Reconsidering Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer"
A second viewing in IMAX prompts new thoughts
When I first reviewed Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer upon its release last July, I expressed some admiration and a lot of frustration with the film, while also hedging my initial response by noting that I had a similar feeling walking out of his previous two features, Dunkirk and Tenet, before warming up to both of them later on (Tenet got an entire reappraisal from me last May, where I called it the most interesting film Nolan has made to date). So I definitely intended to give Oppenheimer another shot at some point, and luckily, its limited IMAX re-release last week lined up with the last days I was staying in Colorado with family, giving me a chance to watch the film the way it was truly intended to be seen (well, almost – ‘truly’ would be one of those full, 11-mile-long IMAX 70mm prints on a real 1.43:1 IMAX screen, but the best we had was an IMAX Laser projection on a 1.90:1 – still, it’s a lot closer than the standard 2.35:1 theatrical exhibition I saw in July on a more modest movie screen).
My reaction, after taking in the IMAX experience, remains complex. I still don’t love Oppenheimer, but I found myself respecting its craftsmanship and especially its ambition a lot more this time around. A lot of my discomfort with the film, summarized in that review from 2023, remains: I still think the film is over-scored and that its moment-to-moment ‘micro’ editing is often overtightened; I still think it inadequately accounts for the actual impact of the atomic bombs on Japan, and that the scene where Oppenheimer sees images from Hiroshima while the audience is spared having to look is cowardly and evasive; it still has a few groan-worthy, ill-advised moments like Oppenheimer translating the ‘destroyer of worlds’ dialogue mid-sex scene or the extremely contrived JFK name-drop; and most of all, I continue to be disheartened by Nolan’s complete and utter inability to write women as human beings or give the very talented actresses who keep appearing in his pictures material worthy of their talent, a problem that has frankly only worsened as his career goes on.
But knowing all that going in, and having already seen the film once and had time to get accustomed to its rhythms, I enjoyed watching it a lot more this time. It is beautifully acted by virtually everyone involved – especially Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr., both of whom might be very deserving Oscar winners come March – and is never less than engaging. I do think the macro-structure of the film is smart and impressively constructed, allowing Oppenheimer’s life both before and after the invention of the A-bomb to play out next to each other and comment upon each other in interesting ways. It cannot be overstated how head-and-shoulder more ambitious, interesting, and historically- and thematically-engaged Oppenheimer is than 99% of biopics to ever come out in Hollywood; certainly, sitting through dreck like Maestro in the time since Oppenheimer’s debut makes me look more kindly on Nolan’s film, which is striving not only to be a great movie, but a significant statement and conversation starter, rather than a vanity project or petty cultivation of a personal brand.
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Most importantly, Oppenheimer is simply a different movie when watched in IMAX; this is something that can be said of all of Nolan’s films, of course, since his use of IMAX and 65mm shooting formats has defined his work since The Dark Knight in 2008, but I think Oppenheimer may be the movie most transformed by this technology and its presentation. The point of the IMAX and 65mm cameras here isn’t so much to capture pyrotechnics and spectacle, as it was in films like Interstellar or Tenet, but to study human faces on the largest possible canvas. Other than some of the shots in the Trinity test sequence, or some of the ‘quantum world’ images used to reflect Oppenheimer’s state-of-mind, nearly every shot in this film is of a face, almost always in conversation and/or contemplation, and we’ve simply never seen a filmmaker use image-making tools this grand and expensive for something like that. 65mm was in its heyday defined by sweeping epics like Lawrence of Arabia or Ben Hur, and today has been revived by Nolan himself for superhero movies, sci-fi spectacles, and various action-driven thrill-rides. But Oppenheimer isn’t any of those. It is instead an epic where the landscape is the human face, and I don’t think the full effect of that really comes through until you’re sitting in the IMAX theater looking at a screen that stretches floor to ceiling, spending three full hours watching faces the size of a building as they move through history, gradually realizing you’ve never seen faces rendered on film in this level of sheer tactile detail before.
For Christopher Nolan, the medium is the message – there is no separating his use of IMAX from his choice of subject. The reason to tell Oppenheimer’s story is to express the significance of his historical impact – and the depths of the knotty, unresolvable moral purgatory his life turned into – on the impossibly clear and vivid canvas of IMAX and 65mm film, and to then project it onto the biggest screens available. There are beautiful and breathtaking images aplenty in the film, from the New Mexico vistas to the terrifying depiction of the Trinity test, but the most powerful and thought-provoking shots are those that simply move in close on a face and allow you to study it on the scale IMAX provides. Seeing it this way not only emphasizes just how great the performances really are, given the level of scrutiny the IMAX cameras put the actors under, but also puts the viewer in a more precise headspace, one where we are humbled before the scale of the events unfolding and asked not to deify or damn J. Robert Oppenheimer, but to sit with the profoundly unresolvable questions asked by his life story.
To be clear, I don’t think the film nails its ambitions here, and it all comes back to the piece that fascinated and frustrated me most in my initial review: The role of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr., giving the best performance of his career) and where Nolan’s film ultimately lands on Oppenheimer himself. I do want to give Nolan more credit than I did before for the sequence near the end that intercuts Oppenheimer being interrogated about when his moral scruples began with Strauss, his cabinet nomination about to be rejected by the Senate, going off about how Oppenheimer wanted to be a martyr who would be remembered for Trinity instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Oppenheimer side of that sequence is more complex than I realized the first time around; Jason Clarke’s asshole prosecutor character is pursuing this line of questioning in bad faith, but that doesn’t make the question itself invalid; and the way the world begins to shake and break apart around Oppenheimer as he tries to answer makes it clear how uncomfortably true the issue rings (the recurring motif of the deafening cheers Oppenheimer received after Trinity coming back into Oppenheimer’s mind every time he contemplates the impact of the bomb is one of the film’s smartest techniques).
And on a second viewing, I am firmly of the opinion that Nolan’s intent in Strauss’ side of the scene is not for us to see Strauss as entirely wrong, but to understand that, ignoble as his motivations may be, Strauss understands Oppenheimer’s pathology better than anyone would care to admit. That line I keep coming back to – “I gave him exactly what he wanted – to be remembered for Trinity, not Hiroshima, not Nagasaki” – is the best and smartest piece of writing in the film, and coming from Downey Jr.’s mouth lands with the bite it needs to justify the amount of time the film spends on the issue of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, which on its own is, after all, a very small thing to worry about next to the invention of the atomic bomb. But what all this material really is about is guilt, and about history, and about the stories that are told and why we tell them – and I think Nolan makes the right choice in letting Strauss vent some real, justified anger as he realizes he’ll be remembered as the villain of this story next to the man whose bombs killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.
The problem, though, is that while I genuinely believe Nolan’s script and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is invested in painting Strauss as more complex than a mustache-twirling villain – to make him the Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart – there are choices made in the filmmaking that unfortunately lean towards more simplistic takeaways. The one performance in the entire film I think truly doesn’t work, at all, is Alden Ehrenreich as the Senate aide gradually turning on Strauss during the hearing. He is insufferably smarmy and wholly unsubtle; his entire role is to stand in increasingly smug judgment of Strauss in something of an audience surrogate role. When Strauss delivers that great line quoted above, Nolan cuts back to an unconvinced Ehrenreich, smarm dialed up at 11 – and inevitably, some audience members are going to take that as a cue to ignore whatever valid points Strauss makes, especially since Oppenheimer doesn’t have any kind of equivalent figure following him around expressing dissatisfaction with his side of the story. There was a group of viewers sitting behind me at this screening who walked out of the theater talking about how Strauss was the one true villain of the story – a patently ridiculous thing to say given Strauss played no role in inventing the bomb that, again, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians. I don’t think Nolan wants it to feel that black-and-white, but I know that group I overheard wasn’t alone. The movie illustrates Strauss’ petty villainy in much more detail than it does the impact of Oppenheimer’s invention, after all; again, I find myself thinking back to the scene where Oppenheimer sees images of the aftermath of Hiroshima, while the audience is spared the sight, and I wonder how easily viewers would decide Strauss was the ‘bad guy’ if they had to look at the destroyed and disfigured bodies other filmmakers, like Alain Resnais in Hiroshima, mon amour, have had the conviction to confront us with.
To be clear, I do not say any of this because I am offended by the film’s treatment of Lewis Strauss as a historical figure. I have no expertise in that area of history, and I don’t really care one way or the other. I am talking only about how this film works dramatically and thematically, and I am frustrated not because Nolan completely whiffs it, but because I think he goes a very long way in the right direction. The ‘security clearance’ side of the film is a structurally smart way to open up so many of the interesting conversations this material demands, yet there are issues of framing that push Strauss’ side of the story towards easy answers (Strauss was a vindictive ass, and Oppenheimer was personally wronged), when the film at its best wants to ask questions that resist such pat, binary responses (like the role of a scientist’s culpability in a world that can only see progress as a tool of destruction).
But here’s the thing: If I take a step back, the fact that one can even have a debate this meaningful about Nolan’s film means that it has done a lot of things right – has put in enough thought and effort and consideration to deserve a seat at the critic’s table, wherever one ultimately comes down in the end. I didn’t write a second full review of this film because I hate it, but because I find it genuinely interesting and worthy of discussion. And there are plenty of films, including ones I probably ‘like’ more than Oppenheimer, that don’t necessarily rise to that level.
In fact, when I remove my own critical opinions from the equation and just look at Oppenheimer within the context of the movie landscape it was released in, the point I most want to stress is how appreciative I am of the film’s sheer ambition. This is a three-hour R-rated movie about dark and heavy real-world subject matter, mostly comprised of adults in conversation, assembled in the kind of challenging, editorially-complex fashion usually reserved for ‘art-house’ fare – and it is done on IMAX scale, created not to play for a few critics at festivals and scant audiences in New York and LA, but to be a massive popular hit. That Oppenheimer became such a monster success should not be taken for granted. Nolan and Universal decided to buck decades of Hollywood trends that assumed a film like this had to be a small award season player with a limited platform release – or, worse, a streaming debut – and instead worked to make it one of the defining film events of 2023. They trusted that audiences are smarter, more adventurous, and more invested in actual human storytelling than the industry has assumed for most of my life, and that faith was rewarded in such a way that it’s frankly shaken my entire understanding of what Hollywood could look like. For example, while there probably isn’t a world where Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – a film Oppenheimer is tremendously influenced by in its entire editorial structure – grosses a billion dollars, the success of Oppenheimer makes me think there’s almost certainly one where it at least grosses more than the $60 million it earned in 2011. I wouldn’t guarantee someone who loved Oppenheimer would love The Tree of Life, but I think there’s a good chance they’d be moved by it – and that applies to literally hundreds of other films Hollywood simply hasn’t trusted mainstream audiences with over the last few decades. I wonder how many movies we remember as ‘small’ ‘art-house’ films might have actually been blockbusters if they’d simply been treated as such at the time. To quote a movie Hollywood would never make and release in theaters today (but might produce a brutally elongated 10-episode streaming series of before cancelling two weeks later): If you build it, they will come.
This is why, even though Oppenheimer was far from my favorite film of 2023 – I like it more upon second viewing, but it still wouldn’t crack my Top 20 of the year – I’m fine with the increasingly likely prospect that it sweeps the table at this year’s Oscars. Its achievement is artistic, cultural, and commercial, and it’s a meaningful achievement on all three levels, painting a vision of an alternate future for Hollywood, especially now that superhero films are on a seemingly inexorable decline. Oppenheimer wasn’t the best film of 2023, but it’s the one I most hope studios take lessons from going forward into 2024 and beyond: Make real movies, take big swings, and trust audiences to come along for the ride.
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