Over a relentless three hours, Oppenheimer impregnates committee meetings and disciplinary hearings with the grammar of high-octane cinema. Temporal jumps, Jennifer Lame’s dynamic edits and Hoyte van Hoytema’s ceaseless cinematography approximate a perpetual-motion machine.
When the camera isn’t tracking and trailing purposefully striding characters, it pans, zooms and racks. Particles, waves and chain reactions routinely dance across the screen. Ludwig Goransson’s swooping score is jollied along by insistent triads and bombastic brass. Even the foreshadowing is loud: “If only I could find a way to combine physics and New Mexico,” the title character wonders, a few scenes before he and his team descend upon Los Alamos to develop and design an atomic bomb.
Cillian Murphy’s charming, enigmatic Oppenheimer is whisked through various timelines and monochrome interludes: meeting Nils Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) at Oxford, his early communist activism at Berkeley, arrogant showdowns with his prospective recruiters Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey jnr) and General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) and the humiliating 1954 hearing that saw the architect of the Manhattan Project lose his security clearance.
Dozens of supporting characters – Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein, Benny Safdie’s Edward Teller, Gary Oldman’s President Truman – are caught in Oppenheimer’s gravitational pull.
Nolan’s screenplay lightly questions its subject as it lionises. The script can’t entirely account for the slippery character’s metamorphosis from the father of the atomic bomb to the peace mongering “crybaby” who is run out of Truman’s office. The most unpleasant incidents from Oppenheimer’s life – his violence towards college classmates; his disdain for the graduate students he taught – are excised entirely. Tellingly, we never see the post-atomic images that Oppenheimer flinches while watching.
Other disparaging details are extenuated or glossed over. Oppenheimer’s intellectual fidgeting – which arguably haunted him on his deathbed more than anything else – is never explored. Nor what Einstein called his autoritdtsdusel, or stupor in the face of authority. Womanising is mentioned, yet one of Oppenheimer’s extramarital conquests is reduced to a glib punchline.
Downey jnr’s Strauss questions Oppenheimer’s post-Hiroshima hand-wringing but Nolan is far too enthralled with Oppenheimer and Murphy’s commanding portrayal to follow suit. Awed onlookers frequently sound as if they are pitching for a book blurb: “You see beyond the world we live in,” goes one remark. “The great salesman of science,” goes another.
Yes, about that.
The film’s representation of science is bafflingly facile, even if the chalkboard squiggles on quantum dynamics and quantum physics in the background are undoubtedly (knowing Nolan’s fastidiousness) accurate. “Light is both a particle and a wave!” Oppenheimer cheerily (and anachronistically) imparts to a student.
It’s equally unfortunate that the women characters are doughily undercooked. It is a blessed relief when Kitty Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) gets a big scene in the closing third, not least, we imagine, for Blunt, who plays Drunk Refrigerator Mom for two hours of the film. Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock is distilled from a real-world intellectual and political influence to Crazy Naked Chick, a glistening pair of breasts that weigh on Oppenheimer’s mind.
One particular explicit scene between the pair – you’ll know which one – uses a device that proves a toe-curling R-rated embarrassment. Nolan, an otherwise virtuoso film-maker, has little aptitude for on-screen bunga bunga and the results are bungle bungle.
Oh well. The filmmaker’s technique generally counterpoints any caveats and script imperfections. The ensemble cast is starry and strong. The segue from the end of the second World War into the cold war is marked by a spectacular explosion sequence. “Brilliance makes up for a lot,” Murphy’s Oppenheimer tells us. It sure does.