When I went to watch Oppenheimer, the theatre was full – unusually so. Not so unusual when you recall that fervour that had swept across moviegoing audiences this summer of 2023 regarding two concurrent but diametrically opposite film releases: Barbie and Oppenheimer, known together affectionately as ‘Barbenheimer’.
While Barbie is clearly leading the race globally, Oppenheimer has been no slouch either with a 80 million dollar box office opening. In India however, interestingly enough, it has been Christopher Nolan’s biopic which is the clear winner. Whether that is an indication of Nolan’s popularity or how the Indian audience perceives ṭhe clearly feminist narrative of Barbie remains to be seen, but Oppenheimer remains deeply popular into its third week, with sold out seats in most major movie halls.
In India, it has been Christopher Nolan’s biopic which is the clear winner.
This is what I witnessed as well – an almost full movie hall for a movie which I thought was going to be a slow character examination, albeit one with two atom bombs. And Oppenheimer is that, as much as it is a number of other things. At times, it approaches a hagiography rather than a biography, occasionally morphing into a fast paced thriller. But above all, it is both the creation of and entanglement of the myth of the man who history has come to call The Father of the Atom Bomb.
The film is about the life of the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, his role in the creation of the atom bomb, as well as his subsequent work on nuclear policy as well as the trial through which he finally lost his security clearance with the government of America (an incident which not only devastated him, but also his family; years later, his daughter would commit suicide over it.) It also paints a picture of America at the beginning of the Atomic Age till the run up to the Cold War: the time of rising McCarthyism.
At times, it approaches a hagiography rather than a biography, occasionally morphing into a fast paced thriller.
My prevailing thought throughout the three-hour run of the movie is how little space there was in the movie for anyone else except Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy). With a few exceptions, there is almost no frame in the movie which isn’t dominated by Murphy’s lanky frame and the exceptions almost all include politician Lewis Straus, as played by Robert Downey Jr. I’ll say little about his role so as to avoid spoiling the reader (as much as it is possible to avoid spoiling an historical event) but safe to say that post Marvel, RDJ is finally getting to flex those acting muscles in ways he fully relishes.
Among the other notable exceptions are the truly excellent performances given by both Emily Blunt and Gary Oldman; the latter appearing in only a single scene-stealing moment as President Harry Truman and the former in a number of powerful but underrated moments as Kitty Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer has no shortage of famous actors (no surprise for a Nolan movie) with the likes of Florence Pugh, Jack Quaid, Rami Malek to name a few, but all of them fall into the sidelines next to the main character itself.
There is almost no frame in the movie which isn’t dominated by Murphy’s lanky frame
And that is not down to Cillian Murphy himself necessarily, acting powerhouse though he may be. Rather, there is little breathing room for other characters to exist, unless they are relevant to Oppenheimer in that particular moment in his life. Scenes flash by, cut quickly so that one event leads to another but very few people linger long enough to make an impression outside of Oppenheimer himself. I was surprised to find towards the end of the movie that Jack Quaid, of The Boys fame, played celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. I had missed it in the quick pacing of the movie.
On one hand, I admire it because this is clearly the vision for the film – it is, after all, called Oppenheimer and not The Manhattan Project. But on the other hand, it also feels like too much ‘world building’ (for lack of a better word) or character knowledge is left for the reader to put together with too few pieces. For example: the women in Oppenheimer’s circuit exist around him to be both bolster him and tear him down alternatively, but he remains central to their lives despite everything; he offhandedly reveals that he has been cheating on his current wife with at least two different women at different points; while presenting a new house, his wife notices there is no kitchen, revealing his lack of knowledge (and interest) in knowing anything in the running of a home.
The women in Oppenheimer’s circuit exist around him to be both bolster him and tear him down alternatively, but he remains central to their lives despite everything.
All of these scenes exist for a reason, to show Oppenheimer as a flawed man but it falls a little flat against the movie’s overbearing tendency to also build him up as a mythical figure. At one point, when told by a fellow scientist to take off the military jacket he is wearing and dress like himself, he changes in his room to his trademark hat and coat. This scene is accompanied by the camera gently dwelling on his back as he adjusts his hat with the music swelling to match the almost superhero-like imagery – the myth settling into his legend.
That’s the other thing with Oppenheimer – it is not a subtle film. And this is disappointing because as much as Nolan seems willing to let the audience put together pieces elsewhere, he seems as afraid that they will miss some crucial element of Oppenheimer’s mental state and overcorrects by literally spelling it out. When Oppenheimer is presenting before a hostile committee which will eventually reject his security clearance, it is clear that he feels naked and exposed in front of them – and that is exactly what the camera shows him as, naked and exposed. It was a moment that made me roll my eyes.
That’s the other thing with Oppenheimer – it is not a subtle film.
This sort of over-the-top display works in the film’s favour when it comes to its big moments, such as the Trinity test itself: the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. The slow buildup to the bomb, itself a looming invisible presence the entire film, being hoisted up for the drop; it’s eventual detonation, the first completely silent flash followed by the roar of sound and the shock wave – it was a pivotal moment in the film and it stayed with the audience, as it did with me. Another moment, surprisingly subtle by itself, was when a pilot describes flying past a missile in the dead of the night and the viewer is shown it exactly as it happened – a beautiful moment encased in a horrifying realisation at what is to follow.
There is a lack, a hole, in the film Oppenheimer and in the days before the release of the film, this resulted in a firestorm of discourse on social media. In a film made about the man who helped make one of the most infamous weapons in human history, where are its victims? What about the bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what about its people? What about its consequences? Why does the film not dwell on that?
This sort of over-the-top display works in the film’s favour when it comes to its big moments, such as the Trinity test itself.
Having watched the film (and also noted the conspicuous gap), I would argue that the film is aware of this lack and, for good or bad, it’s a deliberate choice. In a moment of Nolanesque un-subtlety, addressing a large crowd cheering for him, Oppenheimer sees a replica of the effects of the bomb on the crowd in front of him: heat radiation burning through grotesquely smiling people as their skin melts off their bodies. Walking away from the crowd, he steps through the pulverised burnt corpse of a child and looks down at it, uncomprehending.
But this is not a movie about the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (One can argue that others, including Japanese directors themselves, have made films reflecting on this traumatic event of history, such as Barefoot Gen, Hiroshima Mon Amour, or even Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla where the titular monster is an allegory for the bomb and the devastation that followed.) This movie, however, is about Oppenheimer, the man and till the end, that is the conviction the movie sticks to even when it is doing it no favours. It is Oppenheimer that the camera focuses on when he is watching a film on the effects the atom bomb had on the victims in Japan. It is Oppenheimer whose moral revulsions are shown affecting his own stance on nuclear policy post World-War II.
This movie, however, is about Oppenheimer, the man and till the end, that is the conviction the movie sticks to even when it is doing it no favours.
It is strange to accuse a film named after its main character of being too much in love with its main character. At times, Oppenheimer does come across like that. At other times, it seems committed to apparently unflinchingly showing the truth of the man and his decisions: his wishy-washy political leanings, his own tendency to throw friends under the bus, his mistreatment of the women in his life. But the first half the film is spent in firmly building him up as a hero and the second half in trying to set him up as a flawed martyr. The end result is a man who exists as a semi-tragic figure in front of the camera and how much that sense of tragedy is earned remains a point of uncertainty for me.