Science has brought us some of the most significant advancements in our history – from discovering the structure of DNA, electricity, vaccines, to exploring space and the surface of planets. There is not an ounce of our daily lives that the process of science hasn’t touched in some way. While we tend to think of all the positive things it has brought us, we must also consider the negative. Some of these experiments and theories have resulted in the biggest atrocities known to humankind – like weaponry and chemical reactions born out of the ravages of war.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer peers into the “father of the atomic bomb”’s life in a defined period in a way that feels like his own biographical take on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In the story, the character of Victor Frankenstein is tired of conventional theories of alchemists, much like Robert Oppenheimer's (Cillian Murphy) early scientific career is depicted in the film. His pursuits at Cambridge proved unfruitful as he was not as interested in laboratory science. Nolan depicts many of these early scenes with the titular character in bed, saddened, and with many particles exploding.
Oppenheimer would eventually find theoretical science to be his calling, and it’s not so much the grief that threw Victor into his experiments to make the monster – it was World War II and the atrocities happening in Nazi Germany. Oppenheimer, who was of Jewish descent, had an urgency to create something that would stop the mass murders from happening. But as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and Nolan's interest is not to revere the man who created what would be the nuclear bomb, but to study all of his fallacies and complexities.
The film begins with Oppenheimer on trial during the 1950s, when he was accused of being an agent of the Soviet Union. On the other side is Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who held a personal grudge against Oppenheimer over a mocking tone of his idea at a hearing and Oppenheimer’s about-face about the usage of nuclear weapons after World War II.
Within the imperfections of Oppenheimer’s personal life (he was a womanizer and accused of being a communist– which he denied even knowingly being entangled with them). You would think this is a lot to cover and would be hard to tie together. Still, Nolan’s pacing within the three-hour runtime ties everything together in a constructive, curious, and sometimes horrific look at the game of politics and the arms race in the 1940s-1950s. Each of the impressive cast with the likes of Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Emily Blunt, Alden Ehrenreich, and more may feel like it’s overwhelming at times, but they all fit in the weight of this moment in America and world history.
Instead of an actual monster in the sense that we know it, Oppenheimer’s Los Almos experiments launched the world into a never-ending game of oneupmanship to gain an annihilation tool. It’s something Nolan hones in entirely – first, with the many scenes of the construction of the bomb and the aftermath of Oppenheimer’s psyche after it was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki afterward. Nolan’s sense of sound design ranges from a stomping of feet from a raucous crowd to the explosion in the recreation of the Trinity nuclear test overtakes you the way it does the film characters.
The heaviness of these moments is further elevated in how cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema frames his shots and Ludwig Göransson’s score – which might be some of his finest work to date. His music moves into quieter moments to a heightened sense of urgency and despair coupled with what is shown on Murphy’s face. Most of the stars get to shine once they have time to, but the trio of Murphy, Blunt, and Downey Jr. take the baton and run with it. Murphy has command of the late Oppenheimer’s vocal diction, and his furious ambition slowly turns into overwhelming regret written all over his mannerisms. Blunt’s portrayal of Oppenheimer’s wife, Katherine/”Kitty,” exhibits the furiousness, compassion, and understanding of the moment her scientist husband could never exhibit.
Downey Jr. turns one of the best performances of his career as a politician caught in the journey of power, and the allure of being at the forefront of America’s forever need to build its war chest. In Nolan’s Oppenheimer, there are no winners, only survivors. Even then, it would be best if you lived with the ramifications of your actions. While they don’t show the aftermath (and I wish the voices of those impacted by it were referenced), the nuances of the damage, both immediate and future, will stay with you. As one of the final frames of Oppenheimer shows, sometimes science has a prize and a price to pay.
What has come out of this story is a balance of tense courtroom drama, an honest look at one of America’s formulate figures, and the cost of non-stop imperialism that is wrought on escalation rather than agreement. Is it so far-fetched that we can reverse course after witnessing the impact of something and its (maybe intended) ramifications on the world?
Nolan sets Oppenheimer off on a runaway train that he cannot find the brake for, but also depicts American military policy as one which will supply endless tracks for – and even offer to provide a stop on their terms only. It’s a tragedy all around.