Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer.
Directed and written by Christopher Nolan
By Theo Macdonald
“The central icon of the atomic culture,” wrote historian Peter B. Hales, “is the mushroom cloud, rising above the lush tropical atolls of the South Pacific or the wastelands of the Great American Desert.” Throughout the 40s, the US government corralled news media outlets to distribute vibrant mushroom cloud imagery, as if the bomb were a wild entity, rather than a fabricated tool.
A blockbuster filmmaker like Christopher Nolan making a film about nuclear weapons raises unique issues of representation. How to visualise the nuclear bomb without replicating nuclearist fantasies of sublime grandeur? And how to do so without minimising the horror experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the cancers, stillbirths and disenfranchisement of downwinders and other victims in the Pacific and the deserts of America and Australia?
But Oppenheimer is about the man, not the weapon he helped create. The essential threads of the film’s timeline, which bounces around like an agitated puppy, are the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s 1954 security hearing (when a kangaroo court probed his Communist affiliations and personal indiscretions) and the 1958 senate hearing regarding Oppenheimer’s nemesis, politician Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr).
Within these three chronologies, the Manhattan Project is the prologue, culminating spectacularly halfway through; the Strauss hearing is the epilogue, offering a bitter-sweet resolution to Oppenheimer’s tragic downfall; the McCarthyite investigation is the (red) meat in the sandwich. With this weighting, the film’s focus is on how a specific moment’s history, institutions, beliefs and necessities can confine an individual’s freedom to think.
Nolan’s script accepts all the workhorses of the Hollywood biopic: crooked historical compression, a fetish for “accurate” costumes and props, and women reminding men how brilliant they are. These dress-up caricatures are stand-ins, ciphers for forces shaping the title character’s moral journey. In the film’s first hour, we are introduced to Leslie Groves and Lewis Strauss and Ernest Lawrence and Patrick Blackett — name after name after name. Perhaps Oppenheimer should be exhibited with a playbill that provides context for this onslaught of obscure historical figures.
Nolan’s intelligent audio-visual storytelling rejuvenates his thinly written characters. When Oppenheimer speaks to Einstein at Princeton, we first see the conversation from the distant position of Strauss. Nolan’s telephoto lens flattens the conversation into a historical trinket, à la the Bayeux Tapestry. When we return to the scene from Einstein’s perspective, the camera moves into and around Oppenheimer’s weathered stare, like a fish investigating a waterlogged diver. On the giant Imax screen, these dripping portraits of long-dead men fizz with energy. The newly developed black-and-white Imax film stock used for the 1958 sequences produces the most beautiful images of this blockbuster season.
So how does Nolan represent the bomb in the film? As an overwhelming, abject light. In “No Ordinary Sun”, poet Hone T ūwhare rejected attempts to naturalise the bomb through environmental metaphors: “This is no gallant monsoon’s flash,/ no dashing trade wind’s blast.” Nolan’s bomb is not sunlight but a human-made, mechanical glare. He reflects the bomb in the faces of its designers as if they are being punished with an abstract, violent erasure. By avoiding the primacy of the mushroom cloud, Nolan creates an opportunity to re-encounter the threat of nuclear weaponry.
Since the film’s release on the 78th anniversary of the Trinity Test, concerned organisations have weighed in. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons produced an action kit to support activists discussing nuclear threats with a newly engaged public. NPR broadcast interviews with the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a group of New Mexicans seeking reparations and recognition for the impacts of radioactive fallout. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a special factchecking issue and interviewed Nolan about his pro-disarmament bona fides. One anti-nuclear activist announced that he would be seeing the film, but he would not be buying popcorn.
The challenges to Oppenheimer, from an antinuclear perspective, are questions of adequacy and aesthetics. Does the film adequately condemn nuclear proliferation and acknowledge the past harms of nuclear weaponry? Neither of these questions can be sufficiently answered, for there is no adequate articulation of the anguish wrought in the nuclear age.
Nevertheless, Oppenheimer, as a blockbuster film event, remains significant for how it has brought these discussions to the foreground, particularly as the Marshall Islands has been renegotiating how the US government acknowledges its legacy there. Although it is often confusing, and tends towards the corny, Oppenheimer challenges, at a massively commercial scale, American militarism. It does so by harnessing the persuasive capacity of pure filmmaking.
Theo Macdonald is North & South’s junior staff writer, a role supported by NZ on Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund.
This story appeared in the September 2023 issue of North & South.