'A searing backdrop of gargantuan flames and the seat-shaking echoes of a nuclear explosion'LUKE JERNEJCIC ON UNSPLASH

“Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity”. In the very first moments of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, these words fade slowly onto the screen, against a searing backdrop of gargantuan flames and the seat-shaking echoes of a nuclear explosion. The Promethean story is certainly a neat cultural shorthand for the darker side of human ingenuity embodied in the figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that age-old question of whether, even in the event that we can do something, it need always follow that we should do it.

But, it also bears remembering – before Prometheus brought fire, he also bestowed upon man the very gift of life itself. Fitting, then, that Oppenheimer is itself a creation myth, a nightmarish premonition of the so-called ‘American century’, in all its destructive potential. “What they need to understand”, one character warns, “is that we’re not just creating a new weapon. We’re creating a new world”. That new world may not be a pretty one, and Oppenheimer is certainly far from a pretty film – but, if one thing’s for certain, it’s that this is Christopher Nolan operating at the absolute height of his powers.

Oppenheimer and others at the ground zero site of the 'Trinity' test UNITED STATES ARMY SIGNAL CORPS ON WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Cillian Murphy stars as the titular nuclear physicist, the self-proclaimed ‘destroyer of worlds’ destined to be remembered by history as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. Although its imposingly dense literary source material (all of 721 pages, courtesy of historians Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin) tracks Oppenheimer’s entire life, the film opts to focus mainly upon a snapshot of his most crucial years; his role as director of the Manhattan Project, which culminated in the decimation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and his subsequent blacklisting the following decade by the Eisenhower administration, for suspected Soviet sympathies.

“a nightmarish premonition of the so-called ‘American century’, in all its destructive potential”

In characteristic achronological style (Oppenheimer’s subjective experiences are shot in colour, whilst an ‘objective’ retelling of certain events is imagined in a noirish monochrome), Nolan reckons with one of the twentieth century’s most bitterly contested personal legacies with a clear-eyed confidence and careful attention to detail that can’t help but feel like the glorious culmination of his directorial career up until this point. All the expected technical wizardry is on display; but, unlike Nolan’s weakest work (see the endlessly ambitious and equally frustrating Tenet), it’s consistently in service of some of his most gripping and formidably cinematic storytelling.

Regular Nolan collaborator, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema lends a bleak vastness to the desert landscapes of Los Alamos, whilst editor Jennifer Tame manages to inject into Senate hearings and physics lectures a sense of nail-biting tension to rival any action sequence. Both are aided by Ludwig Göransson’s magnificent score, an anxious series of electronic fits and bursts, pulsing amidst a symphony of agonised strings.

“Ludwig Göransson’s magnificent score, an anxious series of electronic fits and bursts, pulsing amidst a symphony of agonised strings”

All this makes for a viewing experience that feels suitably cosmic – but it’s also paired with a striking sense of intimacy, as Nolan’s starry ensemble collectively unearth the personal stories that lie behind the politics. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt deliver performances of quiet frustration as Oppenheimer’s young lover and wife respectively, and Robert Downey Jr. is given a long-overdue opportunity to showcase his dramatic chops in a brilliant turn as the calculating chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss. But, it’s Murphy who impresses most, in what is undoubtedly the performance of his career; his Oppenheimer is a figure of wiry unease, his piercing blue eyes at once alight with the thrill of new discovery and, it seems, hauntingly cognizant of the devastating human cost of his own genius.


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Although Jewish by birth, Oppenheimer had a well-documented fascination with mystical religions; indeed, many of the film’s most trenchant sequences are imbued with a strange sense of paranormality. Oppenheimer addresses a jingoistic crowd of his employees, as they celebrate the success of the ‘Trinity’ test, the bomb’s first detonation; but before too long, the walls around him begin to quake. The triumphant rhythms of his audience’s stomping feet start to imitate the ominous rumblings of a distant eruption. A man walks by outside, vomit streaming from his lips. One too many celebratory glasses of champagne, perhaps? Or, worse still, a body as poisoned with nuclear radiation as Oppenheimer’s mind seems to be by his own guilt?

The jury’s out on quite to what extent the real Oppenheimer may have come to regret his most famous accomplishment. Certainly, in Nolan’s version of events, the remorse could hardly be more palpable, compounded by the physicist’s subsequent inability to control how his research would go on to be used and built upon, to ever more ruinous effects (“No one cares about who created the bomb”, he’s told by the powers that be, “They care about who drops it”). Is this Nolan’s parable of American exceptionalism? Hardly– when all’s said and done, Oppenheimer plays far more like a tragedy.

Oppenheimer is in cinemas now