Christopher Nolan’s Martyrdom of Saint Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer ignores the darker sides of the life and work of J. Robert Oppenheimer in order to deliver a crowd-pleasing, blockbuster spectacle.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures, 2023)

If you like film at all, you’ll no doubt be seeing Christopher Nolan’s epic three-hour biopic Oppenheimer. Considering the cinematic doldrums lately, why wouldn’t you go for this hugely hyped, wildly praised spectacle, which is bound to be given every known award? You’ll spend the hours studying legendary physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, in vast close-ups, especially if you see the film in IMAX, which makes Murphy’s face seem as tall as skyscrapers and his wide blue eyes as big as swimming pools.

The attempt to understand “what made Oppenheimer tick” is as old as the A-bomb, and this film tackles it afresh, clearly with the assumption that it’ll all be news to the younger generation. If you’re already convinced of the dangers of nuclear war, superseded only by the ongoing end-times series of rolling climate catastrophes that now seem more likely to kill us all, this film is going to lack a certain urgency, however.

Still, all of the Nolanisms beloved by his fans — who are legion after such career hits as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk — are represented. Nolan’s traditional, emotionally melodramatic Hollywood movie tendencies are, as usual, dressed up in intricate flashbacks, narrative trickiness, pyrotechnic editing flourishes, and pounding soundtrack bombast.

And because Nolan can now stack his casts with famous actors as yet another aspect of his sky-high production values, you’ll have the repeated experience of registering celebrity faces as characters are introduced. And so many characters get introduced, scenes sometimes play like handshaking parties. There’s Matt Damon as Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who brought on Oppenheimer as the head of the secret mission to win World War II by creating an atomic bomb! There’s Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission! There’s Tom Conti as Albert Einstein! There’s Kenneth Branagh as Danish physicist Niels Bohr! There’s Benny Safdie as “father of the hydrogen bomb” Edward Teller! There’s Josh Hartnett . . . and Rami Malek . . . and Casey Affleck.

I’m hinting in my subtle way that I don’t particularly like Christopher Nolan films in general, so that’s something to note as you read this review. I also don’t like this film in particular. But, of course, there are innumerable rave reviews of Oppenheimer, so mine stands as a rare dissenting opinion.

The film is constructed in a way that suggests trying to pull together the fissured strands of Oppenheimer’s personality even while acknowledging that there’s no way to arrive at a sensemaking whole when contemplating his visionary brilliance, his vacillating politics, his turbulent love life, his triumph and tragedy as the “modern Prometheus,” and his interludes of swaggering hubris combined with his interludes of guilt-ridden reticence. Ultimately, Oppenheimer is treated as an oceanic mystery of a man raised to the sky in public opinion for (in the view of the majority) saving the Allies from the ongoing horrors of fascism and World War II, then cruelly pilloried on trumped-up anti-commie charges. But the real punishment is his awesome guilt in leading the effort to unleash the horrors of nuclear war upon us.

Nolan deploys a Citizen Kane–like model of narrative fracturing to convey Oppenheimer’s dizzying complexity in the crucible in which he found himself. Orson Welles’s original title for Citizen Kane was “American,” and he makes Kane’s material circumstances a vital issue in his film. Born into the hardscrabble working class, he becomes incredibly wealthy overnight through access to vast American natural resources — in his case, literally striking it rich with the “Colorado Lode” mining bonanza. This makes possible his ascent to fame and “great man” status while hollowing him out at the same time, catastrophically cutting him off from his own family and community.

Like Welles, Nolan embraces the idea of the final unknowability of the character. Early in Nolan’s film, for example, you see the incredible incident of the deadly poisoned apple that the resentful student Oppenheimer gives his professor. This turns out to be based on something that really happened while Oppenheimer was studying at the University of Cambridge. Nolan represents Oppenheimer with aching sympathy as a lonely boy genius, homesick and further isolated from his peers by his obsessive visions of structures underlying the teeming chaos that seems to make up the world. He’s shown to be pitifully self-conscious of his own incompetence in the lab, which doesn’t exactly match the real Oppenheimer’s superior tone in describing his Cambridge education to a friend: “I am having a pretty bad time. The lab work is a terrible bore, and I am so bad at it that it is impossible to feel that I am learning anything. . . . The lectures are vile.”

Nolan based his film on a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography that also regards Oppenheimer with tender pity, attributing his act of poisoning to his recurrent depression. “Robert did something so stupid that it seemed calculated to prove that his emotional distress was overwhelming him,” write the biographers Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. “Consumed by his feelings of inadequacy and intense jealousy, he ‘poisoned’ an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and left it on Blackett’s desk.”

Oppenheimer injected an apple with some toxic substance that was perhaps not as lethal as the cyanide represented in the film, in which a remorseful Oppenheimer is portrayed as waking up in the morning, shocked at his own murderous act. He races back to the professor’s office to retrieve the apple from his desk. To his horror, one of his idols — Niels Bohr — is just about to take a bite out of the apple when Oppenheimer snatches it away, with the breathless explanation, “Wormhole!”

Wormhole, get it? Little science joke there.

That’s not actually what happened in real life. Accounts are a bit vague, but they agree that somehow Oppenheimer’s poisoned apple created no casualties but still got found out by the authorities at Cambridge. Oppenheimer’s father had to hurry to prevent young Oppie from being expelled, in part by guaranteeing his son’s regular visits to a psychiatrist.

Not-so-young Oppenheimer went on to further acts of reckless hubris. According to a review of another recent Oppenheimer biography, “As a young professor in California, he crashed his car while racing a train, an accident that left his girlfriend unconscious. His father made amends by giving the young woman a painting and a Cézanne drawing.”

Why not include Oppenheimer’s far more cinematic daredevil race against the train in this biopic? It’s every bit as telling of what comes later as the highly symbolic poisoned apple incident is. (Oppenheimer gave all of humanity a poisoned apple, but he failed to snatch it away again, see?) The “womanizing” Oppenheimer is shown to be an unintentional but nevertheless total disaster to the women in his life.

Though, admittedly, he seems drawn to dark, depressive, humorless women who happen to be members or former members of the Communist Party. His longtime love, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) commits suicide when Oppenheimer ends their lengthy on-and-off affair. His long-suffering, alcoholic wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), is shown to be curdling into ever-angstier meanness during their marriage and repeatedly rejecting motherhood in the harshest way.

But there’s no way to make the starker, weirder, more shockingly arrogant aspects of Oppenheimer’s personality conform to the portrait that Nolan’s building here. You’ll wait a long time for an American biopic to make a serious effort to tell the harsher truth. It’s a terrible genre for that reason. The more interesting, insightful aspects of famous lives are almost inevitably censored.

Drawing on Cillian Murphy’s pitiful thinness — which he achieved through dramatic weight loss he could hardly afford — and the softer possibilities of his pink-mouthed, big-eyed face, Nolan presents us with a perpetually distracted, endearingly eccentric, brainy naif who gets carried away with his own visions and enthusiasms until it’s too late to reckon with the crushing consequences of what he’s done. There’s little sense, especially, of Oppenheimer’s well-known, towering ambition.

It could certainly help account for some otherwise puzzling behaviors of his, such as his insistence on appearing before the kangaroo court assembled to remove his security clearance and tarnish his reputation in ways potentially fatal to his titanic career. This was well into the McCarthy era of blacklisting leftists for far less involvement in communist politics than Oppenheimer had, however scattershot his actual activities were. By 1954, the likely consequences were obvious. Einstein himself warned Oppenheimer against appearing, and then, when Oppenheimer refused to listen, dismissed him in a cutting remark to his assistant: “There goes a narr,” which is German for “fool.”

Oppenheimer’s refusal to dodge the hearing is credited to his heartfelt patriotism, but surely his sense of self-importance and untouchability was a part of it too.

As the film demonstrates, once on the receiving end of the commission’s attacks, Oppenheimer became soft and cagey in a way that infuriated his wife, who wanted him to put up a strong fight against the forces of American government behind the blacklist. Nolan represents this as a kind of “martyrdom of Saint Oppenheimer,” but a certain amount of crass careerism could’ve been portrayed as kicking in more overtly here, when his wife shrills, “Why won’t you fight?”

After all, he had a lot to lose. As Nolan’s film demonstrates, postwar Oppenheimer was famous, considered the top scientist in America and maybe the world, celebrated on the cover of Time magazine. His conviction that he could help guide the government’s handling of nuclear weapons along more humanely concerned lines really did get him dismissed by Harry S. Truman as a “crybaby,” but the fact is, he was actually getting consulted by the president and every other important suit on down the line.

Nolan’s is the kind of film that features an ahistorically dramatic line delivery and a pause for a shudder of horror from the audience when someone mentions the name of “Los Alamos,” the obscure desert location of Oppenheimer’s secret atomic bomb building and testing site. There’s exactly the same kind of ahistorical frisson in Gone With the Wind (1939), when Rhett Butler mentions the battle shaping up in a tiny Pennsylvania town that might decide the fate of the entire Civil War, called — weighty pause — “Gettysburg.”

It’s corny as hell, but it’s always a crowd-pleaser.

There’s also, more than once, the intoning of Oppenheimer’s own famously hammy quote from the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, in reaction to his work on the ultimate weapon of mass destruction: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” In real life, Oppenheimer’s detractors noted that his pretentious quotes drawn from extensive if eclectic reading were among his more maddening rhetorical traits, but there can be no humorous eye-rolling at such pronouncements in this film.

Which makes me appreciate even more the wild and funny “Barbenheimer” mash-up memes making the rounds about the incongruous yet oddly Cold War–compatible same-day opening of Barbie and Oppenheimer. My favorite one shows an eerie, distorted black-and-white image of the face of real-life Oppenheimer with the caption, “Now I am become Barbie girl, in Barbie worlds.”

But the anxious would-be profundity in the handling of the film’s subject matter is part of the typical Nolan strategy of informing the world, and the members of the Academy and other award-giving entities, of the importance of his chosen subject. Nolan is making the press rounds saying that J. Robert Oppenheimer is “the most important person who ever lived,” so it logically follows that his film is crucial viewing and that all of his seriously considered directorial choices are also terribly important. Critics take down the information about these choices like publicists and report them faithfully to a duly impressed public — such as Nolan’s surprising decision not to show the Japanese victims of the atomic bombings. Instead, we see Oppenheimer merely imagining the effects of the bomb on members of his rapturous American audience.

But the absolute lack of physical reality given to the results of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the refusal to portray mass annihilation — is one of the film’s more stunning glossing-over effects. It’s ludicrous, the idea that Oppenheimer’s imaginings, safe in the United States, of the flayed skin of a few people in his audience who are applauding his speech, and a charred body impeding his path as he takes his triumphal march away from the podium, is somehow “more effective and chilling.”

Not showing in any memorable or realistic way the ghastly consequences of Oppenheimer’s biggest achievement is a safe-playing strategy, once again, to preserve audience sympathy for the hero, which you generally need if you want a big blockbuster hit. And Christopher Nolan always wants a big blockbuster hit.