By Michael Koresky
Dir. Christopher Nolan, U.S., Universal
In 1966, Theodor Adorno wrote in Negative Dialectics that “No universal history leads from savagery to humanity, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” The quote may be familiar (though sometimes humanity is helpfully translated as humanitarianism), but its follow-up sentence might not be as often cited: “It ends in the total menace which organized mankind poses to organized men, in the epitome of discontinuity.” In other words, we’re headed for chaos no matter what linear structure we put on it; in re-examining Hegel’s philosophy of a “world spirit” for the splintered, shattered twentieth century, Adorno was denying the possibility of a coherent “universal history” at all.
I don’t quote Adorno at the beginning of this attempt to make sense of Christopher Nolan’s new movie Oppenheimer simply because the German philosopher is often trotted out in discussions of the fraught relationship between mass culture and human horror, but rather because I’m intrigued by the word “discontinuity” in relation to both history and cinema. Our experience of the modern world is increasingly defined by a lack of coherent sequencing, yet the function of classical Hollywood grammar has always been to put things in linear order to try and make sense of it—to create a grand, cause-and-effect narrative in which A leads to B, birth leads to death, education leads to knowledge, the slingshot leads to the megaton bomb. Oppenheimer, with its achronological yet conventional historical narrative, crosscuts among different time frames, and though it has just one inevitable outcome—the annihilation of humanity—its biopic structure gives it an inherent tidiness it’s constantly working against. If the extremely loud and refreshingly serious Oppenheimer is fascinating it’s maybe less as a Christopher Nolan auteur film than as a case study in how the studio filmmaking apparatus, even and especially when demonstrated as commandingly as it is here, continues to be imprecise and inefficient in representing the magnitude of evil, so wedded is it to specific aesthetic and narrative techniques that are deployed for maximum audience impact.
In discussing his hopes for the effect his new film may have on audiences, Nolan said in Wired, “My feeling on Oppenheimer was, a lot of people know the name, and they know he was involved with the atomic bomb, and they know that something else happened that was complicated in his relationship to U.S. history. But not more specific than that. Frankly, for me, that’s the ideal audience member for my film. The people who know nothing are going to get the wildest ride. Because it’s a wild story.” In other words, he prefers a viewer with a limited knowledge of history, all the better to wow them with sensation. It’s a disconcerting thought, yet also an honest one about the strange mix of re-education and entertainment that mainstream historical narrative moviemaking represents.
Oppenheimer, which gets almost as much mileage out of Cillian Murphy’s wide, blue, haunted eyes as it does out of Ludwig Göransson’s earthquaking score, attempts to show how one man was partially responsible for creating the modern human consciousness: the relationship we have had to our mortality since the middle of the twentieth century, when the anxiety of nuclear catastrophe began to loom large in every household. Oppenheimer is designed as both an anti-blockbuster (the climactic explosions Hollywood loves come somewhere in the middle, leaving the rest as psychological fallout), and an anti-“great-man” biopic; in pushing against the vernaculars of both genres (while also indulging in them) it becomes a peculiar experience—impressive, jostling, the work of a brilliant technician that a little too elegantly evokes in form and feeling the remote, hand-wringing genius at its center.
This unsettling, fluid experience rockets the viewer through blasts of exposition efficiently deployed so that its viewers will never get bored, even if we get tired. The film’s first third or so is its most effective passage, a kind of hyper-speed tracing of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s rise from his student years in Cambridge to his faculty employment at UC Berkeley, featuring tutorials for the audience on quantum mechanics and nuclear physics, accentuated with occasional cuts to subatomic and chemical reactions in close-up. These appear to evoke our protagonists’ stimulated brain patterns yet they also cannot help but recall The Tree of Life’s center-of-the-universe, chemistry-experiment cosmic effects. Unlike Malick’s film, which imagined our planet’s creation, Nolan is interested in the possibility—or eventuality—of its destruction. These sudden psycho-scientific flashes could never be called subliminal (they’re usually accompanied by blows to the eardrum), but at least they do give the film the feeling of harboring hidden currents.
Nolan’s flashback structure cuts between three different time periods, and while its purpose gradually crystallizes, this results in diminishing dramatic returns. In the first, “main” narrative line, we follow Oppenheimer’s breathless journey from scientific theory to practice, as he is brought on by the U.S. government to oversee the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory alongside Army general Leslie Groves (a jock-grump Matt Damon), leading to the creation, testing in Los Alamos, and tragic deployment of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Laced through this are moments from the 1954 closed-door interrogations of Oppenheimer, engineered by the Atomic Energy Commission’s Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) to professionally discredit Oppenheimer and revoke his security clearance as the government tries to work towards the development of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb, which Oppenheimer has come to oppose. Pushing even further ahead in time, Nolan includes scenes (in black-and-white) from the 1959 U.S. Senate hearings for political hopeful Strauss’s confirmation as Secretary of Commerce, which are put in jeopardy due to his past treatment of Oppenheimer, which was done, it is insisted, partly out of his personal vendetta with the physicist stretching back to the forties. This triangular storytelling ensures that the film, which may have otherwise been only a diffuse portrayal of one man’s escalating—if unspoken—feelings of culpability, will build to numerous scenes of antagonistic interpersonal dramas in public spaces—after all, where is the drama in a movie if there’s no microphone or deposition stand to enhance it? That the threat of political humiliation (for both Oppenheimer and Strauss) takes up so much of Oppenheimer’s strange final third speaks to Hollywood tradition; it also allows Oppenheimer to be effectively re-cast as a victim, a little man persecuted by a big system. By centering the Strauss drama in his narrative, Nolan engineers a conniving villain that puts Oppenheimer into even more sympathetic relief, however conflicted or compromised. This creates an odd emotional incongruity in a film that clearly signals it’s more about humanity’s existential threat than one man’s journey towards social disenfranchisement.
However loudly Nolan’s nonstop narrative mechanism ticks, Oppenheimer himself remains a forceful center of gravity thanks to the counterintuitive but rewarding casting of Murphy. Many actors orbit him—most memorably Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, doing their mightiest with the limited roles of, respectively, his alcoholic wife Kitty and his troubled radical leftie mistress, Jean—but the gaunt, internalized Murphy is undeniably the camera’s prime object of fascination, embodying the film’s implicit battle of wills between the academic and the flesh-and-blood. Nolan weds us so thoroughly to the experiences of his title character that the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima is dramatized, almost off-handedly, as a dispassionate radio news bulletin, heard by Oppenheimer at home. Nolan appears to be more interested in the abstract nature of his protagonist’s guilt, which is most awkwardly depicted in a subjective sequence of Oppenheimer addressing a roomful of flag-waving patriots after Hiroshima. While tripping through a failed rah-rah speech, he envisions the crowd as writhing and grotesque, their maws gaping, their skin peeling—ugly Americans as both perpetrators and victims.
The mix of conceptual restraint and shake-’em-by-the-lapels effects made, for this viewer at least, a disconcerting experience. For the first two hours, Oppenheimer is a pure dose of Nolan grandiosity, a depiction of a world in the process of freefall. Even his action movies or neonoirs are about the genetic reconstitution of our surrounding environments and the human beings left to make sense of it. After all, his most powerful image, from Inception, is of a city literally folding in on itself. Nolan’s films are often concerned with the world behind or beneath this world, yet unlike in, say, an H.P. Lovecraft story, there are no unspeakable, primordial creatures waiting to drive us to insanity, or a Matrix movie, we are not clandestinely imprisoned and controlled by intelligent machines. In Nolan’s films, this other world is dictated by our own consciousness, which can either create a psychological prison (Memento) or, if properly mastered, a kind of ecstatic liberation of the dreaming mind (Inception). Finally, Nolan seems to say, Oppenheimer, staring vacantly at ripples of water with moist eyes, might be trapped in his own head as well.
Discussions over the representational boundaries of narrative Hollywood storytelling—which compels us to identify with characters, their situations, and their moral equivocations—are most often raised with depictions of genocide and war and, in the West, usually regarding movies about the Holocaust. In critiquing Schindler’s List in his 1995 essay “The Cinema Animal,” the late scholar and literary critic Geoffrey H. Hartman wrote, “The film’s pace remains that of an action movie which tolerates no diversion except to increase suspense: it ‘clicks’ from shot to shot, from scene to scene, with the occasional mechanical failure symbolizing a chance for human feelings to reenter the sequence.” One wonders what Hartman would have made of Oppenheimer, a film that’s all “clicks,” and which responds to its self-imposed burdens of history by overwhelming the audience with technique: blasting music, time-jumping editing, discordant bursts of sound. If Schindler’s List, both celebrated and lambasted for being the ultimate Hollywood Holocaust film, was a well-oiled machine with “occasional mechanical failure,” then Oppenheimer is a more perfect engine, with no possibility for breakdown. It whirs ahead, like all of Nolan’s most impressive work, pummeling the viewer into submission. Oppenheimer’s subject matter may be the most apt of Nolan’s career for the deployment of such intensity, yet whether it proves efficacious for his evident aims to both stun and educate is perhaps best left to historians of the future, should they exist.
While watching and subsequently thinking about Oppenheimer, another 2023 film kept popping up in my brain for the somewhat analogous way it represents evil as both spectacle and banality. In Jonathan Glazer’s Cannes-awarded The Zone of Interest, slated for release later this year, the viewer is given the “privileged” vantage point of (not) seeing the German Holocaust from the perspective of an Auschwitz commandant who lives a life of blissful mundanity with his wife and children just over the wall from the concentration camp where he works. While Glazer maintains an admirable, scrupulous rigor over this conceit, keeping the drama blandly domestic and sickeningly professional, there are formal flourishes that serve to puncture the film, whether long passages of black screens or intermittent use of a wailing score by Mica Levi—the editorializing of the unspeakable.
In its own Hollywood fashion, Oppenheimer similarly demonstrates the irreconcilability of the unfathomable things that men do with the prosaic backroom conversations that make them possible. Its legible narrativization of history functions on one track (the story of a human whose scientific theories proved destructive to all other humans), while, on the other, its more terrifying speculations (the genie-out-of-the-bottle realization that we’ve hastened our own doom) are left to the realm of the invisible, summoned into being by Göransson’s pounding music, Jennifer Lame’s percussive editing, and the gradual hollowing-out of Murphy’s once implacable exterior. The ponderous Oppenheimer is one of the rare Hollywood films that feels fueled by remorse; it may not be the “wildest ride” that Nolan promises, but he finds a way to have his spectacle after all.