“They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it. Theory will take you only so far.”J. Robert Oppenheimer
Based on the book American Prometheus, Christopher Nolan has crafted a Charlie Kaufman-esque biopic that is as much about the concept of political myth-making as it is about Oppenheimer himself, a brilliant physicist whose self-importance was matched only by his actual importance to the war effort in the 1940s. After years of supporting roles, Cillian Murphy finally takes centre stage in a Nolan production and his powerful portrayal of the conflicted scientist is multifaceted and captivating. Nolan presents him as a man who saw beyond the world at a time when it was pivoting, quantum physicists around the globe seemingly drawn to one another by their ideas as they replaced the old guard. This is also an unusual use of the IMAX format, filled with close-ups showing incredibly expressive facial detail rather than grandiose imagery. As is often the case with Nolan, the social aspects are the least convincing: Florence Pugh in particular is ill-used, with Oppenheimer’s popularised quotation from the Bhagavad Gita unnecessarily tied to a sex scene. Although the Manhattan Project provides the meat of the film, Oppenheimer uses a framing device of two committee hearings after the war that sought to discredit him for his communist connections and opposition to the arms race. These provide layers of nuance to the character study, the stark black and white providing an external viewpoint whilst colour presents Oppenheimer’s subjective perspective. This structure is not an unreserved success, leading to repetition and bloat — at first it seems the framing is being used to allow the film to culminate with the Trinity nuclear test; in fact there is a full hour of political machination which follows. The Trinity test itself is perfect for Nolan’s cinematic vision, eking out tension despite our knowledge of its success, and using the medium to transport us to this defining moment — a blinding light and fiery conflagration in silence as time seems to hang before sound rushes in with the shockwave. Oppenheimer casts doubt on US propaganda about the necessity of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, though it is disappointingly indirect. However the far more direct use of haunting imagery intrusively plaguing Oppenheimer is effective in communicating his disturbance by the destructive power he helped to unleash, ultimately wishing to be remembered for the invention but not its use.