The trouble with Oppenheimer | Opinion

A single burning fragment against a pitch black background.

Like the bomb it builds up to, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer biopic has moments of lasting brilliance – but this film is often tough to like.

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see Oppenheimer. I’d recently watched Richland, Irene Lusztig’s documentary about the American town that helped build the atomic bomb. It’s not a subject you forget in a hurry.

The bombing in 1945 of Nagasaki and Hiroshima is one of history’s contradictions. It’s simultaneously an atrocity and a necessary evil; itself monstrous, and a response to the inhumanities of WWII.

That dichotomy is all the more reason to look back on ourselves, to gaze without flinching. But, in stark contrast to its pre-release hype, it always meant Oppenheimer was never going to be an easy watch.

In fact, Nolan’s film isn’t entirely unflinching either. It doesn’t depict the bomb’s carnage, but filters it through the psychic damage done to protagonist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). In the days and years after the bomb, his world continues to shudder, the sky becomes blinding, people turn to ash.

It’s no surprise a film called Oppenheimer is entirely about the guy. Yet this film depicts the bomb as something that happened to him rather than the people it literally destroyed (including the Americans who helped build it).

Despite that, Oppenheimer’s treatment of the build-up to and fallout from the bomb is largely done well. It doesn’t merely endorse the events of 1945, but offers a more nuanced portrayal of muddied motivations and the moral blind spots we all carry.

In the end, that treatment hints at the impossibility of the alternative. A Hollywood film that dwells on the full force of the bomb – that too on civilians and children – risks chipping away at a carefully maintained wartime legacy of justice and the greater good. Unthinkable.

The trouble with Oppenheimer’s women

Frankly, most films are too long at two hours. Nolan’s Interstellar is almost three but earns every minute of it. When I die, let me go to a picture house that plays Interstellar for all eternity.

Oppenheimer, though, feels bloated at this length, and introduces big ideas it doesn’t always resolve. As a biopic, the film naturally explores events beyond the war but, wouldn’t you know it, J. Robert Oppenheimer courted controversy in just about everything.

While the film is largely about the build-up to and fallout of atomic warfare, the narrative is framed by the dense politics of the 1954 Oppenheimer security hearing. There are hefty accusations of communism and even spying. And boy, are there women.

If Oppenheimer, destroyer of worlds, is tough to like his womanising only adds to the fuel. Frankly, how did he have time?

Still, through it all there’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), a woman who veers between drunken mania and sangfroid dignity. Then there’s soul-mate Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), who is mostly a pair of nipples, then dies. Meanwhile men ponder the universe, stay clothed and “Become Death” – from a safe distance.

Nolan’s biopic nods at Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire and gifted it to humans (and was thus punished for all eternity). It’s a fitting emblem for a story about the race to perfect the ultimate killing machine – and yet parts of it are also surprisingly similar to Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s imagined life of Mozart.

The protagonists of both movies are tortured geniuses, men who can control the magic of the universe but whose abilities are punishment as much as privilege. Both are inveterate womanisers. And both are undone by a scheming “Salieri”, an older man driven to betrayal by jealousy and ego.

A story that could bring us together

Oppenheimer’s overloaded plot and slight female characters disrupt a story which is otherwise entirely immersive. Equally disruptive is the choice to cast almost every character – no matter how fleeting – with a famous face.

Now, I imagine many actors would sell their soul to work with Christopher Nolan, but at some point this stops being cinema and verges on Guess Who? And let’s not dwell on the fact that some cameos are distinctly unsubtle. I don’t blame them; how else do you shine against such a starry backdrop?

Of course, my response to Oppenheimer says more about my tolerance to the peculiarities of war narratives than anything else. And, to be clear, I think it’s a good and even important film; I just don’t think it’s flawless.

But then, perhaps that’s another “Promethean” consequence of being real, or about real things, which stories are when they’re not about spectacle so much as what makes us human. (To an extent. Stories are always curated collections of who to include and leave out; even the absences are informative.)

Worthy or not, Oppenheimer has been over-hyped by audiences craving original stories and spectacle, and boosted by a release date twinned with Barbie.

You know who did the most effective marketing for Oppenheimer? Margot Robbie, who sold two films for the price of one. And who paved the way for ‘Barbenheimer’? Tom Cruise relentlessly jumping out of planes this past year in the name of showmanship and the Mission: Impossible franchise.

So far 2023 promises a return to original, inventive and ambitious cinema storytelling – and Oppenheimer is part of that. It’s beautiful, moving, horrifically memorable and – like all stories – the product of a singular viewpoint. So it’s also divisive and sometimes debatable and yet, if we force ourselves not to look away, perhaps it’s the bomb that could bring us together.

Oppenheimer is screening in cinemas

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Picture credit: ATHULRAJ KV