This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.
If you fire a neutron into a uranium nucleus, you may get a nuclear chain reaction. If you fire good source material at Christopher Nolan, he might not make a good movie, but sometimes he will.
Oppenheimer is one of those occasions in which Nolan’s entanglement with source material produces a properly thrilling movie (don’t worry, I’ll stop the quantum mechanics jokes here). This is Nolan’s best movie since at least The Prestige, or maybe ever. Nolan’s ostentatious epics can misfire, usually if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. With Oppenheimer, he’s put himself in a place that matches his ambitions.
Oppenheimer spends every minute of its runtime striving to be one of the great Hollywood epics of cinematic history. It is meticulously complex and massive, darting across space and time with a precision that Memento only hinted at. Nolan’s assertion in interviews that Oppenheimer’s story is the most dramatic ever told is hard to argue with: if you want to tell an epic story, make a movie about the Manhattan Project. Comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia, consciously invited by the text, are conspicuously earned. This is a movie whose supporting cast includes Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Edward Teller. If Oppenheimer wasn’t a triumph, it could only be a disaster. There’s no room for this movie to be passable or even just “pretty good” — Oppenheimer wants to be mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Miraculously, this works. The storytelling on display is as good as the story earns. Nolan’s studious fixation on American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s excellent biography of Oppenheimer, has paid off. Knowing the story of Oppenheimer’s life inside-out, Nolan fits it neatly into his old favorite mode of a nonlinear puzzle box. The result is as neatly told as The Prestige, with a stomach-churning quality that The Dark Knight only managed in spots.
J. Robert Oppenheimer is of course much more interesting than the nom de guerre “Father of the Atomic Bomb” would indicate. He was a profoundly insecure man, brilliant and rash in equal measure, alarmingly detached and loyal to a fault. Oppenheimer simultaneously celebrated left-wing causes, including Spanish anti-fascists and European Jewish refugees, and built the imperialist atomic bomb that Truman used to murder a quarter-million Japanese people. He served his country and was defeated by antisemitic Red Scare tactics. His contributions to the nuclear storm of the 20th Century were followed by seeming contrition (humble or self-serving, we may never know). One may argue whether any of this matters more than the civilian lives of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and if you know my politics, I’m sure you know my answer). But the evil he contributed to doesn’t make his story any less fascinating. If you’re going to make a movie about an infamous servant of American imperialism, Oppie is the guy to make it about.…