Clip from the poster for Oppenheimer

Source: Official Website

Visionary vs. Visceral — Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

Teté DePunk (Teresa Carstetter)

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Cinema has become oversaturated with an overused concept of “epic”. Over a decade of superhero franchises, reimaginings of once-beloved now-tired Intellectual Properties, and cynical action flicks shot with the same dark filter and synth soundtrack, a film like Oppenheimer arrived at the box office as a much-anticipated relief.

News of Christopher Nolan’s biopic hit the public imagination like a breath of fresh air. Boasting real sets and effects, Oppenheimer’s production evoked the bygone era of lavish cinematic undertakings of old-school spectacle. With Nolan’s biopic shot in IMAX (some scenes in the especially rare 70 mm ratio), this is one of the few films actually shot on film print.

Devoid of any flashy CGI, edgy archetypes, or snarky dialogue, Oppenheimer returned to a long-neglected art form of psychological study. Of course, there have been, through the past decade, a number of equally cutting psychological films, but the deluge of the action blockbuster stymied any room for these films to really captivate the public imagination as Oppenheimer has.

Where most of the cinematic landscape is awash with countless, forgettable titles, Oppenheimer burst onto the scene with an unprecedented dignity and gravitas. The trailers did not need to boast or “win” its audience over. It was a starkly simplistic declaration shown through shots punctuating the tension.

Thematic Tour-de-Force

With its ominous theme of existential dread and moral crisis, this film proves to be the perfectly timed message. In a world battered by a post-pandemic social and economic depression, the tensions of the global stage have resparked the public’s own dread of political and social unrest, all while being hammered by our own uncertainties of our own existences.

Nolan crafts a unique union of shots, sounds, symbolism, and allegorical imagery to convey, in the heaviest terms, the contradiction of triumph and horror, a wedding of agony and expectation. The film sweeps us in the juggernaut of the mounting powerlessness of the science community against the aims of the government and our modern understanding of war and politics.

The focus of the Red Scare truly punctuates the perils of conviction against political conformity. It shows that power runs in courses of the inevitable, and few have the power, if anyone has the power, to stop the gravitational pull of humanity in the modern century. As history recounts, the consequences of the Red Scare brought the blacklisted a political, social, and often legal, crucifixion.

The intense atmosphere, charged with betrayal, paranoia, and personal vindictiveness is brought to life through Nolan’s uncomfortable close-ups. The shots thrust the viewer into an alarming sense of violating personal space, and in the example of the scenes of Oppenheimer’s agonizingly brutal board examination, Nolan sharply shows the audience of the titular figure being stripped of privacy and dignity.

One shot shows the questioned physicist seated completely naked before a board of hostile prosecutors. It is a jolting symbolism of the examination’s psychological impact.

Another scene shows the crushing weight of the prosecution as the prosecution takes on a persecutory animosity: a deafening roar drowns out Oppenheimer’s voice, symbolizing his defense being silenced, while a blinding white flash, mimicking the flashes of the atomic bomb, all but white out the entire room and the damning figure of the chief prosecutor.

But the themes of regret and betrayal are woven best between the smooth transitions of the black and white scenes of Lewis Strauss’ personal vendetta against Oppenheimer and the softer glow of the physicist’s personal life shown through his friendships and relationships.

Nolan opens the film as he closes it—with a complete realization of the new world of terror Oppenheimer’s actions, through neglecting his own moral convictions, have created.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words 

Nolan seams together a clean procession of imagery, both literal and allegorical. His use of abstract visuals, sparked in split-second interruptions, evoke the sudden breakthroughs of problem-solving and epiphanies.

From the sparks of new concepts, such as the atomic nucleus, to the infinite expansion of the possibilities that nuclear fission could hold, these visuals are more than gimmicky flashes meant to wow the audience. They evoke that deep psychological spark in the mind.

The wide-panning shots are impressive, but it is the intimate close-up, shot uncomfortably close, almost like the audience is inhabiting the POV of the main agents, particularly the conflict of Oppenheimer’s moral agony, counterpointed by Strauss’ own downfall through self-orchestrated character assassination backfiring, that leaves a lasting impression.

The film also encompasses a dual meaning of imagery. One scene that struck me was Oppenheimer’s announcement of the “success” of the bombs deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The small auditorium of the gym at Los Alamos is crowded. A thunderous pounding of the team and all involved reverberates through the crowd. The crowd, this team of scientists and their families confined to the desolation of Los Alamos, risking radiation exposure, hinge on his announcement of their “success”. The pounding hammers into an eerie unison, sounding similar to the sonic boom of a bomb dropping. The shrill scream of a child pierces through the floorboard-shaking applause, the first sign of terror realized.

Before Oppenheimer’s eyes, he sees glimpses of the human destruction of the test’s “success”: a woman’s skin is flayed off her face and body, and few figures are seized by a sobbing hysteria, an unknown product of either rapture or terror. As a dazed Oppenheimer staggers out of the auditorium, he finds his foot caught in the ribcage of a totally carbonized human torso.

As he exits out the door, the crowd’s ecstatic euphoria devolves into a frenzied dance. But as we, through Oppenheimer’s eyes, see their figures through the windows, their movements and shouts resemble flames of a great inferno, or rather a damning echo or visual allegory of the bomb’s victims, all burning in that created inferno. It shows that those who created the bomb and those who suffered the consequence of its use are the same. It shows the shocking commonality of humanity.

Two final images. A scientist and his wife are hunched outside, underneath a covering, sobbing, evoking the terror their own creation has birthed, a parallel to the victims they have affected. One scientist, Teller, is seen puking after a drunken splurge, but his hunched-over figure and drooping lips covered in vomit evoke the horror of acute radiation syndrome many who survived the bombs would experience.

This alone brings a dead gravitas seldom seen. There are war movies, many very graphic of the horrors of modern weapons. There are movies about the horrors of these actions, in explicit detail of radiation burns, incineration and fallout. Oppenheimer removes us from this horror to bring us a new aspect of this terror: the distance of its creators from its effect, but the true fear of knowing clearly of their actions’ consequences.

Fatal Flaw 

Every great work comes with its flaws; Nolan’s Oppenheimer is no exception. Nolan missed a peak opportunity to recreate Oppenheimer’s 1965 NBC interview. The filmmaker could have capitalized on the black-and-white IMAX sequences he so painstakingly created. Instead, sadly, the much-debated quote by the physicist (taken out of context from the above-mentioned interview), pared down to a mistranslated soundbite, was inappropriately tucked in the film’s plotline. A true missed opportunity.

The concept of scientific pluralism, or perhaps (non-political) collectivism through team collaboration, however, shows more through the united efforts of the scientists and workers at Los Alamos during the Trinity Test and construction of the Atomic bomb.

In the now-infamous quote, “I am become Death, it is worth noting that Oppenheimer refers to this term in the plural. He is not, as many mistakenly believe, referring solely to himself, but to the Trinity Test and the “success” of the Atomic bomb themselves. This a collective movement and action, the product of the entire scientific team of Los Alamos. Science is not a solitary venture, but one made of a team, united or not in ideology or even conception/solution.

He refers to the entire project as “We”. While he has led this, it is really an orchestration of many agents, in a dizzying mix of conflict and unison.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”  (J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1965, NBC)

Drawing strength from its stacked cast, each actor brings this recollection into living emotion through the entirety of the film. The figure of Oppenheimer himself is not allowed as a solitary, dominating figure; the figure is woven through the entire cast, making this an ensemble story.

Oppenheimer is not for the faint of heart. While no guns are fired, no punches thrown, no thrilling chase, the film evokes the deepest terror of all: the consequences of actions and decisions that spring from within us.

Oppenheimer is rated R, with a runtime of 180 minutes.

Box Office Showing: Current, with select dates for IMAX theaters.

Teté is an unconventional writer, artist and podcaster, whose passions run gamut from digital design to literature, to Pol-Sci to Cinema. Teté is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief for The Unconventional Courier, a literary journal focused on human nature stories. Currently, Tete is working on Fragments of Identity, a novel set in a reimagined 1920's America, as well as nonfiction works, including the essays, The 40-day Eulogy.