Oppenheimer is a classic Christopher Nolan movie. Its subject matter is on the grand scale, concerning nothing less than the end of the world. It works on many different levels, telling the story of the rise and fall of one of the 20th century’s most famous scientists. It is visually inventive. It plays with time and does not contain a linear narrative. And, like most Nolan films, it is far too long.
Nolan wrote the screenplay based on a biography of J Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. The book had been offered to various directors and producers, including Sam Mendes (director of American Beauty, Jarhead, and the James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre) before landing on Nolan’s desk. Cillian Murphy was brought on board, and gives a superlative performance as the gaunt, sometimes jolly, and sometimes haunted scientist with a tortured soul. Other stars soon followed. The film was shot partly in IMAX and partly in 65mm widescreen format.
The play with time in Oppenheimer is a little less complex than in some of Nolan’s films, such as Inception (2010) or Tenet (2020). The film begins during Oppenheimer’s 1954 appeal hearing to renew his security clearance in the US atomic programme. Alongside this are the Senate hearings to confirm Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, as Cabinet Minister for Commerce. Initially Strauss had been a friend, but he had become a bitter enemy of Oppenheimer. Most of the film is shot in colour, intended to show the story from Oppenheimer’s perspective. Black-and-white scenes of the Senate hearing are supposed to be more objective, as Oppenheimer was not present.
The spine of the film, told in an extended set of flashbacks is, however, Oppenheimer’s story – starting at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, where he studied as a postgraduate from 1924 to 1926. Here, he hated his tutor, Professor Patrick Blackett (played by James D’Arcy), but first meets the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh). He then progresses through the universities of Leiden and Göttingen, where he meets Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer), the German atomic scientist. Homesick, he returns to the United States in 1927 to take up a position to teach Quantum Mechanics at Berkeley, California. Each of these phases introduces him – and us – to leading physicists of the day.
At Berkeley, his professional standing and reputation grow. He has an affair with Jean Tatlock, a Communist (movingly played by Florence Pugh). It proves a difficult relationship, and Oppenheimer eventually rejects her and her Communist theories, and marries Kitty (a brilliantly determined performance by Emily Blunt), who has also given up Communism but struggles with a drink problem.
When the US joins the war, President Roosevelt is persuaded to support a programme to develop an atom bomb, as it is believed the Germans under Heisenberg are developing such a weapon. The programme is run by the army, and in September 1942 Brigadier Leslie Groves (a superbly bullish performance from Matt Damon) is put in charge. The Manhattan Project, as it becomes, is a vast programme involving 120,000 people.
Groves recruits Oppenheimer as director of the key laboratory where the bomb will be built, knowing that he is ‘a dilettante, a womaniser, and a suspected Communist’. The other leading scientists are required to stay at their jobs. Only Oppenheimer, Groves believes, has the knowledge and drive to run the new laboratory.
Oppenheimer chooses Los Alamos – a remote spot in beautiful and wild New Mexico to which he had retreated many times in his life – to site his new laboratory. Here a new town is quickly built. The central drama of the film takes place at Los Alamos, as a group of scientists including Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), and many others live and argue between themselves in the race to build an atomic bomb before the Nazis.
Father of the bomb
In the spring of 1945, the Germans surrender, and many scientists believe their work can end. But the Japanese are still to be defeated and it is decided to go ahead and test the bomb. The run-up to the first ever atomic-bomb test, known as Trinity, is really the climax of the film. The bomb has to be tested quickly, before the Potsdam Conference ends, so that Truman can tell Stalin of the project.
Much tension is added by the fact that one set of calculations suggests that the bomb might set off an atomic chain-reaction that would be unstoppable and would destroy the world. When Groves asks Oppenheimer what the chances of this are, he is told after some hesitation: ‘Near zero.’ ‘I would have preferred zero,’ replies Groves. But still they go ahead with the test. The moments running up to the trial explosion on 16 July make for a superb piece of intensely dramatic cinema. This sequence alone justifies watching the whole film.
After this, two bombs are taken away by the army for dropping, first over Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Oppenheimer is at first pleased that the bombs ignite successfully and bring the war to an end, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who would doubtless have died in the event of an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
But slowly, as the death toll and the long-term suffering from radiation sickness become clear, Oppenheimer is appalled by what he has created. Time magazine calls him ‘The Father of the Atom Bomb’. At this point, he is reputed to have quoted a verse from the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. He imagines the bright flash of the bomb exploding and visualises those around him suffering from burns and radiation sickness. At one point, Oppenheimer steps into a burned corpse, a sequence inspired by a 1966 sculpture by Colin Self at the Imperial War Museum.The rest of the film deals with Oppenheimer’s post-war career. Lewis Strauss offers him the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. But, after a close friendship, they fall out. Strauss wants to press ahead with a full-on American nuclear programme. Oppenheimer wants to create some sort of international authority to control the spread of nuclear weapons in a futile attempt to prevent a nuclear arms-race. He argues his case to President Truman (Gary Oldman), who dismisses him as a ‘cry baby’.
The film goes on to tell the story of the hounding of Oppenheimer as the ‘Red Scare’ (fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy) takes hold in early 1950s America. His Communist associations are revived to taunt him. And it is revealed that security at Los Alamos was not as perfect as everyone had imagined. A scientist from Britain, Klaus Fuchs (a bit part in the film played by Christopher Denham), had leaked the principles of nuclear fission to the Soviets. As a consequence, the Soviets catch up in record time and produce their own bomb by 1949. Making himself even more unpopular, Oppenheimer opposes Teller’s attempt to develop the hydrogen bomb and a new generation of massively more lethal thermonuclear weapons.
The over-long last part of the film shows Lewis Strauss attempting to oust Oppenheimer from a position of influence in the US by withdrawing his security clearance. Oppenheimer knows this will end his career, and determinedly fights his corner. Some old colleagues, like Groves, affirm his loyalty; others, like Teller, now running the thermonuclear programme, denounce him. Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) suggests what he has unleashed will one day destroy the world.
Oppenheimer is fast-paced and beautifully filmed. At times it is challenging to follow the large ensemble of scientists who argue their way through the Manhattan Project. But it is without doubt a great film. It goes into Oppenheimer’s mind as he imagines planets disappearing into black holes. It shows his horror at the terror he has created following the explosion of the bomb. It deals with big subjects in a powerful way by focusing on the ambitions and fears of a central character who is superbly depicted. And, in the run-up to the Trinity test, it contains one of the outstanding pieces of recent cinema. Don’t miss it.
OPPENHEIMER (2023) Written, directed, and produced by Christopher Nolan. Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. Editing by Jennifer Lame. Starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, and Emily Blunt.