Direction: Christopher Nolan
efore embarking on a powerful visual voyage by Christopher Nolan, certain things must be clarified.
It’s true that Christopher Nolan co-wrote and directed the film. What is lesser known is that it is based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppen-heimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
There is a strong belief within Hollywood and beyond that while Christopher Nolan is the most intelligent, influential and revered filmmaker of the decade, he hit a wall with Tenet.
However, after watching Oppenheimer, the belief that he is still the best name to emerge in generations – in context of cinema – does hold true. Tenet just requires more than one viewing.
A green screen is considered a game changer for visuals of any project, good or bad, including music videos with customized backgrounds and no require-ment to travel to the far ends of the earth to depict what any director hopes to project. When used in innovative style, a green screen can lead to something as slick and engaging as The Matrix was in its time.
But Christopher Nolan has always refused this amenity. Not one to take the easy road of visual effects, the only time Nolan indulges in using a green screen is when there is no other option.
More trivia includes how the protagonist in Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy, has gone on to essay smaller roles in some Chris Nolan films before such as Batman Begins and Inception but never in a lead role. A decade of waiting, the plum role and a chance to be a leading man in a Nolan film finally came to Cillian Murphy with Oppen-heimer and perhaps this was meant to be.
From start to finish, Oppenheimer is a metaphor about time and war. It is a ref-lection on the human condition and what a human mind or collective genius of a human minds can lead to and it is not always a good thing. A case in point: nuclear arsenal that is now owned by several coun-tries in the world.
It has many subtexts when you sit down to watch and think about it. Nolan was right when he said this is a film meant to be viewed in a cinema and given the visuals, he is absolutely right.
Time is a subject Nolan often explores in his films and it is explored in this film, both literally and metaphorically.
In literal terms, it tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American physicist, who leads a team of top physicists in creating the first atomic bomb during World War II, a skeleton key that could bring down human civilization to a terrifying end.
In a metaphorical sense, it is about Nolan using time as a storytelling technique. We switch between the past and present. He also uses a technique he first used in an earlier indie film called Memento where scenes are black and white as well as colored and the story moves through the past and the present.
For the role, Cillian Murphy transformed his physique to look the part and became Robert J. Oppenheimer in such a way that you cannot imagine another actor looking the part or playing the role.
Oppenheimer may be popular as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ but the first question that comes to mind is how he got there. Fortunately, Nolan weaves a complex story in a sharp, smart fashion that tells us how. From the start, it is about time and war because World War II is raging, and fighting the Nazis is what is called for. As for Oppenheimer, we meet the iconic American physicist at a crucial juncture in his life. His dreams of the sky alone require viewing the film in a cinema. It is like watching a sky with stars at the speed of light.
We step into the past when he was a student and a vocal one at that but as his classmates and professor do mock him, instead of finishing the task before him, he starts tinkering with things in the room before injecting an apple with cyanide. In reality, this never happened. So, this isn’t an actual truth but an interpretation of what happ-ened that compelled scientists such as Oppenheimer to (a) dedicate years of their life to making the bomb and (b) reali-zing what had been achieved changed the world forever and not for the good. That conflict makes him pull away from further iterations.
The scenes continue to interchange as we find Oppen-heimer sitting before a committee, before it cuts to his slightly impetuous behavior at university level and his eureka moment as he jumps out of the bed and heads back to class.
He doesn’t enjoy lab work and is advised to go to study theoretical physics.
Scenes of the universe, stars continue to invade his mind. But the man who did make the atomic bomb is also questioned by a committee.
The narrative is non-linear but followable. Murphy’s bri-lliance echoes through dialogues as well as quiet moments where different emotions go through him that are made visible with body language and facial exp-ressions.
It becomes even more intense with an excellent back-ground score composed by Swedish composer Ludwig Gor-ansson. He adds an element of sound that works as an under-current to the larger narrative being told and what is required in which scene.
To describe every scene would be a mistake. Heavier in dialogue unlike several Nolan predecessors, this is not just a film; it is a landmark experience in visual storytelling about a time and people who changed the world – not necessarily for the good. It is a story about human beings and their fallibility and what a group of geniuses might do could change wartime, not by surrender or a cease fire but by obliterating millions and creating lasting damage for generations to come.
From Matt Damon to Robert Downey Jr, every actor left their persona aside. For example, Iron Man for a decade, Robert Downey Jr shed the superhero spiel completely for a far more complex role. He is compelling in the role of Lewis Strauss, who essays the Atomic Energy Commission chairman.
But there is a cost that Oppenheimer gets to see and one whose impact he never fully understood until it is used. The conflicted scientist realizes what he has done. Humanity’s lust for power over another plagues Oppenheimer’s soul in one way throughout the story.
But in a paradoxical sense, he does head the secret project for years, which leads to the creation of an atomic bomb and before his very eyes, its usage forever haunts him.
It is a chilling realization that human civilization could very well end, all because of one weapon whose effects could and have lasted for a long time. And when it goes from creation to usage, it creates a struggle within the scientist.
What is visible, almost tangible, is how Robert J. Opp-enheimer wrestles with his own self, the contraption of a wea-pon that is being created under his command and what lasting damage it can and does lead to. There are several performances from this all-star cast, depicting various roles and all of whom give more flavour to a film where the subject of physics (theoretical and quantum) as a subtext hardly feels boring.
If Dunkirk, Inception, Inter-stellar and the trio of Batman trilogy didn’t lead to Oscar victory for Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is where the ind-ustry can correct a long overdue mistake and finally give one to Nolan.
Not giving him an Oscar would be robbing the iconic filmmaker because the subject of weaponization of the inter-net, skies, satellites and predator drones has already happened.
The three-hour film leaves us with a message. What is left to destroy? But that is the genius of Christopher Nolan.
I doubt any film will make you think more about the human connection and the human mind, and our thirst for power over others than Oppenheimer. Watch it now. And then, watch it again. This is Nolan’s finest and his most mature and (even controversial) work to date.
This film is a lesson in how cinema can tell a nuanced story with A-list actors and without superheroes or cars falling on you or stunts like jumping off planes, trains, cars, or some of the tallest structures in the world. Point, Nolan.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection