How does one judge a man whose chief contribution to the world was a weapon that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and which has now been enhanced to the point where it could kill millions or billions more? Even more to the point—how would that man judge himself?
Christopher Nolan's masterful biopic Oppenheimer, about the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, offers a multiplicity of possible answers: He may well be a monster and a savior, a genius and a man incapable of reading other people, a compassionate friend and a callous careerist. He may see himself as a hero and as a villain, as a bystander and a central player in world events, as a scientist and a politician. In the movie's sprawling, prismatic view of the man and his work, no single answer applies—and perhaps all of them do.
Over the past two decades, Nolan has become one of the last eminences of studio filmmaking, the rare filmmaker who can command both gargantuan production budgets and audience attention for projects that are both original and deeply personal. But until now, even his most idiosyncratic films have been, essentially, thrillers and genre pictures: Nolan was making conceptually daring movies that toyed with notions of time and memory, but above all, he was making entertainment.
Oppenheimer is something else. It's an engaging movie, and a thrilling one, but it's more intimate than anything Nolan has done before, more personal in scope and focus. Oppenheimer ran the A-bomb project at Los Alamos in the 1940s, and thus he was simultaneously a scientist and a project leader, a sort of middleman between a rowdy bunch of genius academic engineers and a top layer of politicians and bureaucrats who would decide how to use their work. Fittingly, much of the movie takes place in cramped offices and cluttered classrooms, ordinary spaces made extraordinary because of the ideas that people had while occupying them. There are shots of vast landscapes and giant explosions, including a tense, awe-filled all-analog recreation of the Trinity nuclear test — but mostly the movie is concerned with faces, glances, the subtleties of human action. The film's signature image is not a nuclear explosion, but a close-up of the gaunt, angled face of Cillian Murphy, who plays Oppenheimer as a man haunted by his own mind.
But this isn't a turn to the domestic for Nolan. Instead, the director brings to bear the tools and techniques he's previously used to deliver bigger-than-life entertainment—only this time the story at the center is something far more consequential. The score by composer Ludwig Göransson, who previously worked with Nolan on Tenet, gives the movie a thudding heartbeat, so that even discussions of theoretical physics play out with a pulsing intensity. And, working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan once again shot the movie on IMAX cameras, granting the images vast scale and detail.
The editing and story structure, meanwhile, retain the time-bending qualities of Nolan's previous work, as multiple timelines crash into each other and what initially seem like fragments of information come together to become clear. Nolan's movies have often been obsessed with the notion of memory—the falseness of it, the way jumbled recollections somehow amount to one's identity—but in Oppenheimer, it's not so much about crafting a puzzle box to be solved. It's about putting the viewer inside Oppenheimer's own mind space by capturing the world as he saw it, as he recalled it.
To the extent there is a puzzle box, it's Oppenheimer himself, but the movie doesn't offer a solution or anything approaching singular judgment. Instead, it wrestles with his complexities: his obvious genius, his affiliations with communism, his lust and affairs, his difficult marriage and his complicated work life, his willingness to build the bomb and his reluctance to see it used. It views Oppenheimer as both great and terrible.
And from that dual judgment, the movie casts its gaze to the nuclear-armed present that Oppenheimer left us. Nolan's movies—particularly Dunkirk and Interstellar—have often rallied around a spirit of can-do humanism, and a sense of awe at what man can build and accomplish in a vast and godless universe. But here that awe is leavened with fear and foreboding about the horror of full-on nuclear conflict in the wake of the nuclear bomb. Humanity is both great and terrible. Oppenheimer isn't just a movie—it's a warning.