A visually stunning epic about the splitting of the atom. An utter shame, then, that its moral judgement is lost in favour of a toxic white male narrative.
“Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”, so ripples J. Robert Oppenheimer across time. His words immortalised as both warning and an apology for his actions and its consequences. In Christopher Nolan‘s three-hour epic, he attempts, with anointed omnipotence, to craft a recreation of Oppenheimer’s leadership behind the Manhattan Project, leading to the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending World War II.
Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Nolan’s recreation, overseeing the development of the bomb. Murphy’s Oppenheimer, across the runtime, toys throughout with morality during its construction and who, if anyone, can harness Man’s destruction.
The idea of playing God is as present in the film as it is before the movie even begins. Even before Oppenheimer’s release, moviegoers have continuously discussed the importance of seeking out its optimal viewing quality. The phrase, ‘as Nolan intended,’ choired by cinephiles defending its 70mm IMAX presentation, as if, by seeing anything other, they knowingly commit a sin that needs repenting.
In its large 70mm format, the camera does admittedly offer an exceptional portraiture of Oppenheimer. The uncropped and unchanged image becomes an observational reflection of life and its beauty. However, audiences should expect this regardless of their chosen viewing format. Ultimately, it positions Cillian Murphy in an untampered frame. His performance is possibly a career-best, as he finally leads in a Nolan film despite working alongside the filmmaker since Batman Begins in 2005.
At best, the expressive, additional full-framing of politician Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) and General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) intentionally encourages us as an audience to explore their truths or reservations about the project, with the aspect ratio constricting and expanding multiple times during a sequence to highlight an individual’s mindset.
The control of the aspect ratio is one of many ways Nolan works with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to achieve a nuance beyond line delivery. Speaking exclusively to the Associated Press, Nolan explores why there are segments of the film displayed monochromatically and others in colour, “I knew that I had two timelines that we were running in the film,” Nolan said. “One is in colour, and that’s Oppenheimer’s subjective experience. That’s the bulk of the film. Then the other is a black-and-white timeline. It’s a more objective view of his story from a different character’s point of view.”
Except each deep-focussed frame is crammed with testosterone: Kenneth Branagh, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Josh Peck, Jack Quiad, Casey Affleck, Michael Angarano, David Krumholtz and Dane DeHaan all starring alongside the principle cast, vying for audience attention instead of focussing on the morality arguments for the birth of nuclear genocide.
Further, set against the backdrop of New Mexico and the founding and development of the purpose-built town Los Alamos, Oppenheimer continuously alludes to the off-screen natives, whose land was taken for the military project. It is a disgrace that Nolan fails to include Native voices local to the town built for the Manhattan Project.
Failing to include any diversity suggests that its land, people, and cultural importance are worth disregarding, perpetuating an all too common erasure experienced throughout history.
Moreso, with the film crafted in Nolan’s image, it is disappointing when in his infinite wisdom, there is an omission of people of colour, as well as for the two women, Emily Blunt (Kitty Oppenheimer) and Florence Pugh (Jean Tatlock), to serve as objects to Oppenheimer, falling victim to substance abuse.
Where Nolan is pedestalled as a filmmaker, with previous titles, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, accruing accolades regarded as some of the best movies ever made, Oppenheimer may not receive the same fate.
Instead, Oppenheimer serves adjacent against the modern backdrop of worker demands, fighting for fair conditions against a systematic machine. Where actors Murphy, Blunt, Pugh, Damon and Rami Malek left the London premiere early due to the announced Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strikes accompanying the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strikes, it is reflected too in the film, where Oppenheimer’s connections to communism and unions lead to political unease, as government officials fear the Father of the Bomb may have potential ties to the Soviet Union.
Where Nolan’s Tenet was earmarked as the film to save cinema following the COVID pandemic, Oppenheimer’s lifespan as a film may find itself similarly confined to the news of ongoing Hollywood strikes.
Disappointing primarily because Nolan is heralded as a champion of cinema, so for Oppenheimer to fail on inclusion is shameful, but even more so when compared to its Barbenheimer counterpart, where Barbie takes the toxic masculinity of film bro culture, covers it with sparkly pink and satire and releases itself alongside Oppenheimer for audiences to choose between.
Oppenheimer is available to watch exclusively in cinemas from 21 July.