"Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity."
Christopher Nolan paints a portrait of a man with a crisis of identity. From a frontiersman of the once fringe study of quantum mechanics to embracing his role as an "American Prometheus", Oppenheimer chronicles this complex force of a man with nuance, told with the director's signature touch for the non-linear.
Nolan uses two parallel timelines to drive forward the sequences of J. Robert Oppenheimer's life, the interrogation into his communist relations by the Atomic Energy Commission, and a Senate approval hearing for the appointed Secretary of Commerce Lewis Strauss. Strauss' scenes of cross examination are separated by its rich, 60mm black and white IMAX film stock, specially developed by Kodak for Christopher Nolan. Both of these ongoing hearings that unfold act as a touchstone to present day for us as the viewer, cutting back and forth between here and the formative stages of Oppenheimer's life.
With the director's other work such as Tenet, Inception, and even as far back as Memento, he employs this non-linearity around action or physical conflict. But Oppenheimer intricately sequences its events around dialogue and 12 Angry Men-style drama. As we journey through his life we see Oppy catch himself in justifications and half-truths, riding the fine line of contradicting himself without enacting a full lie. This webs together the events of decades, with these parallel hearings guiding the viewer with plentiful context and foreshadowing to engage our three hours of attention.
J. Robert Oppenheimer the student controls the first act, beginning the film at a brisk pace with montages of chaotic studying and contemplation. Cillian Murphy embodies the slender pupil with a neurotic, youthful clumsiness. His mind for theory clashed with the practical. When he attempts to poison his Cambridge professor with cyanide— an action that landed him mandatory sessions with the campus psychiatrist in real life— we see the first glimpse into his paradoxical moral compass. As Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema accomplished with Interstellar, they again marry the metaphysical with reality through abstract visuals. When looking through Oppenheimer's eyes, we too can see the music.
We can also see a man dissociate from his surroundings. Many times is he consumed by thought with his glassy eyes transfixed for miles. Tight shots of Cillian Murphy focuses the lens to drown you in the features of his distant gaze, with Ludwig Göransson's score rising with the anxiety of the moment.
Known to history as the "Father of the Atomic Bomb", Robert Oppenheimer shouldered an immense moral burden. Following the bombing of Japan he gives a speech to a gymnasium of students cheering in patriotic ecstasy. The gym is dripping with the warmth of post-war Americana. He panders to their overwhelming energy, but the words stick in his throat. The walls around him begin to tremble like the earth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through his eyes do we see his guilt manifest, as the bleachers of students vaporize into matter.
Although a portrait of a man haunted by his conscious, the film carefully displays both sides to his enigmatic character. There is a sense of purpose Oppenheimer finds while heading development at Los Alamos. It is clear he struggled with his identity as he's dressed in honorary military fatigues before being checked by his peer. "Just be yourself, but better."
When the Manhattan Project is complete his eyes frantically watch Fat Man and Little boy being hauled away, with Göransson's violin's tensely screeching, he realizes his purpose has vanished.
Robert Downey Jr. captures the glib finesse of a politician portraying Lewis Strauss. The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission sees Oppenheimer through a different lens, one that peers through the physicist's vanity. The self-described lowly shoe salesman has an inferiority complex of his own, and stands as a cut throat personal and political nemesis to Oppenheimer.
Occurring at the one hour and fifty-eight minute mark (the exact time Oppenheimer says they'll know when the test is successful) the first atomic bomb demonstration is not the final climax of the film, but it is still built up to with delicious tension. A tight zoom centers the eye deep into the heart of the mushroom inferno, dissolving it into infinite particles of wonderous color dancing like embers. Oppenheimer's eyes read of beauty as he removes his goggles to take in the pure energy of the universe. In that moment, we too can see the music.