Arts and Entertainment

And Now I Am Become Box Office Hit, Creator of Revenue

Does he deserve self-pity now? Does he deserve to even feel guilty?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There’s a new WWII film hitting theaters, and it doesn’t feature any physical combat. Oppenheimer, written and directed by Christropher Nolan, is a biopic on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), controversial nuclear scientist and head of the Manhattan Project. The film came out on July 21 to critical acclaim and has since become a blockbuster, grossing $717.8 million worldwide by late August. Nolan is not a new face in the directorial scene—he’s known for both his melodramatic Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012) and sci-fi hits like Inception (2010) and Tenet (2020). Nolan’s style is very deliberate and easily recognizable, and his filmography changes depending on the tone and focus character of each scene. For example, in Dunkirk (2017), a shaky camera captures a bombing scene, focusing on the soldiers before a cool pan cuts to the generals. This technique is also utilized in Oppenheimer, with the sets shaking from both literal shockwaves and the weight of Oppenheimer’s guilt. Nolan has a tendency to employ the same actors across many of his films, creating a sort of dark, Wes Anderson-style ensemble cast. However, his most notable motif is his non-linear storytelling; many of his movies feature multiple narratives that interconnect and cut across each other, forming a kaleidoscopic view of the story he tells. 

Oppenheimer centers around two narratives: Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos Laboratory, and the subsequent investigation into his communist ties and the possible security threat he poses. The film is prefaced by Oppenheimer studying abroad and almost killing his professor, foreshadowing the pattern of him only realizing the scope of his actions when it’s too late. The first narrative depicts Oppenheimer’s recruitment to the Manhattan Project and his time heading bomb development at Los Alamos. 

 Once Los Alamos receives word that the bombs have been dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer gives a speech—the climax of the first narrative. It’s evident that Oppenheimer is extremely conflicted about the event, yet he gives a celebratory speech to a crowd of disturbingly gleeful recipients. Oppenheimer's speech is intercut by his imagined view of the bomb dropping; nuclear snow drifts down through an abandoned social hall, applause becomes explosions, and, as Oppenheimer leaves, he steps on an ash shell of a body. He steps out into the night air and sees another scientist vomiting next to a wall. They make eye contact as Oppenheimer realizes what he’s done. 

The second narrative takes place years later when Oppenheimer is investigated during the Cold War for his ties to the communist party in a series of hearings to revoke his security clearance. Unbeknownst to him, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) is secretly heading the investigation, since he doesn’t agree with Oppenheimer’s politics and holds a personal grudge against him.  

Though a pivot to the Cold War is necessary, given that it was sparked by the arms race Oppenheimer played such a critical role in, the second narrative isn't as pertinent as the first; it might have been better cut out or only hinted at, as it takes up a lot of screen time, adding to Oppenheimer’s lengthy three-hour runtime.Though the film doesn't drag, it is a bit excessive. This second narrative ends up essentially pardoning Oppenheimer—it seems that Nolan set out with the goal of neither condemning nor commending Oppenheimer’s actions, but because of Oppenheimer’s portrayal as a victim to corrupt politicians, Nolan ends up presenting the message that he got his comeuppance and then some, and should be left alone. This ultimately falls flat, as Nolan spends a lot of time building up Oppenheimer’s guilt and then waves it all away when he gets into trouble.

Aside from the nuanced plot and high production value, Oppenheimer is successful due to its phenomenal casting. Murphy, who also starred in Peaky Blinders (2013–2019) and Batman Begins (2005), is electric in his portrayal of Oppenheimer. The subtleties in his facial expressions are brilliant, dominating the energy of whatever scene he is in. David Krumholtz, also known for his roles in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and Leopoldstadt (2020– ), is another standout performance as Isidor Rabi, a scientist with a similar background to Oppenheimer; Nolan uses the similarities between the two of them to contrast the different decisions they make. Emily Blunt stars as Kitty, Oppenheimer’s wife, and delivers a riveting performance as an exhausted yet fiercely unbroken woman refusing to submit to the government agents investigating her husband. Oppenheimer’s previous romantic partner, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), serves as another source of guilt for Oppenheimer, appearing as a phantom to him during his communist hearings. 

Oppenheimer’s soundtrack also shines. Written and composed by Ludwig Goransson, who worked alongside Nolan on the soundtrack of Tenet (2020), the score incorporates horror and sci-fi audial motifs into instrumental ambient music, resulting in an eerily calm and laid-back soundtrack. When the bombs are dropped, specifically during the Trinity Test, the movie has a muted silence and then a delayed eruption of loud, crackling noise. 

The auditory and visual aspects of the bomb come together to create an extremely intense series of scenes. Shockingly, there was no CGI used in creating the bomb, though there was VFX (the difference being that CGI creates film and VFX adds to preexisting film). Oppenheimer is notably shot in both color (the first narrative) and black and white (Strauss’s perspective). This visually accentuates the differences in opinions between the two main characters, and also subtly suggests that Strauss’s opinion is antiquated and primitive by today’s standards, while Oppenheimer’s is more advanced and fully formed. 

The movie culminates with Oppenheimer recalling that years earlier he and Albert Einstein had discussed whether or not the bomb would cause a chain reaction, destroying the Earth. Murphy delivers the haunting last line of the film before images of Earth being destroyed by nuclear power erupt on-screen: “I believe we did.”

That’s the ultimate question of Oppenheimer: what have we set into motion? Nolan spends so much time building up to this question that he doesn’t explicitly answer it until the very end of the movie. The audience is taken along on a tour of death and tragedy, with hints of a conclusion at various points, until the sudden, abrupt answer: we have set into motion our own destruction.