In the aftermath of World War One, T.S. Eliot penned the most influential poem of the 20th century. The Waste Land, which captured the spiritual disillusion of the The Lost Generation in disconnected and allusive fragments, was a favourite of J.R. Oppenheimer, who hosted Eliot at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1948.
Such historical detail is not lost in Nolan’s latest blockbuster—the giant biopic, Oppenheimer—a fragmented PTSD narrative that pays homage to The Waste Land’s disjointed structure and esoteric allusions. An early rapid montage cuts from close-ups of our young, gaunt, and troubled genius to stunning shots of Europe’s great cities and cathedrals. We follow our lonely dilettante as he absorbs Picasso in galleries, studies Eliot in solitude, and has terrifying visions of waveforms and particles, wondering where the new developments in quantum physics will ultimately lead us.
Nolan uses the paradoxes implicit in quantum physics as a springboard into his protagonist’s psychological contradictions. With nods to the fragmented complexity of Picasso’s cubism and Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, Nolan paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of Oppenheimer, delivered in a career-defining performance by Cillian Murphy.
It’s not just Murphy’s slight frame in baggy high-wasted trousers that are captivatingly at odds. Pre-war Oppenheimer—the young leftist who never becomes a Communist Party member (at least, not in the film’s version of events)—transmutes into the charismatic wartime philanderer and lecture-hall celebrity, before struggling with (yet nevertheless embracing) his pyrrhic fame as the “father of the atomic bomb.” By running multiple timelines simultaneously, Nolan invites us to consider the paradoxical fragments of Oppenheimer all at once.
Different periods of Oppenheimer’s life are distinguished by the use of colour and black-and-white stock as the story circles around, and edges closer towards, the climactic Trinity test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. Theory and practice collide as Oppenheimer wonders whether or not the test could set off a chain-reaction that will destroy the world. By delivering humanity its most powerful means of destruction, Oppenheimer ultimately comes to believe that he has condemned it to annihilation, the fear of which scars Cillian Murphy’s hollow face and haunted blue eyes.
Oppenheimer really is grand-scale entertainment, and it is perhaps Nolan’s most ambitious picture to date. It plays with paradoxes but delivers them in a digestible narrative shot on glorious Imax 70mm film. In the post-detonation climax, we’re suspended in a prolonged silence, absorbed by the depth of detail in Nolan’s abstract shots of a practical-effect mushroom cloud. The silence is broken by Murphy quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” as the sonic shockwaves sweep over the test site. Nolan drives home Oppenheimer’s internal detonation during a subsequent PTSD attack in public.
Here we get the pay-off in Ludwig Göransson’s score, which draws together the leitmotif of stamping feet and reaches its thunderous crescendo at the nadir of Oppenheimer’s mental delirium. In keeping with the theme of paradox, this is the apex of Oppenheimer’s career. We see a cheering crowd of colleagues and supporters through his gaze, their blurred faces melting as Oppenheimer imagines the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By eliding the Japanese experience, Nolan keeps the focus on his protagonist, leaving the devastation, for better or worse, as an almost theoretical abstraction from Oppenheimer’s perspective. Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s naiveté not his invention is the film’s tragedy—he underestimates mankind’s avaricious appetite for Armageddon.
Nevertheless, Oppenheimer’s enigma is such that he does not renounce his romanticised position (as the “most important man to ever live,” according to Nolan) but uses it to protest the nuclear arms race. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, which manages to find light in modernity’s destructive shadow, Nolan’s Oppenheimer touches a note of optimism. In a sea of ideologues and careerist politicians, humiliated by a kangaroo-court of McCarthyites, Oppenheimer manages to elude capture at every turn, moored by his defiant individuality and steadfast belief in science, truth, and learning.
As in each of his limit-defying movies, Nolan seems to be encouraging us to push against the boundaries. Dare to be an individual, Oppenheimer shouts at us in Imax 70mm (and the echo comes back “dare to face the consequences”). Dare to uphold your moral scruples in the face of ideology. Dare to rebel, even against yourself. But most of all, dare to be brilliant—just don’t destroy the world in the process.