In the first of many close-ups of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) in Christopher Nolan’s new film about the physicist, he’s a young student observing raindrops falling in a well. Murphy’s eyes wander tremulously, his perception of the external puddle prompting him to reflect. He’s a troubled student at Cambridge, isolated and homesick, sinking into depression. He’s aware of how any talents he has cultivated as a theorist are undermined by a lack of finesse in the laboratory. After his professor, Patrick Blackett (James D’Arcy), holds Oppenheimer back from seeing the visiting physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) deliver a lecture, the student injects the professor’s apple with cyanide. Oppenheimer attends the lecture and lies comfortably in bed that night, dreaming of both Bohr’s hidden quantum universe of paradox along with the more immediate bucolic comforts of his family ranch in New Mexico, where we see a horse being fed an apple. The image snaps Oppenheimer out of his reverie. He runs to the classroom, where Blackett and Bohr—who’s seized the apple and is about to bite—are in conversation. Oppenheimer grabs the apple from Bohr and throws it in the trash.
The biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (the basis of Nolan’s screenplay) makes mention of the apple episode, though it’s veiled with much uncertainty and secondhand speculation. Nolan mythologizes the incident, making it the basis of the film’s exploration of character and self-knowledge. As he steals away the apple, Oppenheimer offers an excuse to Bohr: “Wormhole!”—a good-golly physics pun, yes, but also a wink at this cause-and-effect framing, asking where the budding physicist may have ended up if he had not taken back the apple versus where he did end up, and the devastation his invention wrought. The apple, memorably framed in vivid close-up as the cyanide drips down the skin, has an Edenic reverberation after all. Innocence is destined to be lost.
This early section chronicling Oppenheimer’s development could be read as a not-too-subtle augur of how the atomic bomb’s creator would be judged for his part in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Japan and for unleashing a weapon with the power to destroy humankind. In one particular close-up, young Oppenheimer’s eyes beam with electric intensity. As he looks toward the camera, the image is eerily suggestive of a mugshot. This close-up happens at a museum, as he stares at a Cubist portrait by Picasso, the shot-reverse-shot hinting at an echo of Oppenheimer’s own fragmentation in the painting. Art delivers the subject from his crisis to an absolving revelation: the artist’s oblique methods and transmutation of reality reveal how the world of limitless paradox and uncertainty isn’t only in the universe “out there,” but also within the mind’s recesses. Around this time we also see Oppenheimer listening to Stravinsky and reading Eliot’s The Waste Land (which, interestingly, was later described by William Carlos Williams as an “atom bomb” dropped on poetry). While not featured in the film, American Prometheus notes how it wasn’t a year and a half of psychotherapy that snapped Oppenheimer out of his depression. It was Proust.
Oppenheimer demonstrates that what could have been and what actually happened are similarly problematic; in both the definitive truth is elusive. While physics and modern art embrace the fragmentation and paradoxes of the universe, the obtuseness of the public record will not. In the face of the civilization-shattering “destroyer of worlds,” how do we justify our lives? This is the question that haunts the film, and is raised explicitly early on, as we meet Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Oppenheimer’s main foil in the film, who readies himself for his 1959 cabinet confirmation hearing. Strauss speaks to an aide (Alden Ehrenreich) about Oppenheimer’s self-indicting testimony five years earlier. Dredging up incidents from both men’s pasts, the hearings of 1954 and 1959 demand that they “justify their lives”—not only to “history,” to be read in congressional documents (or major Hollywood motion pictures), but privately, to themselves. This is what makes Oppenheimer so unique as a historical biopic: it elevates its subject matter to a meditation on what is knowable—about history, about our own choices—and what it means to act responsibly in light of that fact.
Throughout Oppenheimer, we’ll see many more images of Oppenheimer gazing in wonderment, most famously at the terrifying fire of his atomic invention at the Trinity test site. As Oppenheimer stares into the explosion, he recalls a line from the Bhagavad Gita about the Eternal swallowing everything: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds (an alternative translation is “Now I am become Time, swallower of all”). Language is inadequate to describe something so all-encompassing; narrative breaks down. We first hear this quote when Oppenheimer begins his romance with a young communist named Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh. She has him translate the Sanskrit scripture—demanding that he not gloss it but read the words verbatim—in the middle of sex (scholars do have their kinks, after all). The meaning within that passage doesn’t need to be contextualized for us, but it’s later manifested in the hellacious light at Trinity. What we see at Trinity will indeed, to quote the John Donne sonnet after which it was named,1 “break, blow, burn” through all the quotidian habits, trophied accomplishments and window dressing distracting us from the looming dread. The bomb’s shattering sound catches up with the light, and after the being held so long in astonishment, the onlookers are knocked out of suspended awe and back into space-time.
For an audience, to be hurled back into space and time is to say we’ve safely returned to the conventional confines of movie plot. Between moments of chilling contemplation, Nolan’s film moves forward with a feverish briskness, stomping—sometimes clumsily—through the busy history it chronicles. The film has two interlocking narratives: the first, titled “Fission,” is shot in richly hued color and shows the perspective of Oppenheimer himself, in a sometimes experimental, stream-of-consciousness style. The second, “Fusion,” centers on Strauss and is more narratively straightforward, filmed in noirish monochrome. Nolan cuts between Oppenheimer’s journey toward the Trinity detonation and a pair of hearings: his security clearance hearing presided by the Gray Board in 1954, and the U.S. Senate’s confirmation hearing of Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce nominee, Strauss, who engineered Oppenheimer’s 1954 downfall. Because the film is so engrossing, the structure never comes across as a gimmick, instead playing like a natural reflection on themes of cause and effect, the chain reaction of events set in motion filtered through the problems of motive and memory, pointing to the difficulty of adequately assessing an individual and a historical moment. True, with all the film’s density of incident and character, one sometimes wishes that Nolan might slow down and let things breathe, giving his characters less rapid-fire, fact-laden talk, and I can’t help feeling his penchant for rushed scene transitions sometimes does his actors an injustice. But this splintering rapidity also seems to serve a purpose: underscoring the transience of ego in the longue durée of history. We see a murderer’s row of “that guy!” supporting players (Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Tom Conti, Josh Peck, Jason Clarke and so on)—all brilliant and distinguished, worthy of their own probing close-ups, but here merely impressionable faces consumed by the film’s own gravity, like stars sucked up into the darkness of one of Oppenheimer’s hypothesized black holes.
The quickly passing familiar faces ultimately lead us to the problem of historical assessment underlining Robert’s hearing. We can make snap judgments of these figures who will soon be sucked into oblivion, but in the meantime, we get so many faint glimmers of their hidden inner workings, which complicate easy analysis. Think of eccentric Kurt Gödel (James Urbaniak) staring up at Princeton’s trees, his fears of the Nazis as a refugee mentioned in passing; or the scorching visage of Colonel Boris Pash (Casey Affleck), who exudes malevolence as he tries to elicit names of leftist Berkeley faculty from Oppenheimer, though we soon learn his fanatical anti-communism goes back to what happened to his family decades ago in Russia. Or consider President Truman (Gary Oldman), whose rebuke of Oppenheimer’s “crybaby” qualms about dropping the bomb might seem cruel, but the solemn darkness in Oldman’s expression evinces that, in the recesses of private thought, he very much understands his decision’s moral weight. History books and movies can tell us what an individual did or said, and it’s up to later generations to make conjectures about what they really meant. But those interpretations have their limits: when attempting to grasp the mind’s labyrinth, even the most brilliant subject will get lost.
Instead of killing his teacher at Cambridge, Oppenheimer finds intellectual deliverance at Göttingen University, then at last returns to America as emissary of “the new physics.” Before long, World War II begins, and he’s chosen by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to run the program where the atomic bomb will be created and tested. Oppenheimer sees a noble logic in its creation, as the bomb will lead to the ultimate Pax Americana, wherein godlike nuclear power will be so respected by a newly empowered United Nations that it will end all wars. As with some equations Oppenheimer works on, real-world evidence will reveal the limits of his most elegant theories: civilization will be at perpetual standoff, with billions of lives hanging by a thread. Later in the film, when his colleague and hawkish competitor Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) explains that things are much more complicated than Oppenheimer had supposed, he brings up Blackett—Oppenheimer’s would-be victim professor. Blackett, Teller says, had noted that Hiroshima would not be the last act of World War II, but the first act of the new Cold War. In Oppenheimer’s mind we see a snap-cut to Blackett biting into the apple: while our hero found a wormhole out of one grave scenario in the film’s prologue, he’s nevertheless landed in a much more dire and far-reaching one. The atomic bomb may have been inevitable, but either way Oppenheimer seems predestined to bring death.
The new physics postulates that everything is in flux, and Nolan’s Oppenheimer underscores how this applies not only to physical matter but to the certitude of human psychology and historical events, the very things historical tribunals—and historical films—aspire to define. During the 1954 Gray Board hearing, federal prosecutor Roger Robb (Clarke) tries to paint a definitive picture of Oppenheimer, showing that he has questionable associations and beliefs unfit for someone with a high-security position. Robb brings up damning evidence from twenty years earlier, including the Communist Party affiliations of Robert’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and close friend Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall). Of most personal consequence, the proceedings bring up how Oppenheimer left Los Alamos in June 1943 to spend the night with Jean, who was going through a depressive crisis. As this last incident is detailed through transcripts and testimonies, the scene takes an unexpected turn: Oppenheimer is suddenly naked before the panel, and Jean—ten years removed from her suicide—is writhing on top of him. Oppenheimer is exposed not only to public scrutiny but also to Kitty, framed just over his shoulder. After the meeting is adjourned (and the hallucination has passed), Oppenheimer tries explaining to Kitty that he was under oath and what he said was nothing she didn’t already know. But, she fires back, “Today you said it to history.”
Kitty’s remark hits on the film’s conflict of public and private worlds, the linearity of one and the fragmented contradictions of the other. As Oppenheimer cuts back and forth between all these different scenes and settings, its braided storylines make the audience question whether any continuity can be found: Is who we once were who we are now? How do we act in the heat and influence of one time, and then later, in the measured calm of another? Is the would-be murderer Oppenheimer the same as the more abstract murderer who invented the atomic bomb? How ought we feel about him, considering how condescending he is to his brother Frank, how callous a husband he is to Kitty, how absent a father he is to his two children (in almost every scene with the Oppenheimer children we hear them crying), or how disloyal a friend, who—however much pressure he’s under—eventually gives up Chevalier to the feds? How should he—how should we—be judged?
Who then is this multitudinous, paradoxical figure at the film’s center? Oppenheimer shows a forthright commitment to his actions. What’s interesting is how consonant this is with the emphasis on dharma, or sacred duty, in the Bhagavad Gita. In a cosmic vision, the poem’s warrior prince sees Krishna’s manifestation as “destroyer of worlds” and learns he must put aside his moral scruples about the evils of war and instead surrender to the Eternal, committing himself to combat. Oppenheimer’s actions flow with a similar steadfastness, no second-guessing. Despite her rebukes, Oppenheimer will get Jean flowers. He will marry Kitty before her pregnancy begins to show—it’s what one does. He will give up leftist organizing to work on the bomb. He defies clearance because, he feels, he must. He has to visit Jean—a passionate communist—during her psychological crisis. He has to report the attempted espionage, which will lead to Chevalier’s downfall. And to fulfill a new World Peace that he believes the bomb’s power will ensure, he helps select the live targets it will be used on. Contrary to what Kitty says, his resigned demeanor during the hearing is not that of a martyr. It’s that of someone fulfilling an inner mandate.
And yet this sense of duty in Oppenheimer is paradoxical in that he is not ruled by any conviction, the way his peers seem to be. Edward Teller calls him “the sphinx of the atom,” adding, “Nobody knows what you believe. Do you?” He’s also open to being wrong, recognizing the limits of even the most elegant theory in practice. Oppenheimer’s character rhymes with the quantum world he’s unveiled, his movements and decisions like the beams of light in his quantum visions: sharp and brilliant but unruly, uncontainable and infinite.
Compare Oppenheimer to Lewis Strauss. When the film shifts to Strauss’s point of view, we see things in black and white, apposite for a hardline ideologue. Strauss, a “self-made man” who asks that his name be pronounced “Straws” (the grandson of Jewish immigrants, he has refashioned himself a Southern gentleman), is a stuffed shirt for whom public opinion takes precedence over poetry. Through the scrim of Oppenheimer’s literary influences, Strauss embodies Proust’s observation how our “social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people”—or, in the language of the Bhagavad Gita, Strauss is stuck on satisfying his kāma, the ego’s desires. While Oppenheimer surrenders to his panel’s judgment like a Cold War Socrates drinking his hemlock, Strauss is furiously apoplectic, ferocious in his contempt for his rivals when his nomination is declined. When his post goes away, he’s nothing, and might as well be dead.
More than its structure and spectacle, what elevates Oppenheimer as a historical epic is how Murphy and Downey, Jr. inhabit their respective characters. Oppenheimer and Strauss are both said to have done their duty, though their psychological dispositions lead them to do so for very different reasons. Downey, Jr. is perfect as a jittery man of paper skin, defined by superficial accomplishments and high stature, the aspired ends of his public service. While Nolan’s close-ups of Oppenheimer draw us in, the shots of Strauss point outward: when we see him leave the Senate chamber in defeat, he is looking away from us and offering a phony bullshit smile to the press cameras, after which he will be relegated to a historical dumpster (from which only moviedom can resurrect him, some seventy years later). Murphy’s Oppenheimer, by contrast, is absolutely and wholly himself through every gesture and glance, though he understands how our quiddity resists the stamp of certainty. Some critics have reduced Nolan’s J. Robert Oppenheimer to little more than a conflicted conscience, but I think what makes this characterization memorable is its capaciousness. Oppenheimer is a man reconciled to the mystery of what we are as human beings. With his measured directness in movement and a watchfulness so acute that we feel how perception is itself action, Murphy comes to manifest what Oppenheimer told Edward R. Murrow in his 1955 CBS interview: “There aren’t secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they are secret because a man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.”
Since his breakthrough Memento (2000), Christopher Nolan has followed, sometimes with a too-heavy hand, the recurring theme of how we dissociate from the truth of our lives in order to endure (Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception and certainly his three Batman films). With Oppenheimer this idea finds the subject he’s always been reaching for. The settings are dissociated from the outside world, as men in suits draw formulas, experiment, make plans and settle policy in neatly arranged government buildings, some constructed out of thin air like Los Alamos’s Spaghetti Western depot, when thousands of miles away the merciless meat grinder of World War II transpires. We do not see military combat in Europe or the Pacific, nor do we see the Japanese victims at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Nolan’s refusal to show the full fury of nuclear devastation has drawn criticism from critics who believe the victims’ experience must not be overlooked, but by suppressing the images of the carnage, Nolan forces the audience to imagine it, just as Oppenheimer must. During the film’s most haunting sequence, set in a gymnasium where Oppenheimer gives a speech celebrating Japan’s defeat, we experience an unsettling sense of displacement with him. The gymnasium speech begins conventionally, but both vision and sound bend in accordance with a new reality. The walls around have uncertain spatial dimensions, and the crowd’s cheers are unexpectedly swallowed by silence. Oppenheimer’s imagination projects his gadget’s power, with intimations—but, significantly, not lingering graphic representations—of molten skin and a body sunk into an ashen heap. Like the Trinity blast’s explosive sound and palpable force catching up with the holy light, the implications of a nuclear age rap on the door of our imagination. The scene’s discordant formal grammar expresses a jarring fragmentation akin to what Oppenheimer experienced with modern art. But the sequence—with overbearing visual and aural stimuli—hurls us out of art’s safe confines; the reliable cause-effect physics of Nolan’s narrative is broken open. (That Nolan’s daughter plays a molten burn victim we see in a fast close-up suggests a fourth wall breaking down, much like the walls behind Oppenheimer at the podium.) For all the time jumps up to this point, there was still a basic coherence to the story. Now time is out of joint, and the veil of space is cracked. After Trinity, we are in a frightening new world, with a new consciousness that we fight to repress. The unfathomable quality of the weapon—its danger and awesome power—extends to the workings of our own minds, what Proust called the “abyss of uncertainty.”
As both Oppenheimer and Strauss try—and fail—to justify their lives, the bomb’s malignant presence—despite the intensity of that deafening blast—is almost forgotten. The film gives us the catharsis of ostensible victory, with Strauss defamed in 1959, and Oppenheimer eventually redeemed, celebrated with honors by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963. But the mind catches up with the dissociations of melodrama. We’re given one last close-up of Oppenheimer, again staring down at ripples on water that in his mind become expanding circles of fire on a helpless earth. The clamor of civilizations is drowned by fire and fallout. Everything—our loved ones and our rivals, petty politics and the flux of the discourse, the self-fashioned vanities of a world all too online, and the cultural banquets of a phenomenon like “Barbenheimer”—falls silent. Like Oppenheimer and the Picasso, the audience looks into this last close-up as another mirror, where we are drawn with centripetal force to our own horrific imaginings.