Playing with Fire: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

A few years ago, while on a trip in Vienna, I watched an early performance of “Terror”, written and directed by German lawyer, author and playwright Ferdinand von Schirach. We watched a character’s trial following a terror strike involving a plane crashing into buildings. The man on trial had chosen to divert the plane, saving the people in the building at the expense of killing the passengers. Through some dark coincidence, it was performed shortly after the Germanwings 9525 tragedy, in which a copilot intentionally crashed a plane causing 150 people to lose their lives. At the end of the play, the audience was informed that, in order to leave the room, they had two exits to choose from: guilty, on the right, and innocent, on the left. Nowadays, vote is cast digitally, through a much more discreet press of a button, the results of which one can track online, in fun little infographics highlighting the percentages of the guilty and not guilty jury vote. 

Once the lights went up back then, however, the choices were open and marked, and the audience was eyeing one another, ready to pass judgement upon the judgement we’d been tasked to make. Who would get up first? Who would go where? Who condoned the actions of the man we’d been watching for the better part of two hours? Who would condemn them? It was an interesting situation, but an uncomfortable one. Judgement was perhaps inevitable – a public declaration of it, for me, unexpected. Once outside (I left through not guilty, simply because it was the closest, but also because it felt safest, and I was 15, and just wanted to leave, and hadn’t really made up my mind, and didn’t really want to make up my mind), reception was mixed. Some around me felt a sour taste in their mouths for having been ultimately put on trial themselves. Others were gleeful – the Germans call it ‘Schadenfreude’ – at the air of drama – real life drama – that had been stirred up. Today, the final set up of the play is common knowledge – and part of the attraction. Schirach himself says that the only heroes of his play are law and morality. Oppenheimer (2023), Christopher Nolan’s latest film, though a biopic and unrelated to law as such, seems to strive for something similar. 

‘We can’t have a trial’, persists a frazzled yet put together Robert Downey Jr., playing American philanthropist Lewis Strauss, ‘or else people will have the option to think of him [Oppenheimer] as a martyr’

Known as the yin to Barbie’s (2023) yang first and the “father of the atomic bomb” second, Oppenheimer is a film that, in many moments like these, seems to revel a little too much in its own irony. We’re about two and a half hours into the film, which, to all extents and purposes, is structured largely like a trial. ‘We can’t give him an audience’, Strauss continues. The hearing is about to flip on Strauss himself – oh, how the tables turn! For now, however, the story is, a little obtusely, flipped on us. Are we not that very audience? And, by extension, are we supposed to evaluate Oppenheimer’s right to martyrdom? Minutes before, we watched Cillian Murphy, playing the physicist, wince at the sight of the victims of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a sight that we, as audience and jury members, are not privy to). It’s a slightly bitter juxtaposition of scenes and a loose, ambiguous and suggestive line of judgement that Nolan has spun, like a tightrope, across the film’s plot, one that he tiptoes along consistently throughout, swaying, with excellent, infuriating balance, in neither direction. 

Based on the Pulitzer Prize Winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, the film spans three hours, covering Oppenheimer’s rise within the quantum physics field, his move to Los Alamos, the development, creation, testing and dropping of the atomic bomb right up until his later security hearings during the Second Red Scare. It also touches, a little more lightly and convolutedly, on Oppenheimer’s opposition to the use of the H-Bomb and his later petitioning for regulation and control of nuclear power. 

We are introduced to Oppenheimer in the same breath as we are introduced to his boyish, bursting interest in quantum physics and his notable lack of foresight – the first characteristics of which quickly seems to dwindle throughout the film while the second becomes more and more apparent. J Robert Oppenheimer is studying in Cambridge – tired, blue eyed and chiselled, he is perhaps not the most natural technical scientist but the most feverishly passionate one. He lies at night dreaming of the stars, particles, atoms and whatnot, spiralling, twisting, turning, and expanding in dreamy, frenetic visuals that only return again later in the film through the explosion of the atomic bomb. In one of the first scenes, after being snubbed by a professor of his, Robert brashly injects potassium chloride into his professor’s apple. This is a man of impulse and ego, surely, and it seems at this point Oppenheimer’s drive to learn is utterly his own, rejecting practice, initially, to focus on his theory and his theories alone – and yet, faced with the endeavour of creating the Bomb, he loses, in an instant, all this personal inner drive to a more competitive one. The passionate, particle-busting daydreams disappear, bar the indication that they were not particles all along but sparks, embers, the leftovers or beginnings of an explosion. 

Nolan leaves behind this more artistic exploration of Oppenheimer’s inner workings to instead delve into the more onerous politics and pressures of the world around him. The film becomes caught up in a debate that places the scientists, many of whom are younger, unionising communists or at the very least left leaning, at odds with the older American politicians and philanthropists, with Oppenheimer caught in the middle of the two throughout, his dilemma manifesting at its peak at his security hearing. The framing of the creation of the atom bomb through this exploration of the Red Scare places science and politics, not the most natural opponents, at odds with one another in a situation where the real enemy, for lack of a better word, is morals. As a result, the film loses track of exploring Oppenheimer as a person and simultaneously steers the immense moral questions imbued into his character and story toward an investigation of the apparent incompatibility of politics and science, rather than an ethical examination of the scientific innovation or the character and conscience of a man who invented a bomb that killed thousands. 

Throughout the three hours, Nolan bounces between multiple narrative timelines featuring a whopping number of four women in a cinematic exploration that undoubtedly contains moments of real musical, structural and visual mastery –  and yet we remain feeling a little estranged from the film’s titular character. The camera varies between lingering yet stoic closeups to distant, artful wide shots that illuminate and exacerbate the contrasts of windy New Mexican desert to packed, hushed, blue tinged labs, every detail as immaculate as you’d imagine it to be, for the film was shot entirely on IMAX 65mm and Panavision 65mm film stock. Nolan himself recommended to see it projected in it’s full glory at 70mm. With such high quality resolution comes so much scope for aching, intimate, painful detail – and yet the camera’s keep a safe, unobtrusive distance to Robert J Oppenheimer and the people around him, granting the most intimacy to bright, excruciating explosions.These are teased at various intervals throughout the film, punctuating and accentuating moments here and there until they crescendo in full, burning glory during the successful testing of the atomic bomb – the Trinity Explosion, recreated, successful and frighteningly, through tricks of scale and perspective by Special FX Supervisor Scott R Fischer. We bask in the imagined heat of the explosion for a rare, long moment before the edit returns to what it is throughout most of the film; a little jarring at times, it’s often snappy and no nonsense, with back and forth dialogues reminiscent of a chamber drama or even a heist exposition. Occasionally, when Oppenheimer’s conscience begins to catch up with him, camera, edit and story combine to a more experimental level, such as when the camera moves behind one of the questioners at the hearing while Oppenheimer is being confronted about his affair with Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh, to reveal him sitting as he was before, but naked, Jean on his lap. Behind him, Emily Blunt as Kitty, his wife, looks on, red faced, intoxicated, seething. It’s a combination of stylistic forces that feels like it’s too little too late, and the film loses out on many more moments such as this that could have offered a more consistent, less reserved exploration of Oppenheimer’s inner front. 

The music and sound design were more functional in this aspect. The score, by Ludwig Göransson, is Hans-Zimmer-immense; relentless, consuming, dominant, lifting and uplifting, crashing and churning and building until – it’s not. After the first bomb tests, Oppenheimer is plagued with moments of odd, awkward, concave near silence. Paired with the bright, blinding light, this unsettling quiet seems to form his guilt, stifling and consuming at once. It is present only in the last third of the film, but is the most demonstrated of his emotions, the one with the most stylistic and physical manifestation and, not coincidentally, the most visceral. Before that point, despite much of the film being subjective, Oppenheimer’s emotional state was lukewarm and difficult to read, even aloof. To this extent the sound, though imperious, carries a significant amount of the film’s critical potential and drive, whereas the general stylistic choices of the film fall flat, lacking consistency, intention and intimacy.

Perhaps inconsistent thematics and aims of the film have roots not in its stylistic choices but in its narrative ones. Oppenheimer is a biopic, a chance to explore a person and their conscience through cinema. The benefit of the genre is that there is room to fully embody the mind, soul and sight of the person whose life is being dramatised, if not on a stylistic level then on a narrative one – regardless of their life generally being perceived as being right, wrong, morally grey, correct, confusing or other. In case of controversy, there is a safety net in the biopic in the form of an unreliable narrator, or a neutral observer, the latter of which offers the opportunity to paint a portrait of someone from a more objective distance. A final, frequent option is to explore the subject of the biopic through the people around them – their friends, lovers, children, siblings, parents, bosses, coworkers, fans, competitors. Who was this person to them? How was this person to them? In Oppenheimer, Nolan somehow chooses all of these approaches and none of them, at once.  For a film so long, charged with so many questions of moral and political nuance that are more than a little incisive, the film’s narrative approach is almost surprisingly indecisive or, alternatively, simply a little tame

For the most part, we follow Oppenheimer himself during his university days and the building of the bomb. The film is punctuated by darts forward to Oppenheimer’s security hearing, also in part from his perspective. Both levels are in colour; both levels give us the occasional, all too rare indication of Oppenheimer’s mindset through more experimental visions almost exclusively after the bomb has been set off – at one point, for example, Oppenheimer steps off a pulpit and into a charred corpse. Little of this insight is granted in the build up to the bomb, however, leaving us in the dark when it comes to any emotional or mental processes in the first two thirds of the film beyond the expressions on Murphy’s face.

A third level Nolan weaves into the timeline is the perspective of the aforementioned Lewis Strauss in the lead up to and during the security hearing, illuminated in black and white. Strauss accepted Oppenheimer into the US Atomic Energy Commission and also, as we learn, set him up for the intense questioning throughout his security hearing due to predominantly personal, petty grievances and offences. At the same time the black and white narrative level is said to indicate a more objective and impartial view – how we are supposed to tell that apart from Strauss’ clearly more tainted perspective is unclear. 

These various timelines allow Nolan to pick and choose a level of subjectivity – he can utilise perspective to steer the narrative along in a more controlled manner. It becomes interesting, then, to see who Nolan chose to tell Oppenheimer’s story – for that, at the core, is the intention of a biopic – and then, logically, question why.  Why Nolan chose Strauss’ point of view as the objective over the perspective of somebody who was a lot closer to the subject personally is unclear, because the combination of Oppenheimer, Strauss and the Trial overlap over much of the same grounds for insights into his work, politics and legacy as the father of the bomb. But who was he as a man?

It could have been interesting to see Oppenheimer through the eyes of his long standing lover Jean Tatlock, perhaps, whose involvement with the communist party played a significant role in the FBI’s interest in Oppenheimer, who’s death rattled him to his core – indeed it triggers the most emotion expressed by him in the film – and who’s own narrative and struggle with sexuality and self through and beyond Oppenhiemer is a story in its own right. Or what about the insight of Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife, who met him while still married to her third husband in the late thirties, for whom she moved to Los Alamos, who had his two children, who unabashedly and relentlessly supported him throughout his work on the atom bomb and beyond, who witnessed his trial first hand too and was even questioned alongside him. 

It is hard to feel as though actively not choosing these voices – who were so much closer to Oppenheimer and would be able to illuminate more of the man behind the bomb – is a very significant choice on Nolan‘s behalf, who is not known for his proclivity to including particular dynamic or even living women in his films. Though they are present in the film, while also consistently forming the voice of reason or asking the questions and giving the answers that would move the plot forward, it is also notable that the women in Nolan’s Oppenheimer do so either notably intoxicated, over the sound of a crying infant, or naked. For a director known for controlled, structured timelines and narratives, this has to be a conscious choice, and it is one that, at its core, means we lose not only representation but also vital insight into Oppenheimer himself.

And yet, perhaps giving insight and humanising some of the man and the process behind the atom bomb wasn’t Nolan’s intention at all. The film opens on a quote, overlayed over a burning screen. It’s not Oppenheimer’s infamous ‘I have become death, destroyer of worlds’, which we’re introduced to later, as he reads from the Sanskrit, naked, while Jean, nude, grinds above him (not the way one would have expected that line to be delivered, but it does, jarringly, place Oppenheimer’s personal life at odds with the quotes larger context related to the atrocities the atom bomb inflicted).

No, instead, it opens on an adapted line taken from the book that inspired the film: 

Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man.

For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.

It’s a chilling quote, even on a backdrop of flames, yet it immediately places Oppenheimer into a space of myth, of legend, with the power of life and death in his hands and the wrath of the world on his shoulders. The crux of the matter is that Oppenheimer should surely not be abstracted into legend – because he was just a man. Placing a man into the same league as gods and martyrs puts him above ethics, which is neither the core of the film nor Nolan‘s intention. Beyond the slightly reductive theme of fire, what connects demi-god Prometheus to scientist Oppenheimer is not inherently clear – especially as their contributions to humanity are rooted in vastly different characters (the former motivated by his love for humanity and the latter driven by a personal, scientific curiosity). On top of that, Prometheus, in most versions of the ancient Greek myth, was only at fault in the eyes of the gods for his actions – in the eyes of humans, he was a hero. While his gift was deemed to give them too much power, it was not as though they used fire explicitly for war or destruction. In fact, it allowed them to live in more comfort – and no god approved of that. Comfort was another step closer to the elusive peace of mind that came with being a god, and one that most gods were bent on keeping from humans – it’s the foundation of almost every myth and legend of the time. By that logic, however, it seems remiss to compare the steely cool and composed Oppenheimer and his role in creating a bomb that aided in mass destruction to a mythical character who, out of love for humans, leant them a helping hand. 

Once again, this raises the question of Nolan’s positioning of himself as the storyteller, to some extent, and if not the one introducing the allegory (the film is after all based on the book with the very name American Prometheus) then the one maintaining it; who, in this scenario, is really on the side of the gods, and who on the side of the people – and more importantly, where does Oppenheimer lie? It casts a shadow of a doubt on the neutrality of the film’s stance toward him – and raises the question of what lesson it is we are supposed to learn. In general, mythical allusion and abstraction distances from reality, and most importantly, myths are didactic and almost always have a means of an end. Nolan’s Oppenheimer, I’d argue, doesn’t. Priming the audience to watch a film with an arguably unreliable narrator and serious ethical footnotes by placing Oppenheimer’s contribution to science and his consequential guilt as a sacrifice equal to that of Prometheus and eternal damnation is 

Intentionally or not, Nolan cast the audience as the jury, but the subjectivity of the film detracts from his intention of creating a “cautionary tale”. Oppenheimer’s main consequence remains his own guilt, his main conviction is the shadow cast by the consequences of his own actions. We don’t need to paint him in a neutral light and we don’t need a public retrial – we could have seen more of his guilt, or his feelings in general in the aftermath of the Bomb. Even if his conscience was a delayed reaction, what was he feeling before? These questions, that would have, ironically, allowed him more humanity and moved away from a mythical archetype, remain unexplored and unanswered. 

And so Nolan continues to balance along a line of exploring cognitive dissonance and almost enabling it in a complex, highly subjective, potent narrative that is, at its weakest, unsure of its own intentions, and at its strongest, blinding and captivating. There are multitudes of vital stories, perspectives and experiences connected to the creation, testing, execution and existence of the atomic bomb then right up until it’s ever looming presence today that are missing from Nolan’s film – such as the Native Americans who were displaced to make room for Los Alamos, or downwinders, who lived, as the name suggests, downwind of the nuclear testing sites and suffered as a result. These stories and many others most definitely deserve and require their own exploration, discussion and recognition to the same scale of Oppenheimer. However, Nolan made a film about a man who played with fire, and not about the people who got hurt, placing Oppenheimer on a curated, cinematic tribunal for a final trial and entrusting the crucial verdict of whether he is a martyr, a murderer, a myth or simply a mystery to the audience –  but simultaneously giving them only one exit to leave through, and one sentence to settle on: Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.

Johanna is a 23 year old German filmmaker who grew up in Oxford, England, and is currently based in both Berlin and Oxford. She recently completed a BA in Film Production in Berlin and is interested in cinema and the role of media in shaping narratives both new and familiar.