There are very few filmmakers whose films feel like an event as much as Christopher Nolan. A reputation built off the spine of his acclaimed 'Dark Knight' Trilogy, his films are guaranteed to bring audiences back to cinemas regardless of their subject matter, more often than not offering something wholly original. Each necessitates the biggest screen possible for their first viewing, offering a level of spectacle almost unmatched in contemporary cinema. At the same time, his work has been so consistent in terms of style and substance that we have some idea, walking in, what kind of film Nolan is going to give us. We know it will have a pedantic visual style, utilise practical effects on a grand scale, likely preface spectacle over narrative or character, and play with temporal realities in ways that force us to keep up with their Escher-like structure. We know what we're in for.
With his latest blockbuster event 'Oppenheimer', a massive historical biopic on scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his development of the first atomic bomb during the 1940s, Nolan plays an unexpected hand - he knows what our expectations are. He knows what we think he has in store for us. And as any great filmmaker does, he knows how to shatter those expectations. Rather than the sweeping spectacle we expect, he instead delivers his darkest, boldest film, a magnificent tragedy of hubris leading to catastrophe.
The film is structured around two framing devices. In the first, set in 1952, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, 'Sunshine', '28 Days Later') is giving testimony to a small room full of men, interrogating him for reasons that aren't yet clear. In the second, in 1958, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr, 'Zodiac', 'Iron Man' franchise, ex-chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, is being questioned by the U.S. Senate as part of his confirmation to the role of Secretary of Commerce, in particular about his professional relationship with Oppenheimer. Through these two testimonies, we follow Oppenheimer's journey from an awkward post-graduate student studying in pre-war Europe to his appointment as director of the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb as a weapon for the United States during the Second World War. In the process of creating the greatest weapon the world has ever seen, Oppenheimer finds himself stepping into the muddy waters of international politics as the world moves from the fight against fascism and into the Cold War, a war built upon the foundations of what Oppenheimer and his colleagues have accomplished.
Over the course of his career, Nolan has developed a singular aptitude for scale and spectacle, almost all of his films built on a particular action-driven conceit, executed on a vast visual canvas. With 'Oppenheimer', he forgoes all these familiar tricks and forces himself into a new cinematic language, essentially resetting expectations for the kind of filmmaker we think he is. Chaotic, intimate, thunderous and crushing, 'Oppenheimer' is an astonishing assault, somehow providing a gargantuan theatrical experience while pummelling us with endless moral conundrums. This is Nolan at his most complex, his most uncompromising and his most daring, if only because the last thing you expect from the man responsible for some of the most indelible dreamlike images in contemporary cinema is a historical drama the likes of 'JFK' (1991) or 'First Man' (2018).
For the most part, we follow Oppenheimer's story in a loosely linear fashion with occasional deviations, though as the film progresses, those deviations start to fit back together like puzzle pieces. At three hours long, it's an exhausting experience, but an intensely rewarding one - the effort comes from working with the film, not simply what the film forces upon us. Where some of Nolan's other films have felt wantonly confusing, 'Oppenheimer' has a lot of information it needs to impart to us in order for us to arrive at the same conclusion as the film, and as an audience member, you are expected to invest in the characters, invest in the ideas and ultimately to wrestle with the same unfathomable questions the film poses. You do find yourself drowning in its detail at points, but it all comes together beautifully by the end. It also predicates itself on the knowledge that we know the outcome of Oppenheimer's efforts, that the bomb he and his team are constructing will essentially split history apart, and that sense of impending doom, where we are firmly one step ahead of the characters, becomes both its driving force and, when that realisation hits for Oppenheimer, the film's ultimate tragedy.
SWITCH: 'OPPENHEIMER' TRAILER 2
Oppenheimer himself is a superbly complex character, and while Nolan isn't subtle about how important a historical figure he is, he's also not interested in hero-worshipping. Oppenheimer may be a genius, but he's also arrogant, self-centred, dangerously driven and cruelly dismissive. He is as capable of infuriating his colleagues as much as he is able to inspire them, his regard for procedure is flimsy at best, and his relationships with the women in his life, particularly his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt, 'A Quiet Place') and old girlfriend Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, 'Midsommar'), range from transactional to negligent. It would be easy for the film to overlook Oppenheimer's flaws in the face of his achievements, but that would go against the central conceit of the film. At its heart, 'Oppenheimer' functions as a classic Greek tragedy, where the hubris of the central figure leads inevitably to their undoing. To understand how the world broke into pieces, the film needs us to understand the man who handed it the tools for its own destruction.
Nolan also wisely avoids the trap of so many historical biopics, not rooting the film in the event that makes its central figure famous but in a more personal, intimate and damaging narrative. Contrary to what you would expect, 'Oppenheimer' is not just about the creation of the atomic bomb. This event, while central to the whole film, only occupies its second act. What Nolan is more concerned with is how Oppenheimer and the bomb contributed to the eroding of trust between superpowers and the chaotic internal unravelling of the United States following the Second World War and in the nightmare of McCarthyism. Much like David Fincher's 'Mank', 'Oppenheimer' uses its key event to look at how the supposed communist threat became an easy excuse for the U.S. political system to build its arsenal, increase its powers, spy on its citizens and turn them against one another - in this case, with science as both means and scapegoat. Rather than the vastness of space or the dreamscapes of the mind, the drama of 'Oppenheimer' takes place behind closed doors, in labs and lecture halls, offices and courtrooms. Rather than monologues of maniacal villains or sentimental declarations, here conversations are half-finished, loaded with hidden meaning. Words in 'Oppenheimer' are as dangerous as bombs, as apt to blow one's self up as those around them. Every moment is loaded with tension, potential disaster, moral uncertainty. Undercutting this entire film is a palpable sense of tension and dread, much like the Nazis we never see in 'Dunkirk', except here the enemy isn't so clearly defined. Someone could be your friend at one point and executioner at another.
This sense of destabilising and the unknown is reflected in the noticeable shift in Nolan's cinematic language. What cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has achieved in his previous three films with Nolan has been nothing short of extraordinary, but here the IMAX camera is jammed in close, chaotic and intimate, the intricacies of a close-up. Nolan's films have always felt so considered, so minutely planned, but there's an immediacy to 'Oppenheimer', a kinetic drive. It's almost as if you can feel Nolan and Van Hoytema discovering as they go, taking full advantage of the strength of Nolan's screenplay (easily his best so far) as a foundation on which to play. This sense of chaos not only works aesthetically but dramaturgically, giving us insight into the way Oppenheimer views the world around him. Quantum physics is understanding the mechanisms that make the universe work, and this knowledge weighs on his mind, the way he sees these forces at work in the world around him. This isn't anything as silly as John Nash imagining floating numbers in 'A Beautiful Mind'. What Oppenheimer sees is light waves, exploding atoms. What he hears are combustions, eruptions. Violence and chaos, order within disorder, chain reactions, elements in careful balance yet on the edge of destruction. For such an intimate film, it's a shock that 'Oppenheimer' is Nolan's loudest film and his most jarring, led by Jennifer Lame's often lacerating editing and Ludwig Göransson's unnerving score, but this sensorial assault acts like a pulling back of the curtain of what we perceive of the world around us. These flashes are startling, unnerving, unstoppable and illogical, adding to the building tension of the film.
That tension reaches its first breaking point with the central event, the first test of the atomic bomb at Los Almos, New Mexico on the 16th of July 1945. You can feel the whole film moving towards this single point in time, the pivot on which both the film and history rest. You expect it to be the one true moment of Nolanesque spectacle in the film, but again, he subverts expectations. The sequence is astonishing, but more so in its careful restraint. It's as if the universe stops and watches in captivated awe at this small spot in the desert. You feel yourself gripping your seat as the clock counts down, before being held in suspended free fall as the beautiful and the terrible play out in front of you.
This sensorial assault acts like a pulling back of the curtain of what we perceive of the world around us. These flashes are startling, unnerving, unstoppable and illogical, adding to the building tension of the film.
As jaw-dropping as this moment is, it ushers in a third act that is perhaps the most furious and overwhelming in any of Nolan's films. With their work now fully realised, the magnitude of what they have done crashes into Oppenheimer and his team, and as they wrestle with this, the film unveils its two major thematic conceits. The larger and more damning in a contemporary sense is the conflict between science and politics, how the two can present the veneer of collaboration but ultimately the former is dominated by the latter. Oppenheimer and his contemporaries warn of what will likely come from the use of the bomb, not just mass devastation but the launch into an arms race with the Soviet Union leading to mutually assured destruction. Where the first half of the film presents the building of the bomb as a noble effort against fascism, its completion and use reveal the more sinister move of a superpower cementing its dominance, and the concerted campaign to silence any opposition through intimidation, defamation and humiliation. Nolan has almost never commented on contemporary politics in his films. He always seems to be asking more fundamental questions about human nature and imagination. With 'Oppenheimer' though, he asserts a strong and damning political stance, evoking the story of Oppenheimer's professional demise and the weaponisation of his work as a way of speaking to the current climate crisis, the wanton actions of government to ignore the greater risks in the pursuit of power and influence when the scientific community is practically screaming to stop.
On a more personal level, Oppenheimer's arc through the film is the realisation of how the laws of cause and effect that govern physics also apply to his personal actions. 'Oppenheimer' is a film about consequence, how a seemingly innocuous or ill-considered decision can have a devastating impact on ourselves and those around us. This plays at the macro level with the bomb itself, but is also woven right down to his personal relationships, and how the suffering of many he holds dear traces back to his hubris. It is in exploring this theme that Nolan creates some of the boldest and most surreal images of his career. In one sequence, where Oppenheimer informs his team of the bombing of Hiroshima, both the film and its central character come apart at the seams. Nolan plays here with abstraction, with the unsettling addition or subtraction of cinematic elements to capture the internal collapse of Oppenheimer's moral certainty. He evokes Martin Scorsese at his most daring, images akin to the more disturbing in films such as 'Shutter Island', another carefully chaotic film about collapsing certainty. These abstract touches punctuate throughout 'Oppenheimer', adding to the impending doom that makes the film so exhausting and so powerful, but what makes them work is how intricately they are linked to the towering pride of the man himself. They aren't there as garnish but as vital components of the film's language. Just as the abstract flashes of light and sound pull back the curtain on the chaos of the universe, these nightmarish blasts of surrealism and horror pull back the curtain on Oppenheimer's growing realisation of his complicity in the collapse of the modern world.
Central to this is the towering central performance from Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, the kind that defines a career. All the idiosyncrasies that make Murphy an arresting actor come into play here, a nobility and an ugliness that's carefully, minutely crafted. It's a credit to his skill as an artist that we are able to sympathise, admire, pity and judge Oppenheimer all at once, that Murphy is able to hold all these things so expertly in the palm of his hand. The supporting cast is truly absurd, almost every role played by an actor of note and without a single one dropping the ball. This is another way in which 'Oppenheimer' evokes the ghost of 'JFK', the sense of a remarkable team of actors coming together to participate in the event of a great filmmaker recalling an important moment in history. For the countless superb supporting turns in this film, Robert Downey Jr stands out as Strauss. We've been waiting, begging for someone to give Downey Jr a role of the same richness as his pre-MCU days, and Nolan has finally done it. Downey Jnr is asked to dance an intricate dance in the course of this film, particularly in the third act, and his performance of that dance is erudite and sure-footed. It's honestly great to have him back where he belongs.
It must be noted though, for all its triumphs, that 'Oppenheimer' once again falls victim to Nolan's most persistent flaw, that being his handling of his female characters. While both Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt give great performances here (Blunt in particular), their characters still feel underwritten. Jean's story does eventually weave back into the thematic centre of the film, the notion of action and consequence, but it is only Pugh's immense talent that prevents her from being nothing more than narrative function, and barely so. Kitty Oppenheimer proves to be as complicated a character as her husband, and there are disturbing flashes of violence and torment throughout the film (particularly hers and Robert's lack of interest in their own children), but again, it's Blunt doing most of the work here that the screenplay feels ill-equipped to. Nolan just can't seem to see his female characters as anything more than a chess piece to be moved around, a means to achieving an end. There's something to be said for the fact that 'Dunkirk' is Nolan's best film when it is the only one with no female characters, and while there are occasional exceptions (any time Anne Hathaway has appeared in one of his films, for example), for the most part this trend of using female characters as plot function continues here in 'Oppenheimer', disappointingly so. It sticks out more here when everything else about the film is so rich and dense and complex.
As 'Oppenheimer' moves closer and closer to its climax, the film continuing to fracture in aesthetics and structure, you feel its hands gripping tighter round your throat. We come to Nolan's films with the expectations of exhilarating spectacle, but punctuated throughout his career have been moments of darkness, such as 'Memento' or 'The Prestige', where the fetid side of human nature reveals itself and wins out. That darkness becomes thunderous in 'Oppenheimer', inexorably moving towards a final moment that crushes you into the ground with its devastating inevitability and certainty. We stare into the face of the man responsible for breaking the world, looking for answers. Did he know? Was he aware of what was to come? Did he push ahead regardless of the consequences? Did he realise only when it is too late? The cosmic, primal, overwhelming tragedy is that, as we look into his gaunt, haunted eyes, trying to find answers to those questions, we realise he is caught in an endless hell, asking those same questions of himself, horrified by the answers he finds.
'Oppenheimer' is a monumental achievement, a rendering of history in a monolithic fashion. The weight of it presses slowly and slowly upon you with each passing second, revealing the awesome power of the universe and the horrifying scope of human ambition. It ranks as one of Christopher Nolan's finest films, an astonishing demonstration of his continued capacity to experiment and to provoke, to continue to push the boundaries of contemporary blockbuster cinema. There are moments in this film that chilled me to my very core, blasting images into my brain that I'll likely never forget. I suspect this is a film we will be revisiting, debating, deconstructing and comprehending for many, many years to come.