Updated: Aug 26
Oppenheimer, summed up in four words: intense, complex, long, loud. Before I get to the story, I have to talk about those last two practical points. I am a movie person. And a history buff. I knew I would see this move after the very first trailer. But even I was looking at the clock a few times during this one. And the sound! It wasn’t the bomb that was loud, it was the music. Mr. Nolan decided to use gradual musical crescendos of blaring horns and bomb ticking and feet stomping among other effects to raise tension multiple times. It was a go-to device that unfortunately got old for me. I would’ve been content with letting the weight of the moments and the stakes raise the tension rather than blaring horns and train sounds repeatedly climbing to screeching levels before suddenly going silent. My ears were still ringing long after leaving the theatre.
Practical points aside, the story of the movie was not what I expected. It was better in some ways, but also puzzling and disappointing in others. This felt like a director’s cut, leaving no stone unturned, tying together strands from multiple characters weaving political, scientific and relationship webs. In previous Nolan movies with complex plots the dialogue is spartan (see Tenet, in which not a single unneeded word is uttered). Oppenheimer leans more dramatic than normal for Nolan.
But for all that, after almost three and half hours, I still don’t know who Oppenheimer is or what he wants. Murphy does an excellent job of getting into the character, the trouble is the character is so detached from all realities except one that I was left with the impression that Oppenheimer himself didn’t know who he was. And maybe that’s one of the points Nolan intended to express. From the first scene to the very last, Oppenheimer looks glassy-eyed like he is thinking about something else other than what’s happening around him, even while talking. What he’s thinking -- we never know. At one point when another character tries to pin down Oppenhiemer’s view on the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer answers, “We presented our views to the committee...” at which the lawyer interrupts, “I’m not interested in ‘our’ views. What is your view?” Right? Oppenheimer answers, “I presented all views of all sides to the committee, that was my job.”
Even his actions don’t tell us much about what he really thinks. He’s a genius leader. But he is too stupid to disassociate himself from communists. He regrets all the destruction and death caused by the bomb. But when asked to give a speech on it he remarks on how the Japanese got a good taste of it and how unfortunate it is that we didn’t finish it before the Germans surrendered so we could’ve dropped a few on them too. He has so many contradictions while always remaining just a bit detached that I was left thinking he was basically a man on autopilot that got a job done but isn’t quite sure what to make of it.
To be honest, this somewhat matches my impression of him before the movie. I knew about the meeting with Truman, his remark about blood on his hands and Truman’s response. I did have a general impression that he lacked a grip on what state-level actors were willing and capable of doing in pursuit of national security, especially after he fired the starting gun for the nuclear race. This movie portrays him as even more kum-ba-yah than I thought. But it’s also about more. I won’t spoil the plot, but this isn’t about the bomb. It’s about human political machinations, basic nature, and retribution creeping behind it. It’s about the hardest questions people had to grapple with when asked to go beyond known scientific limits into unpredictable danger. The weight and tension was palpable without rising and falling music effects.