I have no idea if it was Christopher Nolan’s intent to basically make an homage to Oliver Stone’s JFK (a movie I personally love), but it sure seems apparent to me that that’s what he’s done here, even though I’m not sure he’ll admit to it. My best guess is Nolan knows what this is, but doesn’t play fast and loose with facts like JFK does (by all accounts Nolan was meticulous in getting historical facts correct; the same cannot be said about JFK).
But visually and narratively, Oppenheimer follows the JFK script, if you will, of framing the event the title character is most famous for around hearings and an investigation. Just like JFK isn’t directly about the Kennedy assassination – instead based on the investigation and conspiracies surrounding it – Oppenheimer isn’t so much about the atomic bomb as it is about a hearing designed to railroad J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) after the end of World War II after Oppenheimer came out against further escalation of nuclear weapons. There are two hearings actually: One, a private one, involving stripping Oppenheimer’s security clearance; the other a public Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.*) as Secretary of Commerce, whose relationship with Oppenheimer is being used against him. During both of these hearings we get to hear from a lot of kooky characters, played by a list of famous people too long to even begin to list out, with a lot of overacting in each of their limited time on screen. (The only thing missing is cool John Candy saying words like “daddio.”)
(*Downey is pretty terrific here and his part is especially interesting in that I’ve, quite frankly, never seen him act using this acting style before. He’s made three movies since 2008 where he’s not playing Tony Stark (Oppenheimer is the fourth) and his baseline acting style is Tony Stark. He was Tony Stark before he was Tony Stark. Why might have to go back to movies like Back to School, Johnny Be Good, or Weird Science where he wasn’t playing the wisecracking likable rascal. Anyway, it was actually pretty startling to watch Downey act as opposed to kind of just kind of be on cruise control with a persona he’s done a million times.)
Here’s where I’ll stop pointing out how much this movie resembles JFK, but just know almost every example I cite for the rest of this piece, I’m sure thinking it.
For a literal three-hour movie, Oppenheimer moves pretty well. A big reason is this is a movie that doesn’t stay on one scene very long. A character will be recounting his or her story and we will see brief flashbacks. Sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white (ahem, JFK). A character testifying will set up a scene, then we will flashback for that scene. Which, in a movie that depends heavily on very complicated science, serves as a somewhat effective way to handle exposition about how splitting atoms can be used to create atomic bombs. Though, honestly, it may not be a bad idea to read about what the difference is between uranium and plutonium and why sometimes it’s better to explode an atomic bomb and, other times, implosion works better. Oh, and how stars work and what happens when they die. Oppenheimer does kind of assume you have a halfway working knowledge of atomic energy.
At its heart, Oppenheimer is about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s struggle with humanity … on multiple fronts. There’s his relationship with his first wife, Jean (Florence Pugh ), who he feels he fails. Then his relationship with his second wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), who he also fails. (Blunt deserved a lot more to do in this movie. Relegated to pretty much one “powerful” scene where she “tells it like it is,” earning a smile from a crotchety old coot.) Then his relationship with humanity itself, and his role in killing hundreds of thousands of people with his work. After being recruited by Matt Damon’s Colonial, then, later, General Groves, Oppenheimer is in New Mexico developing the bombs, and he could tell himself that this was an unfortunate necessity. The Nazis were working on the same technology and had a big head start. If Oppenheimer didn’t develop these weapons, the Nazis would surely win. And he uses this line to recruit some of the best scientists in the Unites States.
But then what happens when Germany surrenders? And Japan, a country that wasn’t surrendering, but also wasn’t developing their own bomb, becomes the intended target? “It will still save lives by ending the war,” politicians, bureaucrats, and military leaders tell him. But this is of little solace. It was a demonstration for the Soviets and Oppenheimer realizes this – becoming his foundation for pushing for atomic treaties and his stance against the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. (Complicating matters, not mentioned in the movie because there’s enough going on, near the end of World War II the Soviets declared war on Japan. So the United States also very much wanted to end the war quickly at that point for geopolitical reasons.) But, as a movie … yeah we get making a bomb that kills a lot of people and probably keeps one up at night. Yeah, I bet. I’m not sure the movie is saying much more than that and, at three hours long, even though the editing and narrative style keeps it moving, it gets to be redundant.
When Nolan takes on true stories, it’s interesting. He’s less likely to get in his own way with some of his obsessions. Sure, in Dunkirk, he still uses time as a construct, but I found how he did it there interesting, as opposed to Tenet, which seems to exist to, mostly, please Christopher Nolan. But I do think Nolan has an obsessive eye for getting historical events correct, which makes his work about these historical events even more interesting. So, I do appreciate that aspect. (Though, there’s one eye-rolling moment in this movie where a very famous future U.S. President’s name is mentioned in a, “who is this guy,” kind of way that is nowhere as clever as he thinks it is.)
(Speaking of obsessions, I did want to mention the format I saw this in (70mm IMAX) has gotten a lot of attention for being 11 miles of film. You know, I have to admit, I was kind of excited to check this out since it’s only being shown that way in a handful of locations around the world, including here in New York. When it started, I found myself impressed. But then as the movie goes on, as always, I eventually forget. There’s only so long I can keep consciously reminding myself, “This is in film!” before I stop paying attention.)
But, in the end, JFK was about Jim Garrison’s quest to uncover the truth, if there actually was a hidden truth or not. (Garrison, and Oliver Stone, certainly believed so.) Oppenheimer shares that DNA (and style and structure) with Nolan’s fixation on the truth about J. Robert Oppenheimer. As Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer tells her husband, “Will anyone, ever, tell the truth about this?” Christopher Nolan has obviously accepted this question as his charge.
‘Oppenheimer’ opens in theaters everywhere this week. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.