Christopher Nolan’s latest Labour of Love is a masterclass in how to convey the human psychology of egocentricity, even in the face of world-ending consequences. With the elegance of an equation, Nolan has perfected the art of distilling complex physics into thought-provoking tools to explore the philosophies behind human motivation – even surpassing the likes of Interstellar.
Oppenheimer centres on its namesake, the life of the American theoretical Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer who directed the Los Alamos Laboratory, responsible for the research, design and eventual creation of the world’s first atomic weapon. However, atom-splitting, world-quaking devastation aside, atomic energy isn’t the primary concept Nolan explores in this multifaceted tale.
Make no mistake, although the Inception of the atomic bomb alone (pun absolutely intended) is a captivating piece of history from a documentarian standpoint, Nolan’s true concern is weaving his thematic messages concerning moral consequence throughout every scene, shot and pensive line of dialogue.
Remarkably, the film’s exploration of the cataclysmic effects of atomic weaponry never overtakes its unnerving depiction of what lies under the hood of human ingenuity. Hidden in plain sight, like atoms within the structure of its unbelievably well-paced 180-minute run-time, is an abstract expression of how brilliance scarcely escapes arrogance. And perhaps most hauntingly?
How arrogance, doesn’t equate to ignorance.
“Now I am Death, the destroyer of worlds“ – J. Robert Oppenheimer
Nolan’s message is beautifully devastating. Showcasing the mentality of a man who opened Pandora’s Box, not only having the capacity to understand it could cripple the world, but empathise with it as well. How could someone with the capacity for moral conscience, so brazenly act against it? Despite there being an established answer to this question (i.e. that creating an atomic bomb was necessary to end Japan’s formidable hostility in the closing chapter of World War II), Nolan’s dissatisfaction with this answer has blessed us with a masterpiece.
Nolan not only answers this question with immense resonance but does so with all the cinematic trimmings of his non-linear approach to storytelling and briskly clever dialogue that resists dilution. Whether it’s knowing not a pixel of CGI is present throughout the film, or how the costume and set design seamlessly transport you into an era where Cold War metastasising tension invades freedom of thought, Nolan excels on every frontier a filmmaker can hope to.
Of course, Oppenheimer is the nucleus of this biopic’s atomic premise. Cillian’s mastery of acting is once again demonstrated in a charmingly self-assured, excessively impulsive, but morally conscious performance. From the opening scene, Nolan puts Cillian to work in representing the multitude of dimensions Oppenheimer has via his school, work, love, and political relationships.
Ingeniously, Nolan delineates between objectivity and subjectivity concerning the accuracy of these events with one simple trick: greyscale = objective, full colour = subjective. This decision unshackles Cillian to explore a variety of nuanced emotions Oppenheimer could have theoretically grappled with, acting as a law of attraction for supporting actors around him; not only do they become symbolic mirrors for Oppenheimer’s psychology, but provide us with other perspectives to broadly contextualise the moral spectrum of motivations surrounding such a landmark event in human history.
Thanks to unsurprisingly fascinating performances from the likes of Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr. and countless more, Nolan’s goals are impossibly well realised. Each of their contributions adds a piece to the puzzle of Oppenheimer’s Jungian shadow, representing both the best and worst aspects of humanity. Whether it’s Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss being strategically driven by hierarchically obsessed insecurity. Florence’s Jean Tatlock fluctuating between the entropic nature of unchecked philosophising and her psychiatric profession. Or Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein acting as hope for humanity’s moral virtue, in his abstinence from aiding the Manhattan Project… this is a film that leaves no rock unturned concerning Oppenheimer’s psyche.
Oppenheimer is a triumph, raising the bar for what a biopic is capable of achieving. However, although this film is a stimulating treat that more than deserves its hefty 3-hour length, this could be trying for younger audiences. Not to discriminate, but this isn’t for the stereotypical depiction of a zoomer, whose brain is calibrated to seek 5 to 10-second intermittent bursts of dopamine in neatly packaged Tik Toks. This is deserving of your unbridled attention, having been painstakingly crafted to act as a riveting depiction of essential history, a tantalising introduction to quantum mechanics, and a stunningly rich portrait of Man’s ego in the manipulation of god-like forces.
Top it off with a sprinkling of Ludwig Göransson transcendent score? Nothing short of mesmerising.
This film is akin to Promethean Fire for any cinephile or filmmaker looking to create a meaningful biopic and will be studied as such for years to come.
10 out of 10.