In the past, our deepest impression of J. Robert Oppenheimer came from his 1965 interview with NBC, in which he recalled his state of mind after the first detonation of a nuclear device and quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "I became the Grim Reaper, the destroyer of the world." In this shot, the physicist's hazy face occupies almost the entire picture, and this clip is the collision of particles that triggered the chain nuclear reaction that eventually gave birth to Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer.
This 3-hour biopic is like a thrilling thriller, except for reflecting on the guilt that can consume everything, Oppenheimer never slows down, it vividly imagines the protagonist's deep psychological activity - the lingering apocalyptic scene constantly tormenting his soul, a scene that is both a warning and an indictment of humanity. It makes people weak, their hearts beating faster, and they have difficulty breathing.
The opening shot sets the tone for the film, establishes a triple nested narrative structure, and introduces us to the future "father of the atomic bomb" by flashing back to Robert Oppenheimer's (Killian Murphy) college experiences in the 2020s.
When we first meet Robert, his gaze downwards (like in the NBC video) and the ripples of raindrops in puddles, a calm image that reminds him of the hellfire of subatomic particles. Even the tranquility of nature could not soothe his deeply troubled mind.
These thoughts that constantly invade his mind are repeated throughout the film, especially when he is forced to confront the terrible power he has created. Just as Terrence Malik's images of celestial bodies contrast with coming-of-age stories in The Tree of Life, this story of arrogance, remorse, and unleashed power is often punctuated by subatomic images that are refracted and magnified onto a massive 70mm negative IMAX screen, as if to make people realize how horrific damage such a tiny thing can cause. This is Nolan's "Tree of Death".
Two government hearings take us into Robert's past. Both hearings took place after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of them is presented in faded images, which questions Robert's loyalty to the United States in 1954; The other is a black-and-white scene that puts former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss (once an ally of Robert and later an antagonist, played by Robert Downey Jr.) to the forefront in 1959. The latter often echoes the former, which itself recalls Robert's scientific career in the 1920s and 1930s before joining the Manhattan Project in 1942.
This structure is reminiscent of The Social Network, a film that also uses two hearings to tell real events with significant impact. But the two opposing hearings in Oppenheimer create conflicting perspectives, sometimes resulting in overlapping and repetitive shots, but they come from the perspectives of Robert and Strauss, one in (slightly more vivid) color and the other in black and white.
The relationship between the two is not the central driving force of the story (this work is handled by "Race Against Time to Build and Test the Atomic Bomb", a story line that takes up a large part of the film), but it plays a crucial role in expressing the story's theme. Oppenheimer delves into the selves of two men and culminates in a shocking, dramatic ending that completely reveals the regrets that have always been deep in the hearts of the two, which ultimately allows Robert Downey Jr. to offer the complex, delicate, explosive acting skills he has not been able to show in other films in the past 20 years.
Before that ending, the story unfolds like a free fall, purposefully jumping between multiple scenes, revealing key scientific breakthroughs that bring Robert and his handpicked team of scientists closer to the power of God. Their plans often encounter obstacles, and these obstacles often come from their own governments, and the suspicious and red-scared US government constantly sends security officials to review, and Dane DeHaan, Cassie Affleck, and David Darth Mazilian also show the bastard faces of these officials with superb acting skills, further strengthening the tension of the film.
Oppenheimer is an incomprehensible mystery, a professor who is surrounded by excited students like a nucleus surrounded by electrons, and Killian Murphy brings the necessary composure and majesty to the character, in contrast to his thin physique.
He has a look of unease on his face for many years, and even when he is forced to laugh, the uneasiness is clear at a glance. He didn't look like he suddenly "saw a ghost", but more like he had witnessed ghosts wandering all the time in his life, making people wonder, did he foresee the cornerstone of all things to push him to greatness, or did he push him into an eternal curse?
Because of its story structure, Oppenheimer is like a memory full of regret being gradually revealed, but is this regret fated? Murphy's face also seems to keep asking the question.
In the star-studded cast of supporting roles, two women rarely become the highlights of supporting roles in Nolan movies. The two women's relationship with the American Comies (and Robert's connection to them) sparked Uncle Sam's wrath. Florence Pew's Jen Tetlock is Robert's fickle lover in life, and she is also the protagonist of a surprisingly creative and disturbing sex scene.
Emily Blunt plays Kitty, Robert's long-suffering wife. She is a rather plump and three-dimensional character, far more complex than the vase wife common in Hollywood biopics. Kitty may be the only one who knows the real Robert: she knows the man hiding behind the image of the martyr, the man who disguises himself with false humility and a disgusting image of the "lone genius." J. Robert Oppenheimer is a paradox that only she can solve, and this paradox has always pressed on her heart.
Murphy spends most of his time playing opposite David Crumholtz or Matt Damon, who plays Robert's witty friend Isidor Isaac Rabbi, and Damon as Army engineer and security chief of the Manhattan Project. Damon's role once again embodies his quest to be a powerful actor, and his character's confrontation with Robert and his desire to be heard (which often ends in failure, given that he is surrounded by geniuses) takes center stage in a humorous way.
The scientific masters of the 20th century frequently exited, making people feel like they watched a physics "Avengers": Feynman, Bohr, Seth Nedermayer, Einstein, Heisenberg all appeared, but in the end, the focus of the story is still Robert's inner struggle when convincing himself to create something fearful.
Nolan wrote the script based on Oppenheimer and worked with his collaborators on Creed to complete many amazing techniques, from photographer Hoyt van Holtmar, to composer Ludwig Goransson, to editor Jennifer Lame. The tall IMAX format is cleverly used to not only capture the spectacle, but also to make the close-up more tense, making Robert seem to be the smallest and loneliest man in history against the backdrop of the vast land of New Mexico.
Gorançon uses ambient sounds, such as the stomps of excited crowds, as well as gradually increasing tempos, to create intense and disturbing music. Working with sound designer Randy Torres, Nolan and Gorançon determined exactly when to abandon thunderous sound and let silence envelope everything.
After the Trinity nuclear test, even the faint sounds of human breathing (whether relieved or breathless in extreme fear) became a symphony as Robert's mind focused on disaster. Here, the film's performance reaches its most tense moment, wrapping the character in his deepest fears and anxieties with shocking realism. This is perhaps the most wonderful scene that Director Nuo has filmed so far. If you read it, you know that there is nothing wrong with what I said.
Jennifer Lamei brings us into and out of these living nightmares through intimate hearing and touch, as if the world suddenly becomes extremely unstable, and even the slightest stimulation will allow it to be consumed by flames. Even the texture and weathering of the bomb itself make it seem to have life, as if it is a sleeping beast waiting to be awakened. Although we watched Oppenheimer in 2023 and knew that the world had not been destroyed in 1945, when I watched the movie, I felt that the end of the world was imminent and could come at any time.
This adrenaline rush and its gagging afterglow never dissipated. It is as if the curtain itself is constantly exuding the fear of death and destruction, which makes Oppenheimer both about the past and about the future. Nolan continues this momentum not only in the shots involving the atomic bomb, but also in the smaller scenes, showing lifeless, cramped safety hearings at breakneck pace. (Bureaucracy has never seemed so scary.)
The film always goes back to its core question, which is J. Robert Oppenheimer's place in history — both in the eyes of others and within himself. The film's conclusions are not easy to interpret, relying mainly on the film's frequent and breathtaking abstractions, rather than concrete words. It's a thrilling movie-going experience that none of Nolan's past films can offer, and its aesthetic impact is likely to make you slowly walk out of the theater with your feet and reflect quietly – an experience that few contemporary Hollywood directors can deliver.
Oppenheimer is a free-falling biopic, Christopher Nolan's most abstract film to date, but also the most subtle. Through the apocalyptic scenes of IMAX nightmares, the theme of "guilt" is fully expressed, and over time, those nightmares become larger and closer to the characters' hearts. The film presents a disturbing and mesmerizing picture of what human beings can expect from innovation and the ability to justify any atrocities.