The Big Bang Theory

Oppenheimer (2023)

image: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist. To learn more, visit the WGA strike hub and the SAG-AFTRA strike site.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer
, like its namesake J. Robert Oppenheimer, is a noble failure. I felt that walking out of the theater, and then spent days agonizing, going back and forth, wondering if it was perhaps a masterpiece or one of the worst Nolan films I’ve seen. It didn’t move me in my initial viewing, but I continued to revisit it in my mind’s eye, wondering if it worked on me or if it was merely evocative—and to what degree “evocativeness” was a measure of quality.

I have long felt like I am the only moviegoer who understands Christopher Nolan, not because of any tenuous connection between our psyches (though wouldn’t that be cool), but rather due to a stalwart obligation and compassion for him. The filmmakers who broke big on the cusp of the millennium—consider Wes Anderson in this mix—fall in and out of trend. We love them! Boo, we hate them! We love them, but they are flawed! This tedious ebb and flow does not appeal to me. I have always liked Nolan, and for as long as I’ve been watching his films—more than twenty years!—I have enjoyed them. Sometimes it is just easier to move through the world in this way.

But enough about me: Oppenheimer is about Oppenheimer (a classically great Cillian Murphy), the father of the atomic bomb, a svelte quantum physicist with a penchant for leftist politics, Marxist women, and being aloof. So: a Bushwick type, kind of. He is a genius and haunted by it; he will soon be haunted by the eternal ramifications of his actions, but for the early years of his life, Oppenheimer is kept up at night by physics. He thinks of nothing but glass shattering, the stars exploding. A Picasso painting—all jumbled—catches his eye. Oppenheimer’s intellectual development would be thrilling (and under Jennifer Lame’s quick-trigger editing, it ought to be), but instead, the first act of Oppenheimer reveals its rote intentions. 

Nolan knows that Oppenheimer is a bigger figure than he’s covered before, a man who understood far more complex concepts than Nolan himself, let alone the average moviegoer. That’s a hefty weight to bear. He mixes up his style a little, semi-regular cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shooting in Malickian close-ups for much of the film. The newer look is a welcome change—it’s always satisfying to see an old dog do a new trick. But Nolan can’t escape his weakest impulses as a screenwriter. The film’s first act gives way to the filmmaker’s laziest impulses: the dreaded exposition dump, streams of overstated words and necessary information. Oppenheimer’s timeline is split in two—fission and fusion—differentiated by color and black and white, its color narrative subjective to Oppenheimer’s experience, and the other one apparently more objective.

Characters emerge and appear in quick succession—Oppenheimer’s rival, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.); Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh); his eventual wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), his way-too-good-looking co-worker Dr. Lawrence (Josh Hartnett––thank you, Christopher), his sort-of rival Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), and his beloved Jewish peer Dr. Rabi (David Krumholtz). There are a few celebrity scientists, so to speak, that even the poorest students will recall: Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh doing a silly voice). These characters flit through Oppenheimer’s life; they motivate his research, they radicalize his politics, they affirm his beliefs. They enter, state their intentions, and move on. They tell Oppenheimer what he is like—a leftist, a womanizer, a Jew—and they perform their function, like the gears behind a clock’s face. It’s not that these performances are bad––they are frequently good, if not great (Krumholtz, especially)—but these early sections play like the worst parts of lazy biopics, characters announcing their names and objectives, moving not like players on a stage, but like the lights up above, programmed to shine on certain subjects and not others. And this writing is only further weakened by Nolan’s notion that scenes only matter if they pay off later. The women are given especially short shrift by Nolan’s ever-incapable rendering of their wholeness: Tatlock is rendered all text, all nude, viewpoints only, and Kitty Oppenheimer is a boozy crier until she’s not. By the time Blunt is cooking for all of ninety seconds towards the end of the film, it’s baffling that she could be rendered so competent, even briefly.

Nolan—so fascinated by the machinations of plots and mystery, of puzzles and problems—struggles to give the film over to the titular Oppenheimer. Few of his movies contend with the notion of personhood: Batman is less a guy we know than an entity; Inception (2010) and Tenet (2020) are concepts—so, too, kind of, is Memento (2000); Interstellar (2014) is a ghost story; Dunkirk (2017) is a location; Insomnia (2002) and Following (1998) are mysteries. We’re left with one: The Prestige (2006), Nolan’s finest work to date—which is technically about two people, as opposed to one, but contains the ideal mix of twisty and silly bubbling over into one of his most haunting endings. (More haunting than Oppenheimer’s? Kidding—unless…) The Prestige, too, reckons with the undoable work of genius: two men trapped in a ruthlessly whimsical prank war, all for a chance at the biggest stage and the final word.

So too is Oppenheimer a kind of prank war, if the prank in question was “nuclear annihilation.” Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, reliably good) shows up at U.C. Berkeley with orders from the United States government that it is time—past time, even—to build a bomb to win the war. Oppenheimer is loosely leftist, and anti-war, in theory, but ambitious enough (and Nolan-protagonist enough) to see the proposed Los Alamos project through to its horrifying completion. The second act of the movie sees Nolan, and Oppenheimer, at their absolute, maybe career, finest, working towards a terrible momentum. Nolan is always at his best when working towards disastrous momentum: a Tesla-powered disappearing machine, an exploding hospital, a giant wave on a far-off planet. It is easy to forget, albeit briefly, what a terrible invention is being built, what all that amassed uranium is for. We’re just having fun in New Mexico! Nolan wants us to remember how Oppenheimer, blind by nearsighted discovery, did not fully understand how his government would use his work against him. 

There have been myriad complaints about Oppenheimer’s third act—which, like its first, is dense with plain-stated language, and set across two government hearings: not-trials but kind of trials. Strauss’s cabinet hearing is tense at times, but otherwise hampered by near-constant scenes of debriefing—led with stirring sincerity by Alden Ehrenreich—and betting way too hard on Rami Malek to deliver this section of the film’s death blow. 

Oppenheimer’s kangaroo court fares better, thanks to the sneering confidence of Jason Clarke and Tony Goldwyn, as well as Oppenheimer’s lawyer (an excellent Macon Blair). These intercut hearings are reminiscent of Sorkin at their best and worst: quippy, sure, but Nolan repeats himself again and again, characters questioning what they are hearing in such a literal way that you’d be remiss to miss any point of what’s being said, that’s how often they say it. Were he to cut all manner of repetition in his dialogue—the confirming and affirming and “so you’re telling me”—we might have a two-hour cut of Oppenheimer. A more brief version of events is beside the point: I am not here to craft the film to my liking. In fact, the belaboring of Oppenheimer’s hearing is as close as we get to punishment, a Sisyphean task for the once-hero of modern science. It is not through these endless hearings that Oppenheimer gains perspective on himself; he rather gains perspective on the people for whom he worked. He was not a genius wunderkind acting alone. He was an employee.

Through the weeds there exists a central question: does Oppenheimer regret what he did? Did the aftershocks of the bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki get as far as Princeton? It feels a bit radical for a mainstream, American release to reckon with America as an unrepentant force of evil, but it doesn’t feel like too big a leap to reckon with Oppenheimer’s self-doubt and ruefulness. The suffocating close-ups on Murphy’s face manifest as grotesque grapplings. The whole film is grotesque, really, and effectively so. For every bit of good—Teller’s slathering of sunblock prior to the bomb test—there is the disastrous—Tatlock’s writhing body atop Oppenheimer’s as he translates Sanskrit (I mean, come on). Oppenheimer would tell us that ratio is physics (probably—I’m just a writer). What is haunting in Oppenheimer was and remains haunting in life: a close-up didn’t have to confirm it.