Destroyer of Worlds: 8 Ways ‘Oppenheimer’ Is a Cautionary Masterpiece
Jul 21, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Jul 21, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
As debates rage over the rise of artificial intelligence and its impact on the world at large, director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) returns with Oppenheimer, a deep dive into the man whose efforts led to the creation of the atomic bomb.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins, 28 Days Later) is a gifted physicist whose difficulty with math is outpaced by his drive to expand the field of quantum mechanics. With news of both the Nazis and the Soviets pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, Oppenheimer is called upon to ensure that the United States accomplishes it first. Under the watchful eye of Lt. General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon, The Martian, Dogma), Oppenheimer gathers the United States’ top physicists to develop the bomb at a dedicated facility in the New Mexico Desert.
Three years and one billion dollars later, the project is completed, and the United States unleashes its new destructive might on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While rumors fly that the Imperial Army was nearing surrender even before the bombs were dropped, Oppenheimer was praised as a hero for effectively ending World War II.
In the years that follow, Oppenheimer contends with the reality of having helped cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands, in addition to kickstarting the Cold War that saw the United States and Soviet Russia race to develop bigger and more deadly nuclear arsenals.
With his deepest shame promoted as his greatest accomplishment, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” leverages his unwanted fame to push for the strict regulation of atomic weapons, which puts him at odds with members of the U.S. government. With Oppenheimer becoming increasingly vocal, an ambitious politician (Robert Downey, Jr., Chaplin, Avengers Endgame) uses the scientist’s leftist past to discredit and humiliate him.
Ostracized by the very people who once praised him, Oppenheimer will be forced to defend himself by recounting the people and events that brought them to this point.
Oppenheimer is a harrowing, intimate portrait of one of the 20th century’s most contentious figures, drawing inspiration from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The American Prometheus by author Kai Bird. In years past, this sort of film would have framed Oppenheimer’s development of the world’s first weapon of mass destruction as a fight for (so-called) freedom and democracy, and ended with the Japanese bombings. Stripped of jingoism and artificial sentiment, Oppenheimer’s act of scientific hubris is presented as the ultimate parable, and while we’re never actually shown the death and destruction caused, we see the toll it took on the man ultimately responsible.
On an intellectual level, it’s impossible that Oppenheimer the scientist didn’t know what he was building, with Nolan interpreting his determination to see it through as the product of ambition (to prove his theories) and self-delusion (believing that his government masters would use the device for good). When the Trinity test detonation finally occurs, and there are no more puzzles to be solved, only then does Oppenheimer the man acknowledge the full, terrible nature of what he has wrought.
As Oppenheimer, Murphy is flawless, taking the lead role after a career of mostly supporting parts (five of which were under Nolan). He uncannily embodies Oppenheimer beyond the physical resemblance, communicating the man’s near-fanatical desire to move his research from the theoretical realm into the practical, as well as the very real foibles and dalliances that contributed to his political downfall. To his credit, Murphy never overplays the part or stumbles into award-baiting, using little more than his eyes and posture to convey his character’s (often impatient) thoughts.
Misguided dedication to the job and leftist leanings notwithstanding, Oppenheimer’s Achilles heel is his illicit relationship with known communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, Midsommar, Black Widow). While history shows that the two had a three-year affair, it’s somewhat questionable that he read the most famous quote of his beloved Hindu scripture (“I am now Death, the destroyer of worlds”) to her, mid-coitus. Given the verisimilitude that Nolan treats the rest of the film with, it’s a curious inclusion, to say the least. More impactful is the scene where the two are conversing in the nude, representing the trust and solace they found in each other’s company.
In addition to Pugh, Damon, and Downey, Jr., the film features a superb cast of A-listers, some of whom appear for barely a scene or two; granting substance to Oppenheimer’s world, without overpowering the main narrative. Take, for instance, the opening scenes of the inquiry into Oppenheimer’s security credentials, where his wife, Kitty, portrayed by Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow, The Devil Wears Prada), is seated behind him, silently observing the proceedings. While she does have dialogue later in the film, Nolan never draws attention to the fact that he’s got an award-winning actor sitting there, lest it derail the tension.
By far, the one who sticks in the memory is Downey, Jr., clearly relishing his turn as Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission who will stop at nothing to keep Oppenheimer from derailing his political machinations. It is a role that Downey pulls off with relish, and after playing Tony Stark since 2008, it’s great to see him doing something different (let’s not talk about Dr. Dolittle). Dripping with politico sleaze, false promises, and a receding hairline, this is about as far from a charming billionaire playboy philanthropist as he’s ever likely to get.
Everything Christopher Nolan has done before has led us to this, laying out the story in a non-linear format, across multiple time periods, with rapid-fire, naturalistic dialogue to tie everything together. At the same time, the director’s love for cinema is on full display, making full use of the big screen format to take his audience back in time, while immersing them in Hoyte van Hoytema’s (Dunkirk, Ad Astra) stunning visual storytelling.
From the wide, open vistas of the New Mexico desert, to the awe-inspiring Trinity test blast, Nolan has said that no CGI was used in the production of the film. Even the visualizations of the protons and electrons doing their thing were pulled off in-camera, accomplished via practical means. The result is a film that feels accessible and tangible, a far cry from the CGI-heavy blockbusters we’ve been getting as of late. Our screening was held in an IMAX theater, and when that test blast went off, one felt almost too guilty to blink.
If art’s goal is to elicit emotion, then Nolan has succeeded in every conceivable measure – by the end of the 3-hour runtime, Oppenheimer is shown to have survived his trials, emerging on the other side of history as a man who’d unleashed a genie that could never be returned to its bottle. As he silently contemplates a world where the products of his science bring about the end of society, we, the audience, are likewise spent, exhausted, and more than a little bit afraid.
After watching this, you’ll probably need a screening of Barbie to pick yourself back up.
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