If you hadn’t already read the headlines touting Oppenheimer as the serious alternative to Barbie, the film announces its intentions (pretensions?) up front with its immediate allusion to Greek mythology: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.” Oppenheimer even divides neatly into the structure of a Greek tragedy, the first third recounting his background and rise to prominence (exposition and rising action), the second his involvement developing the atomic bomb (climax), and the third his fall from the grace of the U.S. government (falling action and denouement). Pair this classicism with the film’s three-hour running time, its IMAX measurements, extraordinary performances, epic soundtrack—you get the picture. For good measure, the director, Christopher Nolan, stated that his main character, Oppenheimer, just might be the most important human to have ever lived.
Despite Nolan’s sizable efforts, though, Oppenheimer not only fails to make the case for its protagonist’s epic significance, it also fails to earn its own grandeur. Yes, the movie does achieve moments of greatness—especially in the middle section—but it also flounders, overreaching in its epic aspirations.
The movie’s first problem is simply one of pacing. It might seem silly to criticize a three-hour film for moving too fast, but Nolan tries to pack so much into Oppenheimer’s backstory that many of the movie’s early scenes end up feeling rushed, often resulting in clunky, unnatural dialogue and awkward plotting (even if based on real life). The film handles his soaring academic career, marriage, affair, and political activism all in the first hour, leaving very little time to explore any of these subjects in depth. Oh, and Oppenheimer also tries to poison one of his professors somewhere in there before having a change of heart.
Fortunately, once Nolan has dispensed with his hero’s rise to prominence, he allows himself to slow down to focus on Oppenheimer’s role in developing and testing the world’s first atomic weapon. In this section—partly through flash-forwards—we sense Oppenheimer’s moral uneasiness with his work for the military. Here Nolan also nails what I would call the technological drama—that is, a team of people working together to overcome a tricky logistical problem. Think Apollo 11 or The West Wing, but instead of bringing astronauts safely home or pushing a bill through Congress, the solution amounts to devising a weapon of enormous devastation. Here the film makes its best case: Oppenheimer was brilliant, but he was also ambitious and naive, and the result, the film suggests, should terrify us.
To drive this point home, this section of the film ends with two moving scenes. In the first, we see the successful test at Los Alamos, which slowly builds tension with patience and detail in similar ways to Nolan’s true masterpiece, Dunkirk. In the second scene, Oppenheimer is cheered by a crowd of flag-waving patriots, their adulation beginning to sound to him like the screams of the bomb’s potential victims, foreshadowing Hiroshima and Nagasaki—a harrowing climax. If only Oppenheimer had ended here.
If the middle of the film is a technological and moral drama, the conclusion could be called a bureaucratic one. It primarily concerns the trials Oppenheimer faces after expressing his doubts about what he’s accomplished. Driven by their own ambition, small-minded enemies dig up Oppenheimer’s former—and tenuous—ties to the Communist party. The final act, then, portrays Oppenheimer facing the McCarthyism of a kangaroo court.
The problem with concluding the film this way is two-fold. First, it portrays Oppenheimer as pure victim. Scene after scene prompts us to ask, “Can you believe that he helped us win WWII, and then we betrayed him?” But this undercuts the moral complexity of his actions suggested earlier. The second problem is that the sympathy the film works to create is itself undermined by Oppenheimer’s punishment: we learn that a guilty verdict would result in nothing more than loss of his security clearance. Unlike so many other victims of McCarthyism, he doesn’t fear prison or being blacklisted. The suggestion that Oppenheimer’s punishment somehow parallels that of Prometheus falls flat: losing one’s security clearance is a far cry from having your liver eaten daily by eagles.
I appreciate Nolan’s desire to go big. When most of us watch movies at home these days, it’s refreshing to feel pulled toward the big screen. And the origin story of a weapon with such potential destruction should be told on a broad canvas. Its insistence, though, on Oppenheimer as tragic hero obscures a greater truth the film only hints at: it wasn’t a god who brought such destructive fire; it was a mere mortal assuming the power of God. (Rated R for explicit scenes, violence, language. In theaters now. Universal Pictures)