The film’s virtuosity is evident in every frame, but that is virtuosity without self-aggrandizement. Big issues can turn even well-intentioned filmmakers into spectacles, to the point that they upstage the history they’re trying to do justice to. Nolan avoids that trap by insistently placing Oppenheimer in a larger context, especially with the black and white parts. One section turns on a politically motivated security clearance hearing in 1954, a witch hunt that damaged his reputation; the second follows the 1959 confirmation for Lewis Strauss (a mesmerizing, almost unrecognizable Downey), former chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission who was nominated for a cabinet position.
Nolan integrates these black-and-white sections with the colored ones, using scenes from the hearing and the confirmation – Strauss’s role in the hearing and his relationship with Oppenheimer directly affected the outcome of the confirmation – to create a dialectical synthesis. One of the most effective examples of this approach illuminates how Oppenheimer and other Jewish project scientists, some of whom were refugees from Nazi Germany, saw their work in stark, existential terms. However, Oppenheimer’s genius, his credentials, international reputation and wartime service to the US government cannot save him from political gamesmanship, the vanity of little men and the naked anti-Semitism of the Red Scare.
These black and white sequences define the last third of “Oppenheimer”. They can seem too long, and sometimes in this part of the film it feels as if Nolan gets too swept up in the trials that America’s most famous physicist has undergone. Instead, it is here that the complexities of the film and all its many fragments finally converge as Nolan puts the finishing touches on his portrait of a man who contributed to an era of transformative scientific discovery, who personified the intersection of science and politics, including in his role as a communist butcher who was transformed by his role in the creation of weapons of mass destruction and soon after raised the alarm about the dangers of nuclear war.
François Truffaut once wrote that “war films, even pacifist ones, even the best ones, willingly or not, glorify war and make it somehow attractive.” This, I think, explains why Nolan refuses to show the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world-defining events that eventually. killed calculated 100,000 to over 200,000 souls. You do, however, see Oppenheimer watching the first test bomb and, critically, you also hear the famous words that he said cross his mind as the mushroom cloud rose: “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” As Nolan reminds you, the world moved quickly from the horrors of war to embrace the bomb. Now we too have become death, the destroyers of worlds.
Rated R for disturbing images, and mature language and behavior. Running time: 3 hours. In theaters.