Oppenheimer is writer/director Christopher Nolan's twelfth feature film. All twelve of those movies are ambitious as hell. Nine of them are great, and six of them are goddamn masterpieces (Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, Dunkirk, and now Oppenheimer - and depending on what day you ask me, I might even argue for Insomnia). Only two-and-a-half - The Dark Knight Rises, Tenet, and the second hour of Batman Begins - are middling, and even those remain consistently thought-provoking. That's a breathtaking track record amongst contemporary filmmakers, putting Nolan in a class so elite Tom Cruise could make a Top Gun movie about it.
What makes Oppenheimer so great?
Why, I'm so glad you asked!
(Modesty topos: The movie is, frankly, as dense as a neutron star, and I suspect I could spend two years writing about it and not be able to note every detail, explore every nook, and unlock every mystery. This essay was written in under two weeks. My apologies if it barely does Mr. Nolan's work justice.)
1. Capillary Waves
Oppenheimer is a story of ethical and epistemological horrors, a cautionary tale about the chain reactions caused by unconsidered consequences. Nolan signals this theme from the very first shot of the movie: A puddle into which rain gently drizzles, creating ripples (Oppenheimer begins not with a bang, but with a patter). These ripples will recur throughout the film, appearing as potential hydrogen bomb targets on a map; as actual hydrogen bomb explosions, visible from space, as they blanket Earth; in the bathtub where a woman perishes; and in the pond that acts as the setting for the movie's truly-unsettling final scene. Literal ripples act as a visualization of figurative ripples.
The entire story, in fact, emanates outward, like displaced energy. The puddle leads us to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) himself; as he gazes into the liquid, he envisions the quantum world of energy hidden within - the same visions which will help him oversee the Manhattan Project. When that reverie breaks, he's sitting in a hearing, appealing the denial of his security clearance... and that leads us to his primary antagonist, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). The mere act of imagining the energy in those raindrops causes a concatenation of events which hurtle every character inexorably towards the story's disturbing conclusion.
Additionally, almost every conflict Oppenheimer experiences during the film is a dramatic expression of this motif. Oppenheimer almost isn't allowed onto the Manhattan Project because of his past flirtations with Communism. His lover, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), either kills herself because he leaves her, or is killed by the government because of closeness to both Oppenheimer and the Communist Party... but either way, Oppenheimer has reason to feel guilty. His past sexual improprieties come back to bite him in the ass with both his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), and his friend and fellow physicist, Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett). His various adversaries, including Strauss, Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), and Kenneth Nichols (Dane DeHaan), are all seeking retribution of some sort ("Robert didn't take care not to upset the power brokers in Washington," Strauss notes). Everywhere he turns, Oppenheimer is confronted with the ramifications of his life.
2. The Everett Interpretation
True to form, Nolan has built Oppenheimer using a meaningfully-unorthodox structure. The film interweaves two stories, titled 'Fission' and 'Fusion,' each of which takes place over a number of years, and each of which is conveyed subjectively through the eyes of its primary character.
That subjectivity is key to understanding Oppenheimer (the screenplay was written in the first person, which is highly unusual; the only other time I've heard of such a thing was in Joe and Matthew Michael Carnahan's unproduced adaptation of the James Ellroy novel, White Jazz). Nolan has always excelled at translating individual perspective into cinematic language. Memento plays out in reverse chronological order, thereby aligning the audience with the film's protagonist, who suffers from a memory disorder; the events of Following are recounted by a suspect as part of a police interrogation, and The Prestige unfolds as a series of first-person diary entries; Insomnia, Batman Begins, Interstellar, and Inception all commence within the dreams of their respective main characters, and the latter movie concludes with the suggestion that the entire story may have been a dream all along.
In the case of Oppenheimer, the second shot of the film, after the puddle, is a close-up of a college-aged J. Robert Oppenheimer looking down (the excellent editing, by the way, is courtesy of Jennifer Lame). Although it may seem like a minor detail, it's important to note that Oppenheimer and the puddle never share the frame; because of the Kuleshov effect, the viewer's brain deduces that Oppenheimer is staring at the puddle, and that the first shot of the movie, therefore, must be a P.O.V. shot. Consciously or otherwise, we have entered Oppenheimer's mind.
Similarly, when we meet Strauss for the first time, he's facing frame right; the voice of a Senate Aide (Alden Ehrenreich) compels him to turn to frame left, at which point it cuts to a shot of the Senate Aide deep in the middle of the frame, with Strauss sitting in front of the camera at frame right. It's not quite as obvious a P.O.V. shot as Oppenheimer and the puddle, but the general intent remains clear: Strauss is the lead in this part of the narrative.
Putting the viewer in the characters' shoes serves a number of purposes. It speaks to Nolan's roots in noir - a genre which is notable for its non-judgmental portrayals of contemptible cretins (it's what makes complaints that Oppenheimer isn't a "likable" protagonist so doltish). It makes those characters go down a little smoother, because it allows us to empathize (NOT SYMPATHIZE!!!) with their feelings and the moral quandaries they faced. We may not like these characters, but we certainly understand them. Which, in dramaturgical terms, is actually more important.
Furthermore, it gives Nolan license to express Oppenheimer's psychology in an impressionistic manner. When he gazes at normal, everyday objects and occurrences - puddles, rain water, tables, shattered glass - he sees energy, portrayed in semi-abstract images of cells, embers, sparks, cords of light, and walls of fire (the influences of both Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick are readily apparent here). When he's delivering his "victory" speech at Los Alamos and being grilled by a de facto prosecutor (Jason Clarke), he has visions of being at ground zero when a bomb falls: Bright lights flash, the room shakes, skin peels from a girl's face, a crowd of people disintegrates into ash. At one point, during the hearing, Oppenheimer is forced to describe his affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) while his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), listens. The camera drifts to the right as Oppenheimer speaks, moving briefly behind one of his inquisitors' heads, blocking our view. When it moves past that head, revealing Oppenheimer again, he's naked. A moment later, Jean magically appears on his lap, also naked, riding him while she stares into Kitty's eyes. If Oppenheimer were presented an objective docudrama, it would not have allowed for such moments.
(And yes, the moment with Jean fucking Oppenheimer is still Oppenheimer's subjective point of view - even when she looks at Kitty. To suggest otherwise is to assume that this movie takes place in the world of Inception, where one person's fantasy can be shared with others. The scene isn't just meant to illustrate how Oppenheimer feels (i.e., exposed), but also how he imagines Kitty must feel. And, based on her reaction after the fact, his imaginings were not far off.)
The decision to tell the tale as these characters experienced it informs every other aspect of the film. We never see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because neither Oppenheimer nor Strauss ever saw them; when viewing a slide show of those attacks' victims, we never see the photos, because Oppenheimer looks away, unable to bring himself to look upon the fruits of his labor. The camera shows us the entire room in which his hearing takes place at a remove only twice. Once is during the reading of the verdict, placing Oppenheimer at the far end of the frame, so he looks small and pathetic, which is surely how he felt in this moment; the other is when it's being described by Strauss, who was not present for the proceedings.
And how does the movie conclude? What is the last thing Nolan shows us, right before the film abruptly cuts to black?
Oppenheimer shutting his eyes.
3. Visible Light Spectrum
First, let me just acknowledge Hoyte Van Hoytema's incredible cinematography (yes, this movie looks incredible on IMAX 70mm), and Nolan's demand, most unusual in this day and age, that his productions not over-use CGI. Because I'm about to talk about the movie in visual terms, and I'm not really gonna get into those things. But it's not because I don't think they're wonderful. It's just because everyone has already talked those things to death, and I'd just be adding to the chorus of applause.
So, with that caveat in mind...
'Fission,' shot in color, is the part of Oppenheimer devoted to the actual Oppenheimer, 'The Father of the Atomic Bomb' - because fission is the splitting of atom, and the events of the story split 'Oppie' in more ways than one.
'Fusion,' filmed in black and white, is the part of Oppenheimer devoted to Strauss, former chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and Bad Dude Who Totally Fucked Up Oppenheimer's Life - because fusion is an amalgamation of two nuclei that results in a massive explosion, and that process fairly well describes Strauss' relationship with the titular physicist.
Shooting one section in color and the other in black and white serves multiple purposes.
Practically speaking, this broad visual contrast allows the viewer to easily locate themselves within any given moment in the narrative (not unlike each dream-layer's different setting and color palette in Inception). This is key, because Nolan not only alternates between the two storylines throughout the film, but sometimes pulls a Rashomon and shows us identical events through different characters' points of view (e.g., when Strauss recalls Oppenheimer humiliating him before a senate committee, he reacts with a good-natured smile and shrug - but when Oppenheimer recalls the same event, Strauss is visibly nettled).
But the visual distinctions also tell us something about each character.
There are many moments in the film when a character is literally describing a physics concept but sub-textually describing Oppenheimer... the most important ones being descriptions of quantum mechanics - "It's paradoxical, and yet it works" - and what we now know as a black hole:
"Let's consider a star. A star, a vast furnace burning in outer space, fire pushing outwards against its own gravity. But if that furnace cools, then gravity starts winning... The bigger the star, the more violent its demise."
J. Robert Oppenheimer is a web of irreconcilable inconsistencies and nebulous morals. He's a next-level genius, an altruistic liberal (he sends money to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and to colleagues attempting to escape the Nazis), a lover of the arts (he's seen admiring a Picasso, reading T.S. Eliot, and listening to Stravinsky), not without self-awareness (he can't be bothered to remember his sister-in-law's name, but later admits that he's "a shitty brother"), and is certainly capable of being charismatic and warm (in addition to his status as something of a ladies' man, other physicists in the Manhattan Project refer to Oppenheimer as "the great salesman of science [who] can convince anyone of anything" and "a prophet").
But Oppie is also a theorist. We learn early on, and are then reminded repeatedly, that he's terrible at both laboratory work and math. As Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer) puts it during a lecture: "One might be lead to the assumption that behind the quantum world, there still hides the real world in which causality holds. But such speculation seem to us to, to say it explicitly, fruitless." Oppenheimer is simply not concerned with practical matters.
This renders him incapable of anticipating the real-world consequences of his actions (remember what Strauss said about Oppie and Washington power brokers?). He does what he wants when he wants, whether that's poisoning an adversarial professor's apple or sleeping with married women or making the most destructive weapon the world has ever seen, and he never considers the repercussions until it's too late.
Were his motivations pure or vainglorious? He says he wants to stop the Nazis, but agrees to complete the bomb even after Germany surrenders, and makes only the meekest of efforts to prevent the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Was he naive? He assures his peers the atom bomb will usher in a utopian era of peace, not proliferation and escalation - despite knowing that it's only a matter of time until Russia can make its own A-bombs.
Perhaps he was, as multiple supporting characters suggest, an expert at lying to himself? When recruited by the military officer Leslie Grove (Matt Damon), Oppenheimer suggests he should win a Nobel Prize for making this weapon of mass destruction - his rationalization being that Alfred Nobel created dynamite (as if dynamite and the atomic bomb were the same thing).
Was he a loving husband? Well, he does seem to feel earnest tenderness and trust for Kitty - he insists on having her testify for him even after his lawyer (Macon Blair) asserts that it's a bad idea, he devises a secret code to tell her when the Trinity test has been successfully completed, he's understanding of her severe postpartum depression and nonjudgemental of her alcoholism (some might even say he's enables her). But whatever he feels for Kitty, it's not enough to stop himself from cheating on her.
Was he a good father? The only evidence that he might have been a good father comes when Kitty is going through the aforementioned postpartum depression, getting blind drunk while leaving their son crying in his crib. Oppenheimer takes the baby to stay with his friend, linguistics professor Haakon Chevalier (Jefferson Hall), until Kitty gets better - which probably is the best thing for the kid. We never really see Oppenheimer interact with his children in any meaningful way again, and Kitty's postpartum depression, it becomes clear, is actually just an unconditional resentment of her children (she "jokingly" asks the Chevaliers if they want to permanently adopt the baby; she later refers to the baby as "the brat," and in two other sequences, at least one of her children is crying, and she's either ignoring it or just kinda pushing through, dead-eyed). So, no, Oppie was maybe not Father of the Year.
Well, was he at least a loyal friend? For a time, at least, he refuses to rat out Chevalier for being a Communist. He also supports the efforts of Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) to research the hydrogen bomb despite the fact a) it's not the project on which they're actually working, and b) Teller is arrogant and rude from the moment he appears. On the other hand, Oppie also schtups another man's wife while he's living with them.
And was he regretful? As Strauss points out, Oppenheimer never explicitly showed contrition for his "gadget" (he won't even acknowledge that the goddamn thing is a bomb)... but he certainly behaved in such the manner of a guilty man. Additionally, the movie suggests that he may have even felt as though expressing regret would be gauche: Roughly halfway through the film, when he feels responsible Jean's death, Kitty tells him, "You don't get to commit the sin and then have us all feel sorry for you because it had consequences."
Oppenheimer's story is told in color because it's extraordinarily complex and not, y'know, black and white.
Strauss, meanwhile, is Oppenheimer's opposite. Visually, he is introduced as Oppenheimer's literal negative image, initially appearing after a shot of Oppie in a near match-cut, facing the opposite side of the frame. Of course, they have inverse characteristics as well. Oppenheimer is formally educated; Strauss is auto-didactic. Oppenheimer comes from money; Strauss was once, as Oppenheimer puts it, "a lowly shoe salesman." Oppenheimer worries that his legacy is one of death and destruction; Strauss worries about "public embarrassment," and that despite a decades-long successful career in politics, "a lowly shoe salesman" is how he'll be forever remembered (he repeats the phrase multiple times - it's clearly a sore spot). Most importantly, Strauss, unlike Oppenheimer, does see the world in black and white terms: Angels and devils, loyalists and turncoats, sycophants and slanderers. He goes after Oppenheimer because Oppenheimer was rude to him and because Oppenheimer dared to disagree with him - it's a true "You're either for us or against us" mentality. This Weltanschauung is what allows him to vindictively sabotage Oppenheimer's career in the first place. And so Nolan quite literally robs Strauss' story of color.
But that's not the only reason Strauss' sections are in black in white.
It's also because Nolan is setting the viewer up for a fall.
Robert Downey Jr. is coming off more than a decade of playing a distinctly-American superhero. For a lot of young people, there has literally never been a time when Downey wasn't Iron Man. Point being, we're naturally inclined to take Strauss at his word when he paints a picture of Oppenheimer as an oblivious rich kid (when Strauss tells Oppenheimer he was "a self-made man," Oppenheimer responds, "I can relate - my father was one") and a snob (he insinuates that Strauss is deliberately mispronouncing his surname in order to conceal his Jewish heritage, despite Strauss being the president of Manhattan's Temple Emanu-El), or when he paints himself as an amused older brother ("Oppie wasn't always patient with us mere mortals," he says with a sentimental smile).
And black and white is associated with a kind of wistful simplicity. Classic movies, vintage newsreels, and old newspapers are all in black and white; at this point, most of the human beings alive on Earth only know World War II's political, military, and scientific leaders via black and white imagery. We associate that lack of color with purity and, by extension, objectivity.
If you don't know who Strauss was and what he did to Oppenheimer prior to seeing the film (and I suspect most people don't), his heel turn plays as a surprise: Both the casting and visual cues suggest that this dude was one of the good guys!
And, oh hey, wouldn't ya just know it?, but that feeling of having the rug pulled out from under you represents both what Strauss subjectively wants - to not, as he puts it, "get caught holding the knife" - and what Oppenheimer must have subjectively felt upon realizing the identity of his saboteur.
4. Support Force
Sometimes people criticize Nolan's supporting characters. And I'm not saying his supporting characters are perfect. But this criticism always seems to stem from a litmus test that decides whether or not a character is "well-written" based on how much biographical information we receive about them. And that is, frankly, fucking ludicrous. Movies are kinetic, and, as in life, they grant us the opportunity to observe character through action. To say nothing of the fact that if you stopped to explain everyone's life story, this three-hour-long movie would be a twelve-hour-long movie.
And Nolan has a tremendous talent for the economical expression of character through action.
No one ever calls Groves pompous, for example. But the first time he enters Oppie's classroom, he throws his coat at Nichols and demands it be dry-cleaned; then he sits down, manspreads, and props one elbow up on the back of a second chair, ostensibly making himself comfortable and taking up as much space as possible. Ten seconds after meeting him, we understand inherently who Groves is.
Similarly, no one ever explicitly says that Teller is envious of Oppenheimer. But based on his behavior, this is clearly the case. When he first barges into a meeting of the team, Oppenheimer greets with him with a "Hello, Edward" - but Teller responds with a monosyllabic "Yes," and won't even make eye contact. Teller then interrupts the meeting, telling Oppenheimer he has something "more important" than the matter Oppenheimer is discussing. He presents his findings, which suggest that setting off an atomic bomb could set fire to the atmosphere and end the world, and as the other physicists fretfully go over his calculations, he smiles - he would love nothing more than to be the guy who shuts this whole thing down (and, incidentally, saves the world in the process). After his calculations turn out to be incorrect (they're based on a series of false assumptions), he interrupts another meeting, this time declaring himself to be "bored" with the concept of the A-bomb: "We all entered this room knowing a fission bomb was possible. How about we leave it with something new? Instead of uranium or plutonium, we use hydrogen." He's just so desperate to be more than just a cog in the Oppenheimer machine - to be THE guy, the one who comes up with the brilliant idea that pivots the entire Manhattan Project. But we never actually learn why Teller is the way he is because it's not germane to the story. There's no monologue where Teller is like, "Boy, I tell ya, it's hard out for here for a Hungarian immigrant."
We learn slightly more about Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz, giving a career-best performance) from his initial conversation with Oppie on the train (and, incidentally, Oppie's cavalier attitude towards Yiddish and Judaism during that conversation suggests that Strauss' characterization of him as some kind of elitist is total malarky). But mostly, we just see him behave as a caring friend to Oppenheimer - like any good Jewish mother, he's constantly trying to feed the poor boy.
Even the smallest roles generally get something to give the viewer a sense of who they are. We literally never learn anything about the life of physicist Robert Serber (Michael Angarano), for example - I think the guy has three lines in the whole movie - but like half the time we see him, he's struggling to carry too-many of something (e.g., folding chairs, champagne glasses, etc.). David Hill (Rami Malek) meets Oppenheimer only twice; both times, he gets in Oppenheimer's personal space with a pen and a clipboard, and both times, Oppenheimer is a total dick to him, once forcibly removing the pen from Hill's hand, once knocking his clipboard onto the ground. So when Hill testifies that Strauss was Oppenheimer's backbiter, we believe him, because he has no personal investment in lying to make Oppie look good.
A hackier movie, like A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game, would make a big deal out of these quirks, but here, it's just kinda happening, and you either consciously notice it or you don't. Either way, you implicitly understand something about these dudes... or at least the way Oppie sees them.
This is a Nolan movie, though, so the women still feel horribly underserved. Kitty actually does get a dramatic speech in which she shares her biography, and she gets a very satisfying scene during Oppie's hearing in which she gets to dress-down the persecutorial prosecutor. But she's mostly defined as an alcoholic and a bad mother and kind of a nag (I think there are least three instances where she ostensibly calls Oppenheimer a coward to his face). Tatlock, meanwhile, comes off as mean and unhinged. Ruth Tolman (Louise Lombard) is flirty with Oppenheimer because they're having an affair and that's about it. Lilli Hornig (Olivia Thirlby) has big 'Girls Get It Done' energy - she's first mistaken for a secretary and then has to fight to stay on the project because Serber is (allegedly) worried that the radiation could affect her reproductive system. Every time someone asserts that Nolan has a problem with women, I feel at a loss for a counterargument.
Sound designer Richard King has won three Oscars, all for his work on Nolan joints (The Dark Knight, Inception, and Dunkirk, if you're curious). He was also nominated for Interstellar. I think it's safe to assume he'll probably need to rent a tux again next year. What he does with sound is incredible; throughout the film, we periodically hear this very loud train chugging along, gradually getting faster and faster. It's the kind of sound we associate with industrialization (or, put another way, technological advancement, be it for good or ill). And if it was included purely for the sake of amping up the tension in certain moments, that would be enough... but it's not! We eventually learn it's the sound of people stomping triumphantly during Oppenheimer's victory speech - and that is terrifying.
What King does with lack of sound is even better. When the Trinity test finally commences, all the sound drops out, save for Oppenheimer breathing. And yes, it did take some time for the sound of the bomb to reach the onlookers, but still - they could've kept the score going or included other spectators' oohs and aahs or whatever, but no - just Oppie breathing. The score gradually returns as Oppenheimer observes the destruction, but things don't really return to normal until after Oppenheimer thinks/narrates the iconic Bhagavad Gita quote - and then, BOOM!, the sound of the explosion finally hits them (and, by extension, us).
Better yet, I think, is the way the sound is handled during Oppenheimer's aforementioned victory speech. Murphy's performance (his eyes are welling with tears) and visual cues (the wall behind him begins to vibrate, even as he remains stationary) tell us that Oppie's mood and Oppie's words are not in alignment. Still, the sound remains more or less naturalistic... until, mid-applause, all the sound drops out suddenly, and a piercing scream rings through the air. For the next several moments, Oppenheimer doesn't hear the applause or the cheering - just the scraping of chairs against the ground as his peers leap to their feet to clap for the death of 250,000 people. It is, once more, an incredible expression of Oppenheimer's subjective experience, making everything feel lifeless and nightmarish. It's truly great stuff.
6. Ludwig Göransson
I mean. Holy shit, dude.
The good news is, there have been other excellent movies besides Oppenheimer in 2023 (one of them even came out the same weekend!), and other great filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Yargos Lanthimos, and Denis Villeneuve, still have movies coming out between now and January (theoretically, at least - a lot of stuff is gonna get pushed to 2024 as the SAG and WGA strikes continue; Lanthinmos' Poor Things has already been bumped once). The bad news is, it's hard to imagine anything is gonna top Oppenheimer. Nolan basically just blew up the rest of the year - KA-BOOM!