“Oppenheimer”: an American tragedy relayed as a time-slipping weft of memory and hurt in the form of the panic attack of all panic attacks: I, I, asked the questions of the universe, I, I, brought the world fire and for that they want to burn me, I, whole.
Christopher Nolan says he wrote his screenplay, drawn from the 721 pages of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” from the perspective of his protagonist, the man who assembled the bomb that was Trinity in “a terrible revelation of divine powers that would preface the firestorms over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the first-person account of ‘I.'”
For lack of a keener phrase, this is an intimate epic. “Brilliant counts for a lot,” Oppenheimer says, but it’s not everything in how a singular, neurotic mind marks its way through civilization—is he the most self-important man in history? “Actually important,” a character corrects. Nolan sees Oppenheimer as the artificer of the world we hold today, and what may be left of it if—when?—final fire is ultimately sparked.
The naked “I” is also very much in the range of close-ups in 70mm on the big screen of the contours of the cheekbones of Cillian Murphy, his wide eyes widened further still by questions of theory, the turning, churning machinations of an improvident world, and always his desire—theory, the cigarettes that killed him, women. He is brought to bone: the arch of bone beneath the eye that nearly pierces flesh as it courses along the jaw, the uniform of extended pipe and wide-brimmed hat, and what a beautiful top coat that drapes his coat rack of a frame! (“I” is also literally naked as one of the figures of two lovers in a hotel room, draped over club chairs, Balthus figures hued with burnish.)
Thirty-six hours after a first encounter is not much time to mull the implications, the patterning, the heft of “Oppenheimer”—which conveys with outer calm and inner fury the choices one makes for others and the choices made for oneself—even if it’s not the potential for an atom bomb with its legacy of potential world detonation at any instant. A lifetime, plus the life of every soul on earth.
Nolan insists that petty battles will persist, the same men who coldly conduct vendetta against J. Robert Oppenheimer are also those who retain the buttons and keys and those molecules of the fire of science, the stuff that cursed Prometheus. Bureaucrats tether men, not chain reactions.
Oppenheimer: “a dilettante, a womanizer,” “a New Deal Democrat” empathizes with both atom and the working man. He bristles and thrives in the company of equally incandescent figures as they rush to have “The Gadget” before Hitler does, mostly men, who can read the pages scratched with diagrams and symbols as if it were music upon staves, that to their eyes is smashing and symphonic.
Nolan’s prismatic telling comprises three solid hours of what some may take as mere bombast (and passages that could be described as bombastic calm)—with the kaleidoscope of Oliver Stone-like editing (calmed, somewhat) and Stone-style sparking star cameos (and multiple widescreen formats, originated in IMAX, some conveyed in black-and-white). Such inner turmoil, with musical velocity provided by the restlessly versatile, violin-violent score, the ether of Scandinavian music, by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther,” “Creed,” “Venom,” “Tenet”).
Beyond faces, such faces, so gorgeously inhabited, and bursts of impassioned words, the telling is through dark rapture, historical moments dreamt as crisp, lucid beauty, succession of sounds, images and sensations, even in everyday settings—cinematic means, if you will. And also: emblems, particles, tumult, dazzling light plays and damning explosions and the bloody terror of it all: perception, if you will.
“Who would want to justify their whole life?” is a refrain, as are drops of rain that silently eddy on the surface of ponds and pavements, a visual motif like the spinning metal tractricoid top from “Inception.” This is a tactile picture, constructed via analogue elements that were known even before the bomb.
The fast, fleet dialogue matches 1940s-movie astringent wit, as characters speak precisely of physics and labor organizing and “fascist thugs” and “and “fucking flowers” and mass genocide of the Jews, veined with grave, great strokes of comedy in the dialogue, the speech of blades. It’s all splendidly, superbly spoken and largely at top speed and of course, “What happens to stars when they die?” lies astride the lover’s question, Why? Why, Robert? Why?
With Murphy, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Alden Ehrenreich, Gary Oldman, Josh Hartnett, Benny Safdie, David Krumholtz, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian and as Albert Einstein, Tom Conti. (A broad sample of the imagery is in a five-minute behind-the-scenes clip here.)
“Oppenheimer” is now playing in 70mm at the Music Box, ShowPlace ICON and River East, and in 35mm and other formats. See it big and loud.