Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer" (Universal Pictures)
Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” (Universal Pictures)

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

This is the quotation – a piece of Hindu scripture – that supposedly came to the mind of J. Robert Oppenheimer as he watched the first denotation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945. 

In Christopher Nolan’s new film “Oppenheimer” – based on the novel “American Prometheus” about the physicist’s life and leadership of the Manhattan Project – Cillian Murphy as the title character quotes this piece of scripture a couple of times. Watching the detonation, Oppenheimer’s eyes are filled with a mixture of awe and mania, every sound completely washed away except for the quiver of his breath. 

Later, under scrutiny over his political leanings and his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, those same eyes are instead filled with hints of regret and resignation – a resignation his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) cannot abide. “Stop playing the martyr,” she all but growls at him, her contempt in plain sight. 

“Oppenheimer” puts forth the idea of the man as a set of contradictions. The father of the atomic bomb who felt pride in his accomplishment, and later a martyr who felt tremendous responsibility for the violence and death that creation wrought. A patriot and a Soviet sympathizer. An egoist and a self-aggrandizing prophet with questionable social skills. A visionary and a teacher, whose colleagues and students affectionately called him “Oppy.” Most things that have been said about and by Oppenheimer – good, bad, or middling – are represented here. 

So, who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? That is the ever-constant question in Nolan’s film, and one that has been of historical significance since the end of World War II. Was he proud of the scientific breakthrough he helped achieve, or wracked with guilt over it?  Was he the man who apparently strutted around like a cowboy in “High Noon” after the first successful test of the atomic bomb? Or was he a “cry-baby scientist,” a phrase coined by President Harry Truman after a disastrous meeting with Oppenheimer in which he lamented, “I feel I have blood on my hands?” There’s probably a bit of truth to all of this. But in “Oppenheimer,” neither the measure of the man nor his belief system ultimately matter much in the end. 

Nolan’s much-anticipated film is much quieter than you might think, a thrilling montage of high-stakes meetings in smoky rooms, centered around an atomic explosion that is somehow also quieter – and therefore more harrowing – than you’d expect. All of the contradictory theories about the man, and even the truths that we do know for sure, are marginal compared to the all-powerful, terrible legacy of what he helped create. Nolan enjoys trying to understand the psyche of tortured, complex men, and there’s plenty of that to be found here. But by choosing to tell Oppenheimer’s story in part through the lens of one of his greatest enemies, he also points to the futility of that particular endeavor.

“Oppenheimer” spans decades of the physicist’s life, but the meat of the story rests on his rivalry with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), a founding member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) who was hawkish on American superiority when it came to nuclear weapons development. Two events – a 1954 hearing before the AEC Personnel Security Board (orchestrated by Strauss) which resulted in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and a 1959 Senate hearing regarding Strauss’ confirmation as Secretary of Commerce – serve as the central focal points. Oppenheimer’s point of view is depicted in color with Strauss’ sections depicted in black and white. 

The film’s first act presents Oppenheimer to us as a visionary, its visual language nodding subtly towards his interests outside of physics – mysticism, religion, art, poetry. The physicist as a young man is portrayed as a wide-eyed dreamer whose talents are better suited to philosophizing about what could be possible rather than wasting away in a lab.

In an early scene where Oppenheimer meets Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Bohr tells him that being a scientist is much like being a musician – it doesn’t matter if you can read music, as long as you can hear it. The action in the film is interspersed with these flashes of music, as it were – Oppenheimer’s visions of blood orange smoke and fire, or sometimes of white hot blue electricity, or sometimes of the vast, starry sky above. If he wasn’t chosen to be the leader of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s most consequential contributions to science might have been something a bit more ethereal. He was a leading mind in matters of things such as neutron stars, black holes and gravitational collapse – a scientific concept that’s necessary for creation rather than destruction. 

The most arresting moments in “Oppenheimer” are not the explosions, but the swift cuts back and forth between Oppenheimer and Strauss, between interrogating the intentions of the man in question and reminding us that when such terrible power is at play, intentions tend to fall to the wayside. The best of these sequences includes prosecutor Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) blasting Oppenheimer over his seemingly sudden development of a moral center in the years following WWII. Throughout most of the film, Robb is nothing but a shark in shark’s clothing, willing to hit low and bound to love it. But here, he has a point to make. The question of Oppenheimer’s sense of guilt or responsibility after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been debated, but what does that really change? Would he have done anything different had he known? 

Those questions are impossible not to think about, but it’s a fool’s errand – and in “Oppenheimer,” Strauss is playing the fool. Strauss is not so much concerned with Oppenheimer’s level of guilt, but rather his level of culpability in Strauss’ own personal failings. The above interrogation cuts back and forth between a Strauss monologue setting forth his personal qualms with Oppenheimer. The way Nolan visualizes Oppenheimer’s world, with the help of Hoyte van Hoytema’s blisteringly vivid cinematography, draws the audience so fully into his mind that when those cuts to black and white happen, it can feel like being hit with a ton of bricks. The color sections of the film are deeply visceral, complete with cinematic flourishes that serve to push us further into Oppenheimer’s point of view. In one particularly harrowing moment during a victory speech post the bombings in Japan, the crowd’s rapturous applause drops out, silent but for a singular terrified scream – the start of Oppenheimer’s descent into guilt. 

As visually compelling as these moments are, we’re reminded how fruitless it is to try and psychoanalyze Oppenheimer after the fact as soon as the stark black and white of Strauss’ perspective comes back into play. Downey Jr. delivers what is perhaps the best performance in the film, polite and very nearly soft-spoken at times before the facade drops and anger drips from his face like oil. Strauss’s quest to nail down the measure of Oppenheimer led him to embark on a petty witch hunt that ignored the larger, more troubling questions at hand.

The warning of “Oppenheimer?” Don’t make the same mistake. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.