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Christopher Nolan Flexes His Filmmaking Brilliance In ‘Oppenheimer’

Nolan’s excellent handling of all this isn’t just in the visuals as the director, but also in the script as both writer and adapter.


“Oppenheimer” is Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker. He’s already had a long prolific career of excellent films, half of which were instant classics. But “Oppenheimer” really stands out in his canon. It will probably be remembered alongside films like “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Nolan has done something new and truly unique with Oppenheimer, while still maintaining much of his trademark stylistic genius.

Ultimately though the film’s greatest achievement isn’t artistic, but rather how it manages to turn all our myths about the atomic bomb into a coherent narrative around the life of one man. Nolan has made epic films full of action and spectacle. Here he turns the camera inward, on the human soul.

The great Conservative thinker Russell Kirk had quite a few profound thoughts about the bombing of Japan at the end of WWII. But perhaps his most poignant, and most relevant to “Oppenheimer” was this:

“And now a few words concerning power among the nations. It is ours already; and we have done with it what men always have done with pure power: we have employed it abominably.  I do not say that the Nazis or the Japanese militarists would have employed it to better advantage, or that the Communists would use it mercifully; on the contrary, I am certain that, to the best of their ability, they would have striven to accomplish still greater mischief.  But that does not excuse us.  The learning of physical science, and the perfection of technology, instead of being put to the improvement of Reason, have been applied by modern man to achieve mastery over nature and humanity; and that mastery has been brutal. We Americans happened to be first in the race for the acquisition of the tools of mass slaughter, and we used those tools as the Roman used his sword and his catapult against Carthage.”

This paragraph is about as close to a thematic summary of “Oppenheimer” as possible. This film isn’t really about science — it’s about the human capacity for sin. And not just epic sin, like snuffing out thousands of lives in an instant, but the everyday sins of narcissism, ego, and pride.

If Ron Howard, or really any lesser filmmaker than Nolan, had tackled this subject it would probably have been about the challenge of making nuclear weapons possible. A nuts and bolts story where the narrative goes from a problem to a solution. But Nolan isn’t really telling a story about Nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer is about the human propensity for evil, and how destructive our attempts at creativity and so-called progress can be. How knowledge and hubris are eternally linked. The creation of nuclear warfare is an act of utter horror, one that “Oppenheimer” weighs against the evils of the Nazis and the Soviets exactly as Kirk outlines above. It is a sort of Frankenstein story, and we’re keyed into this by the opening words that reference the myth of Prometheus. The film is essentially an adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning non-fiction book American Prometheus by Kai Bird.

But unlike Prometheus, whose work benefits mankind, it’s unclear how the brilliant physicist accomplished anything positive at all. This is the supreme tragedy at the heart of Nolan’s version of this story, which seems to stick mostly to the actual history. The dark truth at the film’s core is that Oppenheimer’s accomplishment isn’t the defeat of the Nazis, but rather the possible destruction of everything else. The scientists he brings on board are all hesitant about being a part of a bomb-building project. What they’re all united on is that the Nazis have to be beaten to the creation of the atomic bomb. But when Hitler is defeated sans nukes what are the scientists supposed to do then? Their moral justification is taken away, leading to moral confusion.

Nolan’s excellent handling of all this isn’t just visually as a director, but in the script as both writer and adapter. The subject matter is so complex, spanning decades of time, and deals with some of life’s biggest questions, yet there is a constant throughline. Nolan’s strength as a writer has always been to cut away anything extraneous to the story he’s trying to tell, and constantly build to a concluding crescendo that takes the audience’s breath away. This mesmerizing technique is apparent in almost all of his films. Before “Oppenheimer,” I would have said “The Dark Knight” was where he did this the best, but now it might be this film. The weight of the end is truly staggering.  

Nolan’s opus isn’t about America, WWII, or even the Cold War. It’s about the nature of humanity, power, and revenge. Some of the ugliest parts of Oppenheimer’s life are laid bare, such as his infidelities. Cillian Murphy plays the lead role with incredible subtlety, never delving too deeply into the complex emotions of this most bizarre person. His face barely changes throughout the three hours and quite literally hundreds of scenes. Yet somehow his performance is keyed in the entire time, giving an anchor to the volatility. There are bizarre moments where Nolan gives us feverish nightmare glimpses into the psyche of the great physicist, unlike anything in his previous films. 

What’s most surprising is that the real framing device of the film is Robert Downey Jr.’s character arc. He portrays Lewis Strauss, a little-known figure in US history outside of his controversial connection to Oppenheimer. In the first half of the 20th century, he had considerable influence but mostly receded into obscurity. Strauss is essentially the villain of this story and Downey plays him with reserved bile. Even when he’s being heroic, via Iron Man, Downey doesn’t seem all that much like a hero so it was logical that he could play this kind of character.

But from the beginning, it doesn’t really feel like Downey. Even while doing a bad British accent as Sherlock Holmes, Downey still has trademark quirks, bizarre Downeyisms that always make him memorable. Somehow in this film, he’s left those things behind. It’s one of his best performances, mostly because of how little he’s doing overtly. His character stands in for the casual evil that elite men enter into when dealing with power. Many scenes are littered throughout the film depicting the narcissistic indifference of great men to their evil deeds.

“Oppenheimer” is in many ways a shadowy conspiracy film, in the tradition of Oliver Stone’s masterpiece “JFK,” something Nolan hasn’t been shy about acknowledging. He gives what can only be seen as an overt acknowledgment to the legacy of that film in particular towards the end.

Nolan has left some of his old tricks by the wayside. Most of the film is furious cutting between men who are talking. This sounds like a recipe for boredom, but the script is so meticulously constructed with forward motion in mind that the viewer barely has a chance to catch their breath. It combines the dark paranoia of “JFK” with the gripping entertainment of “Goodfellas.” Nothing like this has ever been accomplished before. Nolan is flexing every last one of his filmmaking muscles, reaching a new height while still continuing in the same bold and unique style he’s been pioneering for decades. It’s unclear what he would have to do next in order to top this. 

“Oppenheimer” is both entertaining, educational, and artistic. It is difficult to describe what the film is like. It must be actually experienced on the big screen, something Nolan has become one of the supreme champions of. This is a cinematic maelstrom that grips the viewer and throws them around for three hours. Some critics have gone after the third act as being boring, and while it is more subdued than the first two, it really pulls together all the strands into a final dizzying view of the disastrous consequences of power and knowledge.

Like all the best stories it is a film about a particular time that resonates for all time. By delving into the life of arguably the most consequential scientist of the last several centuries Nolan has put a mirror up to the human soul itself and gazed into that dark abyss.

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