In the first two hours of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, except for one, not a single conversation exceeds a minute. That one scene is, of course, the pivotal one where Leslie Groves, played by an impeccable Matt Damon, is trying to convince Robert Oppenheimer to join the hush-hush Manhattan Project. But other than that, every single scene clocks under one minute, and we move from one to another at lightning speed. Not to mention, there are two separate narratives, both non-linear. Yet it doesn’t feel convoluted at all. In fact, it is just the opposite. Despite primarily falling into the bracket of the biopic genre, Oppenheimer feels taut and exhilarating. Not a single second of it feels boring or unnecessary. And for that very reason, we should applaud Jennifer Lame’s crisp editing. As coincidence would have it, Lame happens to be a frequent collaborator of director Noah Baumbach, who has written Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which only adds volume to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.
Armed with Lame’s editing, Ludwig Göransson’s grand, orchestral soundtrack, Hoyte van Hoytema’s magnificent camerawork, and a forever sleepless Cillian Murphy, Christopher Nolan presents us the life of the controversial physicist in such a manner that we get to feel each moment as we take our breath. And you’d be missing out if you so much as blinked for a moment. Let us get back to that scene again: Groves meeting Oppenheimer regarding the “Manhattan Project.” Nolan had already established the man as a genius physicist with an anti-fascist, left-liberal sentiment as well as the habit of philandering. Already a step ahead of Groves, Oppenheimer pretty much appoints himself. This fascinates Groves, a protocol-adhering government man who speaks a lot about his own authority while he essentially gives Oppenheimer the reins. Nolan develops this scene in such a way that the dynamics between these two men become evident enough for the audience to perceive.
In another important scene, Oppenheimer finds himself at loggerheads with Lewis Strauss at an Atomic Energy Commission meeting. The two, despite being on the same side for the time being, keep debating about the existence of a spy in the “Manhattan Project” team who might have leaked classified information to the Russians. Nolan breaks the scene into many parts and scatters the bits in his screenplay like atomic particles, so little parts of the scene keep appearing throughout the second act of Oppenheimer. This is a masterful technique the visionary director has applied to enhance our viewing experience, and he has pretty much nailed it. Speaking of Nolan’s vision, we need to talk about the most important scene of Oppenheimer, which is inarguably The Trinity Test. Nolan’s penchant for pulling off astonishing, cinematic set pieces is what makes it extra special. This is the “Docking Scene” equivalent of Oppenheimer, but what sets this one apart from anything else is the director’s zero CGI policy. To pull off something like an atom bomb blast with only practical effects is an astounding feat to achieve, and seeing the result, it can safely be said that Nolan has delivered beyond our expectations.
What I found particularly impressive was, despite knowing that a large section of the audience would flock into the theater just to experience the “Trinity Test” on the biggest possible screen, Nolan’s decision to not play for the gallery. He keeps it rather short and contained compared to his usually gigantic set pieces. Instead of emphasizing the bomb blast itself, Nolan focuses on the aftermath of it and dedicates the last hour of the movie to that cause only. This subsequently makes Oppenheimer a rare four-act story where the final act packs all the punch and hits you in the guts so hard that by the end, you are left with this lingering feeling of dread and nothing else. While a ten-minute epilogue-style follow-up scene of Oppenheimer’s inner suffering post-the Trinity Test, which eventually led the US Government to drop the bombs on two Japanese cities, could have been a safe choice, Nolan’s audacious choice to invest almost a whole hour into analyzing the aftermath is what puts Oppenheimer ahead of your usual great cinema.
But we can’t say that it fully works. While I personally found the entire double-layered trial scenes and the film’s sudden turn into an episode of Succession quite riveting thanks to my unadulterated love for the HBO show, it does seem tedious and heavy-handed at times. Most of Nolan’s epics have suffered from the same problem: the director gives in to his incessant urge to go overboard and do something out of the box. To put things into perspective, this is the exact opposite of the hyper-measured, extremely calculated approach you find in the works of someone like David Fincher or Dennis Villeneuve. Naturally, Nolan’s habit of over garnishing makes most of his cinema fundamentally flawed. But thanks to his incredible cinematic vision, you take home something from his cinema that gets forever etched inside your brain. The memory of watching the impossible docking from Interstellar more than seven years ago in the theater is still fresh in my head, and every single time I have rewatched it, I have gotten goosebumps. That is why, despite all the flaws, Nolan’s cinema remains a masterclass and ensures the auteur’s supremacy as one of the modern-day greats.
As far as Oppenheimer goes, I have a feeling that Nolan’s choice of piggybacking a whole espionage/political thriller with a clear noir vibe might just be his bid for the best director trophy at the next Academy Award. In spite of all his monumental achievements in both independent and genre filmmaking, Nolan got his first and only directorial nod for his World War II epic Dunkirk (2017), a film that I personally found self-indulgent. Biopics are, of course, a safe genre that should be considered award-darling, but in recent years they have reached the point of exhaustion. That is why a film like Oppenheimer is extremely important, as it shows a way to reinvent a dying genre by approaching it with a style that would cater to the audience even if they knew the story.
In many ways, Oppenheimer comes off as a deeply personal film instead of a water-drenched history lesson masquerading as Oscar bait. Be it Robert Oppenheimer’s state of constant unhappiness saddled with guilt for what his invention did to this world or Lewis Strauss’s personal vendetta against the troubled genius just because Oppenheimer unintentionally humiliated him once in public, everything hits you so hard here. The movie draws you inside its world instead of asking you to observe as an outsider. Isn’t that what we all look for when we go to the cinema?