Oppenheimer (Christian Movie Review)
About The Movie
If the pink aesthetic of Barbie is not your cup of tea, Hollywood has you covered with a movie of a much different flavor. As with his excellent 2017 war film, Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan has stepped outside his science-fiction wheelhouse to deliver another story based on historical events. Oppenheimer tells the tale of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the Atomic Bomb (based on the book American Prometheus). Once again, Nolan lives up to his reputation. Oppenheimer is a masterfully constructed story that is both harrowing and entertaining, and yet unfortunately also comes with one substantial caveat.
The movie’s cast is tremendous, an orchestra of personalities that are all hitting the perfect notes. The always-great Cillian Murphy is captivating in the lead role, able to communicate his character’s inner-turmoil with just his eyes and gestures. Others, such as Robert Downey Jr. and Matt Damon, are also excellent. Even minor characters with little screen time are portrayed by some recognizable and highly gifted actors.
The real star of Oppenheimer is—perhaps unsurprisingly—Christopher Nolan himself. He once again breaks the mold of conventional storytelling. Near the beginning of the film, there’s an unusual sequence where several images are shown in quick succession (a Picasso painting, a spinning record, etc.). These act as a sort of metaphor for the movie, introducing a story that will not unfold as a chronological narrative, but instead as a circular and thematic interpretation of the historical events.
Like Dunkirk, the film is divided into multiple timelines (because it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without him messing around with time). Each period is distinguished by a different aesthetic (vivid color, black-and-white, etc.), and by title cards that name the two main periods as Fission and Fusion. The first focuses on Oppenheimer’s creation of the bomb, while the second takes place during the aftermath of its destructive use. The movie jumps around between these timelines, sometimes in jarring and abrupt ways, breaking off a scene or moment that won’t be put into full context until much later in the film.
It may take viewers time to get into the rhythm of the nonlinear storytelling, but once you do settle in, the technique becomes an effective and fitting way to explore the movie’s big themes. Like the chain reaction of atoms that fuel the bomb, there is a connectivity between the “theory” of its creation and the manifested consequences of that theory put into action. An incredible musical score that plays throughout much of the film also adds an almost dreamlike and surreal quality to the film.
The majority of the lengthy 3-hour runtime is allotted to rooms full of men talking. Yet, despite the dialogue-heavy script, the sense of escalating and impending horror keeps the story moving at a brisk and thrilling pace that doesn’t lose steam until near the end when it does finally being to drag. But Oppenheimer is not all talking.The film’s standout moment is the detonation of the Trinity test bomb. The sequence is Nolan at his best, building breathless tension by masterfully wielding the visuals, sound design, and music to spectacular ends.
Unfortunately, Oppenheimer does not always show Christopher Nolan at his best. He excels at attempting things that no other filmmakers do (ie. nonlinear storytelling, practical effects, etc.). So, it is notable that the one giant-sized caveat in this film is the result of its least Nolan-esque aspect—sex and nudity. Nolan, who has often been accused of being cold and detached in his portrayals of human relationships, wades into that uncharted territory for the first time. The result is a series of gratuitous and unnecessary scenes of sex and nudity that feel wholly reactionary to these criticisms. Beyond the regular moral complications of nudity in film, there is something even more distasteful about a film that only features two prominent female characters, and then reduces one (the brilliantly talented Florence Pugh) to a mere sexual object who spends virtually all of her screen time nude.
If the lack of restraint with the sexual elements is an issue, then perhaps so too is Nolan having too much restraint in other areas. The utter horror of the bomb and its aftermath is merely hinted at rather than shown. Due to the story unfolding from the perspective of Oppenheimer himself, the audience is not shown the actual dropping of the bombs. A room full of people are later shown pictures of the aftermath, but the camera focuses exclusively on Oppenheimer’s troubled face without revealing the content of those pictures.
There is a valid argument to be made that such restraint is a way to avoid sensationalizing the horrific moment or cheapening it for the sake of entertainment. Oppenheimer does experience several grim and violent visions that symbolize the horror, but this may be an instance where a more visceral depiction of violence might have been appropriate. For a film that attempts to explore the horror that Oppenheimer unleashed upon the world, it seems reluctant to honestly confront audiences with that horror.
In the end, Oppenheimer is an excellently crafted, executed, and directed movie, that would be an easy recommendation were it not for the sexual elements. It’s a movie designed to be seen in a theater on the biggest screen possible, but some viewers may be better off waiting to watch at home where they have more control. It’s a brilliant film that is worth experiencing, but audiences may need to proceed with caution in how they choose to do so.
Engage The Film
Theory Can Only Take You So Far
Much of the movie deals with the moral quandaries and dilemmas that are reflective of the historical event (ie. Was dropping the bombs a just action? Who carries the responsibility? What will be the lasting consequences?). At the same time, the film is also an opportunity for Nolan to explore some other interesting themes. There is repeated question throughout about the “limits of theory.”
Oppenheimer frequently makes statements about the limitations of theory (“Theory can only take you so far,” “What do you want from theory alone?”). When Matt Damon’s military character desires more certainty about the theoretical “near-zero” chances of the the bomb destroying the world, Oppenheimer remarks that once they actually test the bomb they will know for certain, but until then they must rely on theory. In an earlier scene, Oppenheimer conducts complex calculations to argue why a certain outcome is theoretically impossible, only to learn that the experimental team in the room next door have just accomplished it.
The movie does not present this theme in a religious sense, but it is an interesting idea for Christians to explore. How much “certainty” is possible, and at what point does belief require an act of faith? What is the difference between theoretical “head knowledge” and an experiential understanding?
Not a New Weapon, but a New World
The movie raises the age-old question of whether “the ends justify the means.” For the most part, however, the creation of the bomb is framed in a more determinist way. The movie is told from the perspective of Oppenheimer and reflects his own motivation for creating the bomb. He expresses that man cannot be entrusted with such destructive power, but since that power is inevitable, it is better for them to create it first rather than allow the Nazi’s to obtain it. Another character soberly articulates the creation of the bomb is not just a new weapon but represents the dawn of a new world—a world where mankind has the power to destroy themselves. The movie ends with the implication that we are still currently living in the new world that Oppenheimer created.