Cormac McCarthy indexed humanity’s worst self-inflictions––serial killers, cannibals, necrophilia, infanticide, criminal empires of unfathomable evil, a post-apocalyptic world so unsparing that its dead were only envied. But his brother-sister duet The Passenger and Stella Maris ascended the Manhattan Project and its destructions towards some other plane entirely, an awe-radiating, man-made doomsday of historical record. In the months since reading them I’ve found it near-impossible shaking an insistence made by the latter novel’s protagonist:

“But anyone who doesn’t understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most significant events in human history hasn’t been paying attention. It’s up there with fire and language. It’s at least number three and it may be number one. We just don’t know yet. But we will.”

Needless to say McCarthy was not the first person who posited this idea, nor with––some eight months later––the release of Oppenheimer is he the last.

It’s also needless to say Christopher Nolan has not reached for McCarthy-like horror. If it’s perhaps a too-high bar we might instead start at his previous engagements with nuclear annihilation: 1) Batman flying a big, swinging bomb just barely out to sea with nary a mention how he’d survive such close-quarters detonation (or what its radiation does to Gotham City’s fish supply) and 2) 150 minutes of portentous gobbledygook whose emotional fulcrum swings here exactly. It’s both impermissive entering this as final evidence of Nolan’s attitude toward the potential for unfathomable suffering and––nevertheless––reason to wonder where, how, why his interests veered towards this of all stories. (Not for nothing that pre-release press has found him, an artist for whom narrative pathos has sometimes suggested obligation before passion, rather hilariously refer to one of the most evil decisions in history as a very complex set of mechanisms. Or just comparing that decision’s progenitor to Batman.)

He opts not to convey the Los Alamos operation à la McCarthy’s misery––the silent bus rides to muddy grounds, the exacting and exhausting task of observing the microscopic world, certainly little of the odd sexual dynamics that formed between participants––and the notable disappointment of this always-big, deft-enough, equal-parts compelling and lumbering work is its programmatic portrait of an operation we’re bluntly told changed humankind forever. There’s greater scientific wonder on one page of either novel than in any single passage of Oppenheimer’s process-oriented 180 minutes, a length somehow not up to snuff: time passes so fleetly that news of Hitler’s death is more a reveal that we’re years ahead of any suggested schedule, and only with its thrilling, frightening Trinity Test sequence––admirably closer to Twin Peaks’ Killer Bob origin than archival footage––will the first texture of these efforts even emanate. Yet its immediate aftermath commences Oppenheimer’s great moral oddity, its raison d’être. As quickly as it plays up the familiar tack on America’s bombings (the Soldier Kicking In Every Japanese Door narrative gets noted) does it expose what an awful ruse this was from the moment anyone in Washington suggested the necessity. No surprise for anyone who’s read their Howard Zinn, yes, but there’s a masterstroke in playing this across Cillian Murphy’s face––it stiffens, it curls, it irreversibly turns from fearful wonder at what’s to come towards this sunken-stomach point of no return, it is indisputably this film’s single greatest effect.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki beggar belief however often they’re presented, the length and depth of American misdeed burning deeper with each detail conveniently elided by historic narrative or myths of national exceptionalism. It’s safe saying nearly anyone familiar with this material from title on down has at least glimpsed striped clothing singed into Japanese flesh, human shadows forever emblazoned onto walls, an innocent’s eyes burned out and ears melted down, and taking these into account (or just as a gut punch) it’s fairly guessed even one of the few filmmakers given such immeasurable reign had been kindly told IMAX 70mm is a less-than-ideal exhibition space for such. But with respect to any logical process that jettisons their appearance, this of all moments for bombast to subside plays questionable at best; another frame of mind would call it barely half enough, almost a nullifying of the project wholesale.

This film’s bait-and-switch, Oppenheimer’s (and Oppenheimer’s) moment of reckoning, might immediately be christened the single greatest sequence Christopher Nolan has ever directed. Chalk this response to experience, the ease with developing certain doubts after spending most of your life knowing his films and noting consistent soft spots or judgmental lapses––his overly expository dialogue, his great insistence on musical bombasity, a too-telegraphed emotional thrum against which his outstanding gifts for pacing, stakes-setting, clockwork plotting mechanics can chafe. It’s the muddying of this exact alchemical tension that briefly, brilliantly blows Oppenheimer off a manicured axis; it’s why I didn’t think Nolan had in him this moment positioned so precisely between horror and awe, a flash of great psychic terror, a momentarily stunning realization of one man’s mind grafting violence and barbarity onto the human race. Had Oppenheimer stopped there (about an hour before its conclusion) its victories would’ve been less contested.

Time and again J. Robert Oppenheimer’s intelligence has been contextualized by its speed, and when colleagues didn’t specify it––stories of learning the most-useless language (Dutch) in six weeks to deliver a speech, or reading all of Das Kapital in its original German on a train trip from California to New York––they’d mythologize. It’s this one sequence that ties either end of the spectrum, and it’s Oppenheimer’s great fortune that Cillian Murphy’s interpretation is that instinct packed into a single vessel. This is a performance of admirable precarity: though there’s no parroting of, say, Oppenheimer’s long-ballyhooed capacity to solve questions and equations near-telepathically, it’s Murphy’s eyes which make the suggestion. From early flashbacks to Cambridge he’s a figure of haunted omnipotence––more than aware of his subatomic world (nifty chemical flashes suggesting Nolan has taken some interest in the avant-garde) his Oppenheimer exists at the nexus of multiple narrative timelines, any moment before or hence the grave choice knowing its responsibility for permanent endangerment of humanity. The one consistent brilliance pulsing through Oppenheimer is Murphy’s decision to play him more like tuning fork than man, his emotional arc traced from upright, full-coiffed student to perpetually slumped, close-cropped husk, his reams of dialogue rendered with some hypnotic and unplaceable musicality that suggests the Irishman decided to possess American screen icons of the ‘40s and ‘50s. (Or, okay, this.)

Would that this were Oppenheimer’s primary voice. Many others, as is, do the speaking, no aforementioned facts of Oppenheimer’s brilliance go unstated and nary a matter of his personality left unnoted. There’s an honest response that insists this is all thorough, diligent biography because Oppenheimer surely bears such traces, an appreciably indexical work that earns more admiration for letting voluminous research accumulate to ambiguity––safe to say Nolan’s racked up the financial record for a biopic that’d come away with “TBD” on its subject’s character. It’s also mighty stringent on letting that subject live, breathe, exist, be, either making him subject of (and subject to) bullet-point information about himself or withholding key details to service a narrative driven by cross-cutting that is as often bright for its melange (or hodgepodge) of formats, colors, perspectives as it is a bit ungainly in stakes-ratcheting. Though it’d be remiss not noting Robert Downey Jr. is at his most committed since Zodiac––every natural effect of late-50s physicality at forefront, the Tony Stark voice receded with his hairline––those passages are part and parcel of a peculiar overreach drawing parallels between two men who met at another perilous point of American history. What compels (for one thing it’s hard not reading this as a lens on cancel culture) is building from facets of Oppenheimer’s life the film mostly integrates or elucidates elsewhere without ever meeting the tall order of his spark point for humanity’s destruction. (More power to anyone spellbound by his marriage to Emily Blunt.) This said, I will simply never stop thinking about the most guffaw-inducing sex scene in mainstream American cinema and can concede that opportunity alone possibly justifies the entire stretch.

The odd, nevertheless compelling paradox of Oppenheimer is that its immersion into manic historic genius suggests a cleaner and preciser portrait would’ve yielded greater dividends, a situation so par for the course with Nolan that it is almost the course entire. The Sturm und Drang perpetually surrounding him––the mystery, the hype, the rakish instinct to choose all-or-nothing sides on a filmmaker with too many complications to render either wise––only has the effect of snuffing consideration, for that matter baseline notice, of how and why his films so thoroughly compel their audiences. Oppenheimer indeed upholds the Nolan operation for running and shooting and playing like a single sustained act––what the champion might call symphonic montage, the cynic an extended trailer. If one’s being too totalizing on the former and ringing needlessly dismissive with the latter, maybe its greatest surprise is that his formulas still provoke surprise. Not that this carnally ascetic filmmaker is willing to at last, my God, attempt a sex scene, but that sex scene; not that this notoriously fastidious storyteller would attempt gestures towards cancel culture, but manage a sufficiently knotty vision; not in seeing a narrative-driven artist try their hand at avant-garde images, but in fact render something of texture, variety, beauty in stops and starts. And if Oppenheimer is not the single finest work Christopher Nolan has ever made, in inspecting it closely enough––perhaps through its subatomic realm of streaked lights and disembodied shapes moving with remarkable patterns––one can imagine its existence somewhere between edits, strewn among the choices shaping, often cohering a film only he would (or could) have created.

Oppenheimer opens on Friday, July 21.

Grade: B-

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