“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer
Christopher Nolan did not want any of us to forget J. Robert Oppenheimer, so he reached into history and resurrected Oppie in what is the best film of Nolan’s career and one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Nolan has adapted the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, with careful and loving detail, packing the film with as much information as possible, showcasing all of the book’s best moments — and even with that, there is still so much more to discover that has not been included.
Oppenheimer grew up at the right time and the wrong time. He was never held back, only encouraged by a society that had then wanted to grow brilliant scientists and intellectuals. But when his free-thinking spirit clashed with the punitive, paranoid tyranny of the McCarthy era, an independent mind like Oppenheimer’s was then seen as too free and, therefore, too much of a threat.
American Prometheus is linear; the movie is not. In the same way that Inception feels like it’s coming at the story from many different directions until (at last) it lands on the mark, so too does Oppenheimer fling us wildly from moment to moment, at different points in his history. The viewer must keep up — and that’s no easy feat.
Even if you know nothing about World War II, the Red Scare, the shifts in temperament between the Roosevelt, the Truman, and the Eisenhower administrations, the building of the atomic bomb (and the hydrogen bomb), and of course, the devastating use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you will still find yourself deeply immersed in the mind and heart of Oppenheimer, our American Prometheus.
Oppenheimer was a man no one could tame — his mind was wild and free. He had no barriers when it came to adventure, and would often ride his horse into thunderstorms to the top of a mountain, miles from civilization, with no direction home. He could not say no to a challenge. Th scope of his life is one I fear no one will ever live again because it wasn’t rooted online or in his phone, but in books, in poetry, in nature, in science, in sex. Oppenheimer was, more than anything, an alive mind and a Renaissance man — an iconoclastic polymath who could not be contained by a singular definition.
People who see the world in black and white vs. people who see the world in color is the main theme of this challenging, provocative, and beautiful film. Nolan centers the story around the relationship between Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), two Jewish-American men whose lives, whose beliefs, whose demeanors couldn’t have been more different.
Oppenheimer saw the world in full color. Despite where the world was headed in the 1930s — on its way to a fight with the Nazis — there was enough of the aliveness, the intellectual and societal vibrancy of the 1920s left in American and European culture that Oppenheimer had no worries about where his curiosity might take him, what women he chose to fall in love with, what kinds of people he befriended, or what political ideologies he might endeavor to explore.
Lewis Strauss, on the other hand, saw the world in black and white, and is why half of this film is in black and white. The man responsible for orchestrating Oppenheimer’s public demise was not extraordinary. His dreams of studying physics were sacrificed for a life in business. He was a hardline conservative Republican, whereas Oppenheimer was most definitely a liberal who had communist sympathies and associations.
In what will have to be one of the best performances of the year and certainly of his career, Cillian Murphy proves why actors matter — why they are artists and not just celebrities or movie stars. Only an actor of his talent could bring such a complicated person to life with such a vivid combination of traits nearly impossible to find in any other human being. That voice, those eyes, his skeletal frame. How he wore his signature porkpie hat, how he smoked, how he made love to women, how his mind never stopped. I didn’t think anyone could pull it off, but somehow, Murphy has done it. There was not a moment while watching this film where I saw an actor and not Oppenheimer.
It would have been easy to portray Strauss as an uptight (if not cartoonish) villain from history, to take an easy shot at the arch-conservative in a story full of liberal Democrats, but to his credit, Robert Downey Jr. finds the compassion in Strauss and brings us someone we feel for and understand. His misery, his rigidity, his jealousy, and his ambition for a tiny bit of greatness that will forever elude him is in every flick of his eyes, in every smile, and in every grimace. Downey has never been better.
Beyond the inconceivable suffering and death from the war, the hardest thing about the Oppenheimer story for me, in both the book and the film, is that Oppenheimer was not the best at choosing women and often went for the dark and damaged types. This is reflected in his early relationship with the mercurial Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), who was bisexual. She loved Oppie, but she loved women more. This isn’t explored much in the film except for one line, “You know I’m not what you want.” But this relationship is important because it’s been said she was his one true love, and also the catalyst for his eventual demise. She was a communist (in the days when it was cool, don’t forget that) and it’s not known for certain whether she died by suicide or was murdered by the FBI. Nolan handles this brilliantly by showing her death two ways. She did it herself, or a mysterious gloved hand helped her by drugging her and drowning her in the tub.
Pugh is wonderful as Tatlock, though she’s so good that we kind of miss her once she’s gone. But again, it’s a question of how much more you can pack in to an already packed 3 hours.
Harder to parse, at least for me, was Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), who seemed to resent becoming a mother. She treated both her babies with neglect and often even disdain, preferring to have them raised by friends than suffer through their cries for attention. Though it’s not in the movie, Robert and Kitty’s daughter would later be punished for his suspected ties to communism (a witch hunt) and would be denied a security clearance, which is said to have contributed to her eventual death by suicide.
Blunt is strong as Kitty. It’s not an easy part to play, as she only seemed to really care about two things: Oppie and alcohol. But Blunt adeptly captures the one thing about her no one could forget: her fire.
We can’t look at Oppie or even Kitty through the moralistic judgments of right now. To do that, to see things in black and white, would be to empty out the experience of everything meaningful. This isn’t a movie about strictly “good” and “bad” people. Thankfully, people weren’t defined that way through most of history, except for now and other regrettable moments in our past, like the 1950s and the days of the Puritans.
Nolan’s affection for Oppie shines through every frame. At times, he seems to become Oppie himself, who dragged everyone he knew on horseback to sit by a campfire in the mountains of New Mexico and listen to him read Baudelaire or T.S. Eliot. “Look at this!”, Nolan seems to be saying with each frame. His enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and by the end of the film it’s Oppie’s face that imprints in the mind’s eye — his worry for the future that carries the film’s strongest message.
To recreate the Trinity atomic test explosion south of Los Alamos was no easy feat, and witnessing a fearsome depiction of the first time humanity saw a nuclear bomb exploding is breathtaking. Nolan holds to the reactions by those who were there more than he focuses on the spectacle. To his credit, he does not wish to impress us with the bomb’s power or beauty. He wants us to understand that it is a destroyer of worlds.
It should go without saying that this is an Oscar contender across the board, from the acting to the directing to the writing to the crafts. It is exceptional filmmaking that will not go unnoticed by awards voters. The ensemble cast is strong, with standouts like Kenneth Branagh and Matt Damon. And did I mention the score from Ludwig Göransson?
It’s hard not to fall in love with Oppenheimer while reading American Prometheus or watching the movie. That notorious charisma, which few could explain and even fewer could resist, reaches across time. Oppie had a spark of genius, a lust for life, a mind that could not be contained. But he was doomed by the circumstances of a culture that could not accept him as he was, and instead only tried to silence him. So threatening was dissent in the 1950s.
Oppenheimer is a martyr in history — and yes, his own wife Kitty and others accused him of that. He was wildly arrogant and often used his intellect as a weapon to cut people to the quick. But despite always being the smartest guy in the room, he could also be compassionate to a fault. The tragedy in the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer is not just how the government chewed him up and spit him out, but in how they tried to force him (as they did so many others) to violate his own personal integrity and name names.
Though it’s not in the movie, Oppenheimer had many allies, including Edward R. Murrow, who once interviewed him. It perhaps this association that made his plight sympathetic to more high-profile people on the Left, but to give away those names is too much of a spoiler.
Oppenheimer knew what his persecutors could not: he could see the future. He had to know that one day writers like Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin and filmmakers like Christopher Nolan would go digging in the dirt and ashes for priceless treasures, and that when they unearthed the name J. Robert Oppenheimer, they would know it was time for his life, his persecution, and his legacy to take their rightful place in history.
Prometheus was celebrated by the people for stealing fire from the gods. But he would pay a high price for such an offense. It’s not easy to know whether or not you’re on the right side of history, but if you stand in opposition to authoritarian overreach by a government and a culture aligned in their hysteria and fear of unseen evils in our midst, you will always be on the right side.
In 2022, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm finally vacated the 1954 decision to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance. “As time has passed, more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.”
Oppenheimer was living through the wrong time in history, with the wrong government in power. America was coming out of the apocalypse of World War II — who could have imagined a Hitler or a Stalin? Our leaders had tasted both the greatest evil and the nirvana of victory, and could not, would not stop. They would destroy Oppenheimer if he got in their way. And so they did.
As Eisenhower later warned about, the conflicts between scientists and the Military Industrial Complex is the battle that plays out in Nolan’s spectacular masterpiece. You already know who won, after thousands of bomb detonations later, with untold effects from nuclear fallout and environmental damage. Dropping the bomb was one thing — pulling back from where it was going to take us was entirely another.
Oppenheimer could see into the future. He knew where his life’s work would eventually be headed because he understood more about human nature than most people ever could. Hopefully, he also knew that his trail of breadcrumbs would one day find their way to Christopher Nolan, who would take what was mostly a forgotten page in a high school history text book and bring him back, not as Prometheus but as a Phoenix from the ashes, rising again in full spectral light in an art house blockbuster to drop into the laps of future generations.
They won’t forget you now, Oppie.