“Oppenheimer” – American Prometheus [Review]

Oppenheimer movie


Title: “Oppenheimer”

Release Date: 2023

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Gary Oldman, Robert Downey Jr., etc.


I have had a faithful and abiding love for Christopher Nolan’s cinema for years. I love his insistence on combining science, history, grand spectacle and philosophical parabola on the screen. It’s no different with “Oppenheimer” – a multi-layered and, as usual with Nolan, monumental – work that draws you in, entices you, entertains you and disturbs you at the same time. It is a story that is ambivalent on every floor, just as its main character Oppenheimer, who is here the embodiment of the American Prometheus, is full of ambivalence. Fire, the film’s leading metaphor, is at once an element of creation, illuminating darkness and warming, but also destroying. It is the beginning and end of the world, accompanies the birth and death of stars and entire galaxies. The mythical Prometheus, against the will of the gods, decided that humans deserved to possess it and that they would be able to use it properly. Did he ever regret his act? Oppenheimer regretted it, and we are living in an era in which the physicist’s apocalyptic vision is coming true before our eyes. In 2017, after the annexation of Crimea, Nolan in “Dunkirk” warned of a repeat of history, in 2023 in “Oppenheimer” he grimly proclaims its end.

“Oppenheimer” – a pedigree of genius

“Oppenheimer” by Christopher Nolan is a multi-faceted and certainly multi-lecture work, which is worth watching several times to catch the various themes and motifs. The plot’s canvass is the investigation of J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the famous “Manhattan” project in the US in the 1950s, resulting in the construction of the development of the atomic bomb and its subsequent dropping on Hiroshima and Nagassaki in 1945. In the course of the protagonist’s extensive testimony, we learn about his fascinating life and the history of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where a group of the world’s most eminent physicists deliberated how to win an arms race with Hitler.

Thus, Nolan’s film is, in a sense, a biographical work, although the rhythm of the whole story is not set by chronology, but by the memory mechanisms of the great scientist. Even more, we are dealing here with a kind of psychoanalytic investigation, which the director has already shown us in his “Memento”. Its results turn out to be really interesting, as an ambivalent character – full of contradictions – appears before the viewer’s eyes. A genius who shows astonishing awkwardness when confronted with the practical consequences of his theories. Already one of the first scenes in which Oppenheimer fails in the laboratory is extremely significant. It’s an important signal: a great theorist, but a poor practitioner, which takes on special importance in light of the scientist’s greatest achievement. The apple into which Oppenheimer injects cyanide should also be remembered, because it is also a scene that shatters the later monumental monument to this figure.

Oppenheimer movie review

Oppenheimer’s relationships with women are another complicated part of his biography. A womanizer, and at the same time a wife-supporting spouse and father; a sensitive man putting his entire career on the line just to meet his lover, but on the other hand a ruthless cynic who has nothing to do with the feelings of his closest friend. A man imbued to the marrow of his bones with logic, and at the same time a born poet, passionate about literature, painting and philosophy. The latter trait proves useful in winning women’s hearts and bodies, but is also the essence of his sympathy for leftist movements. For Oppenheimer has a truly revolutionary soul and mind, and sees revolution in the avant-garde art of Picasso or the musings of Eliott and Freud.

Ironically, this unremarkable physicist, one of the greatest minds of his era, fails to see who his enemy is and where treachery lurks. The scientific layer of Nolan’s work is, as always, an attempt of the highest order, prepared with attention to the smallest details, as in the films “Interstellar” or “Tenet.” An additional flavor here, of course, is the fact that the story really happened, and the big Nobel names take real shape and have their human weaknesses. Oppenheimer himself is the true embodiment of a genius, i.e. one who, as Niels Bohr would tell him, can not so much read notes as “hear music” at once. All these ambivalences Cillian Murphy won like an experienced virtuoso, creating a magnificent performance that will surely go down in cinema history.

The movie “Oppenheimer” – a virtuoso composition

Watching “Oppenheimer,” one can’t help but marvel at the brilliantly conceived characters and excellent acting. Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, responsible for the construction and operation of Los Alamos, the famous town where the atomic bomb was worked on, is the embodiment of a tough military man in charge of a secret mission, hiding intelligence under the mask of a simple-minded soldier. Emily Blunt makes the most repulsive traits of her character, Oppenheimer’s wife, her greatest asset. On screen, she presents herself not as a housewife living in her husband’s shadow, but a fascinating woman who retains her own independence, interests and strong character, allowing the family to survive all crises.

Oppenheimer film 2023

However, I have the impression that Nolan’s mastery in creating characters lies in showing them in mutual confrontation. Indeed, the most memorable are the micro-scenes of encounters between great characters: Oppenheimer – Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Oppenheimer – Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) and Oppenheimer – Harry Truman (played by Gary Oldman). The importance of these dialogues is underscored by the fact that the protagonist talks to each of the people mentioned (except Truman) on screen twice: before the bomb was built and during the final works or after the tragic bombing of Japanese cities. In both situations, almost symbolic questions are said here, but their common denominator is Oppenheimer’s nagging loneliness, completely alone with his dilemmas and shouldering the unspeakable burden of first the decision and then its consequences. Particular prominence is given in the film to the meeting with Einstein, which constitutes the compositional buckle of “Oppenheimer,” in which, I have a feeling, there are some perverse echoes of the famous secret conversation between Bohr and Heisenberg in 1941 in Copenhagen.

Excellent acting is, of course, only one of the strengths of Nolan’s film. For the work is a perfectly composed whole of stunning cinematography and monumental music. Hoyte Van Hoytema captured the essence of the work’s visionary and at times even prophetic message in his photographs. Of particular note is the way in which the test detonation of the atomic bomb is portrayed – a scene that is impossible to pass by indifferently. In turn, Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack contributes to the solemn atmosphere, reflecting the momentousness of the depicted events, while the horror here is a resultant of the voice and the ringing silence in the ears, taking away speech. It becomes synonymous with what is inexpressible in words.

“Oppenheimer” and Nolan’s apocalyptic vision

I think, however, that it is not the biography or the science, nor the analysis of a brilliant mind or even the postmodern philosophy growing out of the theory of relativity and the discoveries of quantum physics that is the most profound dimension of “Oppenheimer.” In my view, as in “Dunkirk,” also set in the realities of World War II, Nolan builds a parabola of modern times. The film, which tells the story of the Allies’ escape from Hitler’s troops, was made in 2017, shortly after Putin’s annexation of Crimea, to which Europe reacted with eloquent silence. In 2023, when in fact Russian nuclear blackmail has become our everyday life, the director presents “Oppenheimer.” And it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that Nolan is using the famous Ibsen ploy: instead of a shotgun, all we have is a bomb. The bomb is already there, the only question is when it will explode.