About a minute into Oppenheimer, it becomes obvious why Christopher Nolan wanted to tackle the project. His subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” was a theoretical physicist, a man who obsessed over the building blocks of the universe. He flings crystal goblets into corners to observe how they shatter and flirts by telling women the scientific reasons his own matter won’t just pass through theirs. He dreams of particles and stars and fire; he becomes transfixed by water smacking the surface of puddles.
Nolan, too, seems engaged in a long-running investigation of theoretical physics. He intuits some link between the cold material fabric of the universe — things like time, space, matter, death, eternity — and the more metaphysical meanings of human existence: love, identity, memory, and grief. Often, he weaves together emotion and science, then pulls some threads from ancient myth through the fabric to remind us these are eternal questions. From Memento to Inception, Interstellar to Dunkirk, The Prestige to Tenet, Nolan’s movies use the science-y tools of cinema (images, sound, time, chemicals on celluloid) to confront the tangible with the intangible. The man’s brain is a marvel.
In Oppenheimer, he focuses his lens on power — the kind that split atoms produce, the kind that countries wield, the kind that men crave. Though based on American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s exhaustive, enthralling biography of Oppenheimer, Nolan’s Oppenheimer barely qualifies as a biopic, at least not the thudding Hollywood variety. Instead it’s a movie — a masterful one, among his best — investigating the nature of power: how it is created, how it is kept in balance, and how it leads people into murky quandaries that refuse simplistic answers.
Nolan loves to mess with timelines (this is a man who started his career telling a story backward), and in Oppenheimer there are a few. Along one timeline — in color, with opening text reading “Fission” — runs the story of Oppenheimer (an incredible Cillian Murphy), spanning his youthful forays into theoretical physics at European universities, through his years at Berkeley, his dabblings in left-wing politics, his affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and eventual marriage to Kitty (Emily Blunt), and his appointment by Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to run the ultra-secretive Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Through timeline jumps, we start to fill out a picture of what would happen to him after — in particular, an older Oppenheimer being investigated by a government commission regarding his ties to communists.
There’s a gorgeous poetry to the way Nolan uses IMAX, particularly when evoking Oppenheimer’s interior landscape. Like Dunkirk (and Tenet, if you were lucky enough to see it in a theater), Oppenheimer will likely be fully satisfying if you can’t see it in IMAX. But if you can, it’s worth it. Nolan shot on IMAX film cameras, and tends to use that footage in the early parts of the movie whenever he wants to give the sense of the expansiveness Oppenheimer himself is feeling as he encounters new cities, new landscapes, new thoughts, and new insights.
Meanwhile, in a second track, we’re witnessing — for reasons that don’t become obvious for a while — an agitated Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who is trying to get approved by the Senate as commerce secretary and isn’t quite sure why he’s meeting with resistance. This section is in black and white, and labeled “Fusion.”
Those labels are worth keeping in mind, because when at Los Alamos the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) describes his idea for a hydrogen bomb — and someone later describes it as not a weapon of mass destruction, but a weapon of mass genocide — we suddenly learn the difference between fission and fusion. Fission, which splits the nucleus of an atom into two lighter nuclei, unleashes enormous power, capable of leveling Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But fusion, which combines two light nuclei into one, unleashes far more energy and can level, in a sense, the world.
In that sense, you can start to read Oppenheimer as Nolan’s idea of the embodiment of power-as-fission. Oppenheimer is a man who delights in paradoxes; at his first encounter with a bewildered Berkeley pupil, he demands to know how light can be both a wave and a particle, and then proceeds, with gusto, to explain. Yet he lives a life of internal division, at war with his own ideals, believing both that the Americans ought to develop a monstrous weapon of death in order to save lives, and that those weapons probably ought not to be used. The internal distress is so acute at times that the world around him begins to vibrate, his incredible mind splitting itself. Later in life, Oppenheimer’s fortunes would rise and fall; he’d be accused of being a communist, be reviled, then respected and rewarded. Without at all valorizing him — this is not a guy you want to be — Oppenheimer suggests that part of its subject’s power came from his refusal to just collapse in on himself from contradiction. The movie hasn’t entirely figured him out, and history hasn’t either, but there’s no doubt he’s a figure of towering importance.
And then there is Strauss, a man who sees power as a grubbing game, a process of gathering everything into oneself. Strauss would support the development of the H-bomb, brushing off the casualties. He’s obsessed with what others are saying about him, obsessed with ego. He would engineer a world in which power could accrue toward his country and thus, presumably, toward him. Such power might be even more destructive, but it also minimizes him.
Do not forget, Oppenheimer repeatedly reminds us: Both of these sorts of power have a small chance of igniting the atmosphere and destroying the entire world.
This is where the movie gets uncomfortable. A movie like Oppenheimer is never just a retelling of someone’s life, especially not someone whose story is, admittedly, fairly well documented. Great storytellers know how to harness the elements of their craft to find the story inside the story, and this one is about the fearsomeness of power across time and space, the apocalyptic nature of it, tied to the expansion or depletion of the soul.
You can see this in the repetition of the line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” which Oppenheimer reportedly quoted after the test bomb, nicknamed Trinity, successfully detonated in the desert and showed the scientists and politicians what it was capable of. The line, at least for Oppenheimer, is an acknowledgment that with this terrible thing comes the ability to literally destroy humankind. Something has been unleashed that cannot be shoved back into the bottle. Whether or not it ought to have been is irrelevant; this is a point of no return for humanity.
Curiously, this quotation should be balanced out with one from the 16th-century metaphysical poet John Donne, whose (pretty scandalous) poem “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” which Oppenheimer would have learned from Tatlock, a Donne aficionado, reportedly inspired him to name the bomb test “Trinity.” (“Three-person’d God” is a reference to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; you can hear Oppenheimer whisper the line under his breath in the movie.) The full poem is a plea from the poet for God to “bend / [His] force to break, blow, burn, and make me anew”; near the end, in fairly explicit terms, the poet asks God to take him captive in order to set him free, to “ravish” him in order to make him “chaste.” Oppenheimer’s attraction to Donne’s poem is a bit opaque until you realize it’s a litany of contradiction — of, you might say, internal fission. The poem implies real power comes from dwelling in paradox.
This is why, in the end, the bomb is not the climax, or the point, of Oppenheimer. The bomb wasn’t even the point of the bomb. For the country that built and wielded it, the point of the bomb was power: the ability to hang on to it, to unleash it, to show that might makes right. The scientists who built the bomb — and their colleagues in other countries, pursuing the same goal — were given power as long as they fell in line with the powerful. When they started to question it all, they were swept aside.
All this raises questions about patriotism and politicking, but in the end, Oppenheimer suggests these petty, bickering matters of individual civilizations pale in importance beside the greatest, epochal questions. If we humans are capable of creating a gadget that can end us all, do we deserve to keep on existing? What does love, loyalty, friendship, or betrayal amount to in the face of total destruction? If you make the bomb, can you keep the end of the world at bay? When you drop the pebble in the waters, can you stop the ripples?
Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21.