Christopher Nolan pulls out the stops as only he can to bring to the big screen, in the grandest possible way, the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb who lived to see the devastation and long-term dangers that his weapon of mass destruction unleashed on the world.
Oppenheimer, a cinematic achievement of blinding brilliance, achieves a sublime combination of visual grandeur, technical flair, emotional intimacy and an examination of the limits of human endeavour and ambition. Through all the layers that constitute the film, what peeps out most prominently is the director’s unambiguous acknowledgement of the ethical questions that surround the brilliant American theoretical physicist’s legacy.
At a more superficial level, the film gives the writer-director the scope to orchestrate the elements of space and time in a straightforward but a highly enthralling manner and tap the dramatic potential of the tragic story of a genius who pushed the boundaries of quantum physics only to trigger a dangerous arms race.
The three-hour epic is about a man, quantum physics, and a point in history, but it comes off as a timeless, almost Shakespearean morality tale about an impossible achievement and its horrific consequences. The film crammed with diverse narrative and spatial elements that Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema harness and press into the service of an engrossing story about science, war and political vendetta.
It isn’t, however, only the formal attributes of the film that are impressive. Its thematic depth turns it into an introspection (no matter how wordy) on science, weapons and the horrors of war without actually putting footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and their effects on the screen.
As a scientist who unwittingly armed the human race with a self-destruct button, Oppenheimer, played with unwavering solidity by regular Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy, is presented as a genius who pays as high a price for his deadly invention as he does for his subsequent decision to turn into an advocate for nuclear arms control.
The excitement of scientific research, the upshots by political exigencies and the workings of personal relationships are all woven into the dense but never less than dynamic storyline. Nolan, with the aid of Murphy, turns Oppenheimer into a figure who inspires awe and admiration to begin with. But as a powerful adversary turns against him and seeks to corner him by harping on his pro-left affiliations, the hero turns into a hapless victim of a “kangaroo court.”
Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (a terrific Emily Blunt) and the firebrand Communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh in a memorable cameo) with whom he has an affair are integral parts of the story, as are the friends and rivals who surround the scientist as he works on the bomb in the hope that it would end all wars.
The atomic bomb that Oppenheimer delivers to the US military does bring World War II to an end in the Pacific, but it also starts a public battle that a national hero has to fight to protect his own reputation as well as a moral conflict that is triggered by pangs of guilt.
Parts of Oppenheimer come close to being weighed down by an information overload, but in Nolan’s hand every little piece that goes into the narrative and every single actor, irrespective of the length of the role or the significance of the presence, has considerable weight.
The film alternates between luminous colour and vivid black-and-white as it straddles several decades in the life of the protagonist – from his days as a student in the 1920 to his years as a greying man struggling till the end of his life to live down his controversial legacy.
Nolan’s screenplay splits the story into three broad segments. The centrepiece is the complex and arduous process of the building of the bomb as part of the Manhattan Project at a clandestine laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, headed by Oppenheimer, manned by some of the most exceptional scientists of the era and operated under the military supervision of the curt General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon).
Intercut into the mid-1940s core section of the story are a 1959 confirmation hearing (filmed in black and white) for the elevation to the cabinet of the former chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Admiral Lewis Strauss (a barely recognisable Robert Downey Jr.) and a 1954 security clearance inquiry against Oppenheimer. Both enhance the kinetic energy that courses through the tale.
The rhythm of Jennifer Lame’s editing imparts sustained momentum to the film as it cuts back and forth between the three blocks. The pace never flags. The film plays out like a cross between a richly textured saga of an epochal scientific achievement and an inquisition into decisions and acts that have had a far-reaching impact on the world.
Based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the tell-all 2005 biography by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film borrows freely from the book and crafts a cinematic work that sucks you in instantly and throws up ideas that demand absolute attention. It is a complete cinematic experience that equal parts thought-provoking and thrilling.
Oppenheimer does a staggeringly good job of transporting the audience to another era, but it speaks to our time in a way that is palpable and relevant. It is the sort of film that is as a much a story of an individual and his contentious achievement as of an entire century caught in an endless cycle of war and human suffering.
Oppenheimer is as important a film as any that Nolan has ever made.
Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr.
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