5 stars out of 5
Christopher Nolan’s epic opens on a puddle on a sidewalk of Cambridge University. We see rain droplets hitting the surface of the puddle, causing ripples to radiate out in expanding circles. The image dominates the frame of the IMAX film that was used to capture this (and every other scene) in the film. Then, an edit of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) watching the puddle, contemplating the “hidden universe” that he desperately wants, or needs, to understand. Then, an edit of an explosion of the atomic bomb with a text quote of how Prometheus was punished for stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity. This seems to be the heart of the film. A man’s search and desire to grasp further than we have ever grasped. Our desire to change the world. The cold fact that the world changes anyway for better or worse. And ripples. The consequences of our actions that have effects that ripple through our lives and the world. Potentially forever.
The film then shows us Oppenheimer sometime in the future sitting at a table in a small room. The sequence is in color, and text appears over the frame, reading “1. Fission.” Fission, meaning to split up or break into parts. From here, the film is cut into several time periods. One of Oppenheimer in University and then developing the bomb and another of the trial of Oppenheimer trying to renew his security clearance. The final period that is covered is in black and white and is introduced with the text, “2. Fusion.” Fusion, meaning the result or process of bringing multiple parts together. The black and white section is not framed in Oppenheimer’s perspective, but instead from Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.). Nolan made his cinema name by messing with time in the editing room with his film Memento, a film that is told with two time periods--a version in color that is told chronologically backwards with each scene, and a period in black and white told chronologically forwards until both time periods meet at the end of the film. Tenet and Interstellar are focused on time as a major primary theme. But it is Dunkirk to which Oppenheimer feels like a spiritual sequel. Not just because they are both set in World War II, but because both seek to remake the “bio pic” with an editing scheme that keeps from falling into the same predictable patterns that most “bio pics” do.
When Oppenheimer graduates from university, he joins the physics department at the University of California. Here, he attends communist meetings (never becoming a member) and meets Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). They have a relationship, but Jean keeps it distanced despite Oppenheimer wanting something more with her. During intercourse, Jean asks Oppy to translate Sanskrit, and during climax, Oppy gives the line that would become associated with him when he sees the atomic bomb ignited at the trinity test: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The placement of the line is noteworthy. Maybe it shows Oppenheimer is too cavalier. “I heard you’re a womanizer,” General Groves says, finding something fun and sexy in the macabre. Oppenheimer almost kills a professor with an apple full of cyanide--a professor he confesses to liking in this scene. Or maybe it’s to show us how much Tatlock means to Oppenheimer, since the context of the line is of a deity showing their true form to a mortal. We only see Oppenheimer naked and kissing with Tatlock. This is mined to maximum potential when Oppenheimer is on trial and he sees himself nude answering questions about his affair while Tatlock makes love to him and his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) watches.
On a trip to New Mexico, Oppy tells his colleague Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett), “If only I could combine physics and New Mexico, my life would be perfect.” Shortly they get news that the atom has been split, and though Oppy mathematically can prove it’s impossible, Ernest reproduces the event, leading Oppy to say a line that pops up several times: “Theory will only take you so far.” Soon, the military is here to recruit physicists, but Ernest complains to Oppy that they can’t recruit him (Oppenheimer) because of his intellectual curiosities with Communism and his associations. Oppy then vows to stop so he can be involved. The trial on his security clearance renewal is about this fact of his past associations and curiosities, despite the fact they were known then and he was allowed to make the bomb. A known problem okayed, but then years later retroactively descended. Circles. Endlessly repeating.
Circles become a major visual motif. Seen in ripples. In the circles drawn on maps showing atomic bomb blast radii. In the marbles, and the glass sphere they are put in, to represent enriched uranium and the bomb. In the bomb itself, while it’s in construction and finished and being lifted for the trinity test. Balls of fire. The atomic hidden universe from the opening. The edit of the film. We are not in a straight line but future and past, future and past, a circle back and forth. Meeting Jean, and then an edit of her body face first in a tub and a gloved hand near her head. Was she murdered? Is she dead because she knows Oppenheimer?.... Ripples. “You see beyond the world we live in. There is a price to be paid for that,” Chevalier tells Oppenheimer years before the government blacklists Chevalier for being Communist. The film is full of scientists trying to make the world a better place, and it might be misguided by making a weapon that they debate themselves. But the government wants power. Several politicians in the film seek to gain more political influence and use the bomb to do it. The President thinks Oppy is such a crybaby that he never wants to see him again, after Oppy voices concern of an arms race. A prosecutor (a very good Jason Clarke) says Oppy’s moral qualms with making an H-bomb are unpatriotic and potentially treasonous. “Is anyone going to tell the truth about what is happening here?” Oppy asks his attorney. Science being ignored for politics. Moral and intellectual questioning being seen as something dangerous that needs to be prohibited, instead of curiosities that should be allowed to be explored in a free speech country or university, is an incredibly present day topic.
Oppenheimer is the modern epic that has been missing since the epics of the 1950’s. The scale is immense. The sets are real. The film carries a weight to it physically that is often missing in most films today because there is no actual mass to CGI special effects. The actors actually have people to look at and give lines to. The script is smart. The editing and direction are masterful, and it’s all anchored on a subtle tour de force performance by Cillian Murphy. His face blown up in the IMAX 65mm film, and framed beautifully by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also invented, with Kodak, the unique black and white stock for the film. We have seen IMAX before show massive fights and vistas, but the use of this extra big format focused primarily on close ups of Oppenheimer is a revelation. Capturing a true haunted performance by the lead that the audience cannot escape from. Chritopher Nolan has directed a masterpiece. Easily one of the best films of the year. If possible, see it in 65mm film in IMAX.