‘Oppenheimer’ Opens Up the Dark Dimensions of Man’s Fate
You might expect a film about applying quantum physics, assembling teams of scientists in faraway cities, constructing a first-ever atomic bomb, fighting both communism and antisemitism all while coordinating a $2 billion top secret project under the thumb of Washington’s red tape, might be a tad complex. You’d be right, but director Christopher Nolan would disagree. Given three hours of tight scenes elucidating the finer details of one man’s notorious life, Nolan succeeds in bringing it all home to inglorious delight.
Oppenheimer is a dark story about the darker side of ambition, love, and loyalty. Here, skies are rarely sunny, old friends greet without a smile, babies cry, and lovers mourn happier days long lost. Character development is a wrenching process made all that much slower by mercifully topical exposition and seemingly haphazard introductions of key players later to abet in the scene of “the crime.” Oppenheimer has more story lines than guy wires on a rocket launcher. But that’s kind of the point. Like the shape of the A-bomb that eventually comes together, Robert J. Oppenheimer is a multi-faceted character and we are introduced to every side of him. It’s a rare biopic that gives us so much to behold. And truly appreciate. This is a gem of cinematic storytelling and it sparkles precisely because there are so many angles to it.
But it’s not all visual; sound, too, is key to this film. Sure, there’s an explosion we’re all waiting patiently to experience. But, no, sound plays a critical role because what we hear––and what we don’t––is essential to appreciating Nolan’s story of how, and when, man became master of his fate. Cognito ergo sum. Descarte posited that man can do whatever his brain thinks he can. Does anyone doubt that space travel, cell phones or mathematics, even in its most simple expressions, isn’t a fabrication of––or proof of––man’s ability to dream and make dreams real?
Yet, it’s never clear that Oppenheimer himself knows where he’s going. We, of course, do. But, then, we go well beyond. Japan surrenders. Antisemitism––wishfully eradicated by victory over Nazi Germany––hardly subsides. McCarthy blacklists jews for liberal leanings. White power takes center stage. And a trial between the Feds and a solitary scientist becomes a sham when his top secret security clearance comes into question. Wow! History, indeed, rhymes.
Cillian Murphy’s blue eyes, Matt Damon’s gruff jowls, Emily Blunt’s tearful cheeks, Robert J. Downey, Jr.’s receding hairline belie the intensity of this drama brought to camera in a screenplay by Christopher Nolan, inspired by the book American Prometheus, written by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. The cast is immense with appearances by Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Tom Conti, and Jason Clarke to name but a few. Even Josh Peck from Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh has a critical part.
Oppenheimer, as a cinematic choice from a studio that otherwise plays safe with more promising pablum, is a testament, too, to modern culture. Just consider that, for the rest of this summer, a complex film about man’s devotion to science as an instrument of power is competing with a slam-dunk blockbuster about a toy doll that embodies America’s gluttonous consumerism. What’s going on here? I think it’s a great match up when the big money of Hollywood is willing to bet (albeit with big Hollywood names) on intellectualism. Of course, it’s not really a contest, and the Oscars won’t decide it, but just given this choice is truly refreshing. Oppenheimer, at the least, is informing casual debate about…what? White supremacy? The end of the world? The threat of Artificial Intelligence? Presidential powers? Happily, the list can go on much longer than any inventory of Barbie’s Dream House.
C. Prentiss Orr is a Pittsburgh-based writer who writes about theater and other topics for Entertainment Central. His latest book, The Surveyor and the Silversmith, is a history of white settlement, genocide, and land speculation in Western Pennsylvania.