Oppenheimer Is the Movie Christopher Nolan’s Whole Career Has Been Building To

Thirteen years after Inception, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer shows the stuff of dreams becoming hard reality. The realization destroys the dreamer.

Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt in Oppenheimer
Photo: Universal Pictures

This article contains Oppenheimer spoilers.

The first line of dialogue spoken by Leonardo DiCaprio during Inception compares the stuff of dreams and aspirations to the spoils of rot and decay. “What is the most resilient parasite?” DiCaprio’s Cobb asks. “A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? [It’s] an idea; resilient; highly contagious; and once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”

In the 13 years since that film’s release, Inception has become widely viewed as a manifesto for its writer and director, Christopher Nolan. Here is a cinematic spectacle structured around the literal concept of implanting ideas into someone’s mind, where they will last forever. Even the pretext of the film (which is about thieves who must put together a heist) mirrors the collaborative nature of filmmaking, just as DiCaprio’s combed back blond hair and finely tailored suits evoke Nolan himself. Yet while the film is definitely something of a mission statement for its creator, it is not the only Nolan picture to labor at reconciling the differences between dreams and realities; theory and practice; ideas and the implications they have for an individual and the world over time.

These themes are reflected and refracted in nonlinear storytelling across most of the director’s filmography: from the illusionists who turn to black magic science in The Prestige, to the prospect of an apocalyptic climate change taking Matthew McConaughey far away from his children for a long, long time in Interstellar. Throughout all these efforts though, Nolan has almost exclusively worked within the realm of fiction. With the exception of Dunkirk, which was set during the life-or-death evacuation of British troops from the north of France in World War II, all of Nolan’s films have connected with their audience via fantasy. Like Cobb, they’re using the trappings of genre and thrills to insist on their core ideas.

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Yet there is almost no artifice at all in Nolan’s latest, and possibly best, film. The core idea of Oppenheimer, which opened in theaters this past weekend, took root across our globe nearly 80 years ago, and the future it still promises is worse than any bacteria or virus. As more than one character asserts without much in the way of hyperbole in the film, “This is the most important fucking thing to happen in the history of the world.”

In so many respects, it feels like Nolan’s entire career has been building toward this realization. Or as one of its stars, Robert Downey Jr., told Nolan, “It’s the culmination of your life’s work.”

In terms of subject matter, there are few historical figures who better align with Nolan’s interest in (male) protagonists of mythic importance than J. Robert Oppenheimer. The tortured scientist is played onscreen by frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy as if he were a ghost who doesn’t know he’s dead yet, and that he died essentially by his own hand. This Oppenheimer is a doomed figure who fits comfortably next to many of Nolan’s other flawed heroes. He’s obsessive, seemingly incapable of peace of mind or happiness, and relentlessly serious about his work. 

After Nolan took over the Batman franchise in 2005, it was a culture shock to the American zeitgeist when he depicted Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne as a highly serious individual who embarks on his caped crusade with the apparent thoughtfulness and strategy of a political activist building a network of allies within a city’s institutional power structure. But all of Nolan’s characters treat whatever flight of fancy they’re pursuing with severity. Which is not to say they’re humorless; it’s a common misconception that Nolan’s movies are so self-serious they lack awareness. Every one of them has revealed a dry but tangibly droll sensibility. However, his characters are generally intellectual workaholics who work exclusively with other full-time obsessives. The reasons for their zeal is sometimes obvious, such as when they’re facing an existential threat to the planet in Interstellar; and sometimes it might be faintly absurd in lesser hands, like when they’re pursuing outlandish ends by infiltrating someone’s dreams or trying to save American cities from nuclear destruction.

Yet within Oppenheimer, the world really does face an existential threat, and the bitterest irony is that this is due to its titular character realizing his driving idea. His dream. He builds an atomic bomb—an action he initially pursued so as to protect his homeland from facing exactly such devastation at the hands of a nuclear-armed Nazi Germany—and the fallout from this feat is a world that scares him and, by the movie’s end, the audience too. Oppenheimer lives long enough to see himself become the villain (or at least foresee that fate in posterity), and he’s left to justify it as meekly as Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent did while casting recriminations in a burned out ruin of their best intentions in The Dark Knight.

Nolan structures this horrible epiphany along three parallel narratives. It’s a trick the director’s been more or less using since his second film, Memento, which is infamous for being the movie “told backwards.” In actuality, there are concurrent black-and-white sequences which are occurring in a linear fashion in that movie opposite the reversed narrative, as well as flashbacks that are also sequenced chronologically.

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Oppenheimer is nowhere near so flashy as that, or the three competing narratives and timelines interspersed to build to a point of singularity in Dunkirk. Like Dunkirk though, Nolan is a lot more sober-minded when handling the heaviness of a World War II setting with Oppenheimer—at least for the sequences that are set in WW2.

These scenes, which are told exclusively from Oppenheimer’s point-of-view and are introduced with the title card “Fusion,” are all filmed by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on a rich color 65mm film stock and recount in a mostly chronological order how a leftist intellectual with communist associations somehow won over pragmatic General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) and became the director of the Manhattan Project. The Father of the Atomic Bomb.

The other most obvious narrative, which is titled “Fission” at the top of the film, is shot on an even more lush black-and-white 65mm film stock (a first for the bits filmed in IMAX). These portions are all told from the perspective of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the slowly unfurling spider who seeks to destroy Oppenheimer in his web of bureaucracy—ostensibly out of patriotism, but really due to resentment and jealousy. These scenes are anchored in 1958 during Strauss’ U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for a Cabinet post in the Eisenhower White House.

Finally, there’s an unnamed interstitial narrative which becomes the heart of the movie: Oppenheimer’s crucifixion at a security clearance hearing which Strauss engineered to be a trial Oppie could never win. As even Oppenheimer’s foe shudders, “Who could justify their entire life?” This narrative is filmed in a neutral, almost sterile color palette.

As is typical for Nolan, all three stories are edited out of order and sometimes punctuated mid-scene, with the storyteller beginning a pivotal moment in Oppenheimer’s life and then withholding the details of how it fully played out until an hour later into the picture. Through this manner, Nolan and his editor Jennifer Lame evoke the director’s usual trick of acting as conductor and maestro to a story that is in constant conversation with itself. In their best moments, Nolan’s films can feel as much like narrative concerts as they do movies with a beginning, middle, and end.

In the case of Oppenheimer though, these structural tricks are not intended to heighten the tension of action sequences or the spectacle of, say, three layers of dreams within dreams. Rather they submerge the viewer into a viselike three-hour anxiety attack, immersing you into the paranoias of multiple eras. It’s both the story of clear-eyed perseverance during the Second World War against an incomprehensible enemy and, simultaneously, a sinking Red Scare nightmare at a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a reign of terror, and fear of mutually assured destruction with Russia was only beginning to burrow into America’s subconscious.

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Nolan is using the same storytelling techniques that made audiences hold their breath over the fate of Gotham, but now instead of fanciful action sequences, all we have is men speaking in hushed whispers about the end of the world. And it’s more dread-inducing than images of Heath Ledger’s Joker holding a knife, especially whenever Ludwig Göransson’s pounding score starts to take on the unstoppable pace of a nuclear countdown.

Going into Oppenheimer, many moviegoers likely imagined the climax is that countdown—the nuclear test codenamed Trinity where Oppenheimer discovers if he’s succeeded at making a weapon of mass destruction… or if he’s about to trigger a chain reaction that destroys the planet. It is curious how Nolan shoots Oppenheimer specifically like a mad scientist in this scene, evoking perhaps Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein in a film from Oppie’s heyday. But Oppenheimer’s greatest triumph is not the climax of the film; it’s how the triumph of that day transforms the American psyche in a manner Oppenheimer cannot control, leaving him (as he really did tell President Harry Truman) with the feeling that “I have blood on my hands.”

The biography which inspired Nolan, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus, takes its title from the Greek myth of a titan who gives mankind the gift of fire, and as reward is condemned to spend all eternity chained to a rock while a bird picks at his liver. In Oppenheimer, that bird is an attorney named Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), and it is his prosecution in all but name (or is it a persecution?) of Oppenheimer that becomes the climax of the film.

At Oppenheimer’s security hearing, the scientist is punished by his government for realizing his invention did not just obliterate Hiroshima and Nagaski, but unleashed a world where the genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle, and where the American government eagerly rushed into a nuclear arms race with the USSR. Technically, there were no more world wars (yet) after 1945, but that’s because Oppenheimer’s invention hangs like the Sword of Damocles above the globe—and it always will unless we eventually push the button.

One of Oppenheimer’s greatest mentors was a physicist named Niels Bohr. He’s played by Kenneth Branagh in the film, and like Oppenheimer he initially believed a nuclear weapon would be a deterrent from any more great wars. But before Oppenheimer’s work in Los Alamos was done, he concluded, “You are the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves, and the world is not prepared.”

So, as nearly all Nolan films must, Oppenheimer ends on a point of narrative convergence where the storylines simultaneously climax. Oppenheimer is destroyed by the government he performed a miracle for (and which probably saved hundreds of thousands of American lives in the process); the architect of his martyrdom is similarly destroyed by a vengeful scientific community a few years later when Strauss stands before the Senate; and the larger narrative about the trajectory of the idea to build an atomic bomb? It doesn’t end for anyone but Oppenheimer, who in the final scene asks Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) if he remembers their theory about testing the bomb destroying the world. Einstein does. “I think we did,” Oppenheimer then tells him in the movie’s last line.

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Typically, Nolan’s narrative crescendos culminate in a transcendence of an idea: a spinning top that implants the thought of a man being trapped in a dream world; a vigilante becoming Gotham’s dark knight; a conviction to fight the Germans on the beaches and to endure. But Oppenheimer’s idea really did become manifest, and it’s visualized as nuclear explosions on a map resembling drops of rain across a pond. The last shot is him anticipating the fallout of his good works while standing deafeningly alone in world history, feeling the blood of the entire globe on his hands.

This is Oppenheimer’s legacy: the actualization of an idea. It’s a theme which Nolan has been chasing his entire career.