Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer starts by evoking complexity – with the ringlets of rain that form as J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, gazes upon them, and then through a series of close-up, abstracted and highly plosive depictions of atomic activity, which periodically interrupt the early stages of the narrative. So violent are these intrusions that they quickly split the screenplay into two halves – Fusion and Fission. Fission, which is shot in colour, follows Oppenheimer’s involvement in the invention of the atomic bomb, and culminates with the Trinity explosion in 1945; Fission, which is shot in black and white, depicts the subsequent hearings against Oppenheimer, and especially the participation of U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Junior. A vast ensemble cast enters the spotlight along the way, including Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, “Oppie’s” wife, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, the military coordinator of the atomic bomb project, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, a friend and associate of Oppenheimer’s, Josh Harnett as Ernest Lawrence, a nuclear physicist and one of Oppenheimer’s early champions, Casey Affleck as Boris Pash, the commander of the Alsos Mission during World War II, Rami Malek as David L. Hill, the nuclear physicist who testified against Strauss, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, one of the foundational contributors to quantum theory, and Benny Safdie as Edward Teller, a critical member of Oppenheimer’s team, and a central architect of the atomic bomb.
As that vast (and by no means exhaustive) list of historical figures might suggest, Oppenheimer is an extraordinarily dense film, even for a running time that exceeds three hours – so dense, in fact, that this never feels like either a traditional biopic or a traditional period piece. Instead, Nolan seems committed to bringing “the new physics” of quantum theory to life, and translating it directly into his own cinematic lexicon, which has always been preoccupied with matters of time and perception. The early parts of the Fission narrative therefore place quantum mechanics alongside visual culture – especially cubism and modernism, along with the broader achievements of “Stravinsky, Freud and Marx.” All these innovations affirm that “the world is pushing in a new direction, reforming,” producing a restlessness that carries over into every mise-en-scene. From the abstract sequences, which attempt to capture light as both particle and wave, to the epic windblown exterior sequences, to the manic speed with which Oppenheimer and Nolan move from one scene to the next, the entire film feels like a line of flight from the physical cosmos as we think that we know it.
As a result, much of Oppenheimer takes place at all the thresholds of uncertainty that occurred in both the buildup to and aftermath of the atomic bomb. There’s a fair amount of discussion of the uncertainty principle itself, while the generational difference between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, played in cameo by Tom Conti, is framed largely in terms of their relative openness to the role that uncertainty plays in the universe. This fixation with uncertainty helps mitigate the opacity of the screenplay, which retains the same informational density as Tenet, but largely channels it into dialogue, making for Nolan’s talkiest and least twisty film to date. So dense and discursive are most scenes that it seems as if Nolan tried to translate as much of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography American Prometheus to the big screen as possible, in what would approach a talking book if Nolan didn’t chop and twist the dialogue so much, although of course this only ends up making it even denser. This is especially the case in the Fusion narrative, whose endless hearings and discussions of security protocol are almost impossible to parse without a broader context – or, indeed, without having read Bird and Sherwin’s biography in its entirety.
This produces a curious visual field, both imposing and empty. Oppenheimer may be Nolan’s most visually strident film, but it’s also his least visually spectacular. At one point, Oppenheimer explains to Kitty that the people, objects and forms around us are primarily composed of empty space bound together by kinetic and tensile modes of attraction. That’s how the film feels too, making it a natural continuation of Tenet, which attempted to envisage a virtual networked world but through its physical infrastructure of vehicles, factories, mass production and mass transit hubs. Oppenheimer is full of scenes in which physical objects, spaces and even people seem to operate as nodes in networks that exceed them – especially the windy mesas of Oppenheimer’s native New Mexico, which start by collecting the gusty restlessness that crests over the “new physics,” and eventually become the site of Los Alamos, the makeshift community constructed to facilitate the experiments that climax with Trinity.
No surprise, then, that the Trinity explosion is also where the brilliance and the limitations of Oppenheimer are thrown into clearest relief. Nolan has always been a poet of immanence, obsessed with evoking images that reach you before you can process them, thereby jettisoning you in an almost unbearable present tense. His fascination with timeplay is largely a way of enhancing these hyper-present images, these spectacles which momentarily displace their own legibility, and which include the tattoos of Memento, the terrorist spectacles of The Dark Knight, the magic displays of The Prestige and basically all of Tenet. Time might be Nolan’s muse, but the immanent moment is his obsession, and the Trinity explosion fills that niche here as an image that literally reaches its audience before they can process its full significance. In fact, the Trinity explosion is the most visceral image in Nolan’s entire body of work, requiring Oppenheimer’s team to apply suncream, put on sunglasses and even lie with their backs to it, and so only watch it second-hand through mirrors. It also arrives at the eyes several seconds before addressing any of the other organs – sound, heat, texture and smell all come a couple of seconds later. Most catastrophically, there is a tiny chance that the bomb will cause atmospheric ignition, and lead to the destruction of the entire world, but Oppenheimer can’t know if this will happen at the moment when the image first reaches him.
The Trinity explosion thus encapsulates another aspect of Nolan’s poetic immanence – an obsession with images whose hyper-present illegibility galvanises the entire globe. September 11 was the ultimate incentive to Nolan’s films in the 00s, which evoke the feelings (and sometimes the actual appearance) of the Twin Towers as they collapsed over global media, although in Oppenheimer he reaches back to an even more potentially destructive image. The catch, however, is that only a few people saw it, and it wasn’t mediated in any sustained way, which brings us to the rub at the heart of the film – that to appreciate the intensity of Nolan’s recreation of the bomb, you probably had to be there. For Oppenheimer marks the point at which Nolan’s fixation on hyper-present images moves beyond the films he uses to capture them, and instead produces a kind of atomic event, immanent to those who were involved in its inception and construction (which was apparently painstakingly faithful to Oppenheimer’s own process) but which lags a little on the big screen. Without being there to witness it in person, film becomes a second-hand compromise, and the Trinity explosion is over as soon as it has begun, with another hour of the Fission narrative to unfold.
In other words, Oppenheimer apotheosises the atomic spectacle that Nolan has been searching for his entire career, but at the expense of the film itself. One of the unusual consequences of this paradox is that the heightened abstractions of molecular activity that periodically intrude into the first part of the story, and which play such a major role in the film’s trailers, die down entirely by the time we arrive at the explosion. That more figurative approach to the bomb is much more evocative in the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, which often seems to have foreshadowed everything Nolan is trying to do here, leaving him with only the second-hand reflection of his own atomic creation to set against David Lynch’s extravagant CGI experimentations. At times, you wonder whether Nolan was considering returning to Hiroshima for the final spectacle, but the film never goes there, and instead settles into a fairly bloviated third act in which the dialogue becomes almost entirely opaque. During these final scenes, in the aftermath of the bomb, Oppenheimer occasionally feels light and sound dissociating around him, but these short sequences don’t ultimately play as different in kind from the depiction of the bomb itself. They’re both spectacle seen at a remove, spectacle that has moved beyond the realm of the film itself, which may have made Oppenheimer the most exhilarating of Nolan’s movies to work on, but one of the most muted to actually watch. All we can do, in the end, is bear witness to Nolan himself bearing witness to the immanence that has haunted him and obsessed him across the entirety of his career – and this, rather than Oppenheimer’s obsession, feels like the real subject of Oppenheimer.