to provide a scathing critique of Strauss, pointing to his arrogance, lack of integrity, and vindictiveness. personal to Oppenheimer in particular. (Nolan transcript finger himself from the Senate records.) Strauss was not confirmed-the first failure of a Ministerial appointment since 1925-and the rejection wanted to end his political life. He was bitter about that for the rest of his life. Some might call it karma.
That said, this is not a documentary, and naturally a few liberties are taken. Most importantly, the powerful final conversation between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), referring to the conversation they had earlier, is completely fictional. Or in front of the actual physics and center, as far as theology, Nolan is much more interested in exploring the questions of power, politics, patriotism, and internal paradoxes of the self. However, the film has a hand in the world of physics and scientists. Case in point: in one scene, Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) questions Oppenheimer about the possible risk of igniting the explosion and destroying the world when they push the detonator button for the Trinity test. “There are places near the river,” Oppie replied. “What do you want from advice alone?” Groves replied, “The river will be fine.”
Those unfamiliar with this period in history may not pick up on all the decorative details, but that shouldn’t stop them from enjoying the film. Ars Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson had quibbles with the sound quality, however, citing “mumbling, background noise obscuring dialogue, and leaving VFX behind the dialogue so the sound overpowers everything else.” That wasn’t the case in the screen I went to (or at least, I didn’t notice). Yet, we have been forewarned, and there it is also criticized about sound mixing for Nolan’s 2020 film, Tenet. Audiophiles, take note.
Locked in a three-hour running time, with several scenes featuring a bunch of white men sitting around talking about physics and defense strategy, Oppenheimer is the opposite of what we usually think of as summer money. Yet Nolan’s skill in storytelling is such that it never seems to drag. Little wonder the audience is flocking to the theaters to watch the film. (Many do it in two versions as well Barbieso “Barbenheimer” simply.) Oppenheimer far exceeded its initial box office predictions and has already grossed $400 million worldwide. It’s my pick for the best movie of 2023 so far, and a worthy addition to the growing list of movies about the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer is now playing in another.