Oppenheimer: Nolan’s dazzling expressionistic flourishes bring this sombre chamber drama to life

Christopher Nolan’s serious, scholarly epic about ‘the father of the atom bomb’ J. Robert Oppenheimer revolves around verbose courtroom confrontations, but the beautiful visual touches – and Cillian Murphy’s grave, introspective performance – put it among the director’s best.

Oppenheimer (2023)

Following his thrill-seeking conceptual actioner Tenet (2020), Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a manifest work of high seriousness portraying one of the weightiest biographical subjects imaginable, the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’. Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (2005), the film accordingly depicts its hero as suffering the agonies of Prometheus, the mythical fire thief from Greek mythology, as outlined in an opening caption, which reads: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.”

Oppenheimer is meticulously concrete in its recreation of its world, from Berkeley classrooms to the Trinity test bomb, seen pieced together like a giant Rubik’s sphere. But it is also an intensely symphonic film, naturalism intermittently disrupted by expressionistic flourishes, bringing it closer than expected to John Adams’s 2005 Los Alamos opera Doctor Atomic. Ludwig Göransson’s score runs continuously throughout; his screeching strings and obsessive ostinatos sometimes detract from the dialogue, but they bring unifying flow to a film constructed on a principle of discontinuity.

Largely comprising brief staccato scenes, Oppenheimer skips between pre- and post-war and the crucial period at Los Alamos. Cohesion derives from the premise that Oppenheimer is narrating his life during the 1954 hearing in which he was questioned as a possible risk to US security. Strikingly, much of this apparent epic – shot in 65mm and IMAX 65mm film – is actually chamber drama, built around confrontations in a small room, together with a courtroom session involving Oppenheimer’s later employer Lewis Strauss.

It might help the viewer to have heard of the ‘Strauss Affair’, whose central figure – played by an imposingly restrained Robert Downey Jr – has such a key role here. It might also help to be familiar with Werner Heisenberg, Edward Teller and other scientific heavyweights who appear. Most of the teeming dramatis personae are only sketchily limned, but the women, so prominent in Oppenheimer’s life, especially could use definition. We barely get a chance to know his ill-fated lover Jean Tatlock, while Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer, introduced as a brittle sophisticate, only fully comes into her own towards the end – with icy ferocity – delivering a defiant riposte to her husband’s persecutors.

As Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy provides a tantalising throughline of introspective gravity. His husky, often monotone intonations – with the faintest hint of John Huston – suggest a man older than his age, hinting at an inner ferment of, first, intellectual exaltation, then agonised self-recrimination.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (2023)

For all its scholarly seriousness, Nolan’s script can’t avoid getting lost in the cornfield of famous-name drama (“Have you met Dr Gödel?“). Corridors-of-power expositions stretch for miles; party conversations begin, “I hear you’re working on a radical new approach…” But it’s when, amid the stilted talk, Oppenheimer uses purely cinematic effects that it’s really on to something. One visual touch is beautifully simple: the green apple that Oppenheimer spikes with cyanide in an impulsively vengeful snit at his Cambridge tutor is an economical symbol of science turned toxic (Cambridge, Isaac Newton’s apple – neat, no?).

The spareness of the realism – with the hearings shot in black and white – provides a heightening contrast to the more expressionistic moments, which at their best are dazzling. One leitmotif is auditory: a thunderous accelerated beating proves to be the research team’s triumphant foot-stamping after the successful Trinity test, but also suggests a marching army of death, and the relentless pounding of Oppenheimer’s conscience. The Trinity explosion itself comes as a collage of single images – billowing flames, white light, rapt faces – and a passage of absolute silence, pure sonic vacancy, preceding the delayed BOOM.

But there are also missteps, as when Oppenheimer’s extramarital liaison is raised during the hearing, and he is suddenly seen in a naked embrace with Tatlock – right there in the room. And at the start, as the young scientist tosses restlessly in bed, inserts of fire, sparks, flashing arcs prefigure the Bomb but also evoke the inner noise of genius, no more subtly than, say, A Beautiful Mind (2001).

What the film overall powerfully conveys, though, is how that inner noise might deafen a consumed thinker to the realities of the world they inhabit. Another insight, brought home by an encounter with Einstein (a poignantly rueful Tom Conti), is how the creator of a scientific breakthrough will get left behind by the technological and historical changes they have brought about – yet still carry the moral responsibility for them. Prometheus never gets a break, least of all from himself. 

 ► Oppenheimer is in UK cinemas from 21 July.