Leaving too much in the perceptive world of Oppenheimer’s mind, Nolan’s masterpiece in its adapted screenplay scores high on cinematic achievement but low on exhibiting the feelings of Oppenheimer’s heart, or the consequences of his actions
Oppenheimer, a film adapted from the book American Prometheus, involving more than twenty-five years of research by its authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Shirwin, qualifies as a Shakespearean classic in terms both, paradoxical depth of its main character, Robert J. Oppenheimer, dubbed as the “father of the atomic bomb”, and one of the most important figures in American-and international history of 20th century, and the complex layers in which he lived, experienced the world, all, interpreted and directed, the Nolan way.
A lot’s been written already on how Nolan’s work is a masterpiece in almost all technical facets of cinematic creation. From direction, cinematography, editing, the movie’s research, attention to detail, is awe-inspiring. It’s rare to find a film that goes so deep into its subject while attempting to create a universal experience for all through the mastery of Nolan’s complex cinematic landscape. More importantly, the film, in its timing of release, couldn’t be more apt given how the threat of a nuclear war and the adverse consequential effects of ‘nuclear power’ seems most glaring as ever before (when two nuclear powers Russia-Ukraine are at war).
Still, in taking a more critical perspective on the film’s own directorial style and narrative choice, I feel Nolan has become a victim of his own genius on this one.
I say “on this one”, while being acutely aware of Nolan’s distinct patented style of cinematic direction evident from his first major film, Following made in 1998 to the series of classics created from thereon. Each one, from Inception to Interstellar to Dunkirk to Tenet, is a case study into the world of Nolan’s distinct cinematic philosophy that binds them all, one way or another. Even Al Pacino’s Insomnia (directed by Nolan) had a unique narrative style in its directorial work. And so, it would be naïve to think that we can absolutely understand or interpret Nolan’s genius, or his use of ‘time’ puzzles, the way he writes, scripts, directs and creates a film. Our generation is blessed to see his work coming out-as those who could do the same when Stanley Kubrick created cinema.
On Oppenheimer too, there is creative evidence of the usual-patented Nolan form.
From a closer watch, the film’s narrative-drama is based on deep historical research on Oppenheimer himself, shining on the charismatic performances of Cilian Murphy (as Robert J. Oppenheimer) and those who surround him: Robert Downey Jr. (as Lewis Strauss), Emily Blunt (as Kitty Oppenheimer), Matt Damon (as Colonel Leslie Groves) amongst others (including cameos by Jason Clarke, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, and Gary Oldman).
Nolan’s tense, intricate piece is created as a tango of timelines where the black and white part deals with the objectiveview -and perspective of Lewis Strauss-and the coloured sections offer the subjective mind-perspective of Oppenheimerhimself, much like how Memento was edited and written for screen back in 2000 (note how the script for both the films was written in a first person language where we know, read, understand the world around from the brain of the protagonist himself..)
A general critique around the film has also been centered on the lack of ‘emotive’ resonance one feels while watching the film despite being positioned as a character-based narrative drama from the first scene as perceived from the neuropsychological state of Oppenheimer himself. Oppenheimer’s own relationship with his wife, Kitty (played by Blunt), mistress, Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh), and his own adversary Lewis Strauss are not built with any background context, or depth into the screenplay that one sees, and for a Shakespearean tragedy-triumph like this, these elements/details matter.
There are some who also felt that “Oppenheimer (in length) is much too long and its delivery (as a biopic) is too muddled to be considered anything more than a visually provocative biopic that seems less interested in character study than it does in setting a mood”.
The impact of the atomic bomb, upon its use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how it emotionally shaped/affected Oppenheimer afterwards, is less explored. There are just scattered shots that help us know that Oppenheimer in his mind was affected by what was happening around him and was always careful to exercise discretion, accept responsibility, while exhibiting integrity and honesty in propriety while-and after working on the Manhattan Project.
Perhaps, Nolan’s film, emerging in the cinematic depth of an OTT era, where quite often character depth is spaced out and established over multiple episodes and long conversational exchanges in a series format, is less mapped with the way ‘emotions’ are displayed or projected around consequential personas and events (like those where the creation and use of the atomic bomb is shown which changed the world of war and peace forever).
Some may also argue that the way Oppenheimer is created the way it is (despite what critics may argue) is also due to Nolan’s own genius. As argued, in over two and a half decades, Nolan’s style of filmmaking has operated itself on a distinct thread, one in which Oppenheimer too finds itself stuck. Christopher Nolan has argued that his interpretation of the book (American Prometheus) is entirely done through the ‘mind visualisations’ of Oppenheimer himself. He wants the audience to see through Oppenheimer’s way of seeing. The sparks of rain drops on the window, visualization of the streaks of fire when fissions and fusions happen, trying to explain/think about the atom, all, seen through Oppenheimer’s mind.
But, what about his heart? What did Oppenheimer feel when he was shown the images of those hit by the twin-atomic bombs dropped in Japan? How did he communicate those feelings to say his wife who he shared everything-including his most vulnerable moments (shown after Jean’s suicide)? Can the audience have benefited more from knowing about Oppenheimer’s heart, his feelings or emotions, while living through his mind through Nolan’s interpretation of it.
It’s not as we don’t see Oppenheimer’s emotional state of being at all. Clearly, as also shown from the face of Cilian Murphy, from the time he first completes the trinity test, he is disturbed by the power he has unleashed, which directed the alternative course of action thereafter-pushing for international cooperation on nuclear/atomic power, while discouraging its use -after the world war happened. He is also shown in a state of extreme vulnerability when he hears of Jean’s suicide-and his wife Kitty helps hold him together.
But the degree to which his emotional way of being/feeling is circumscribed in the film’s screenplay is a concern worth highlighting -leaving one wanting for more to be said/felt, given the timing and context of the film (which Nolan too would be aware of). This is where perhaps Nolan’s become a victim of his own genius.
What we see here too -like Nolan’s previous films, is a pattern of his directorial genius style, built on a logical pattern of a puzzle-sensitive editorial, multi-timeline topography (playing around with time, colours, camera work-as set from his previous work) for the audience’s mind and brain’s maximum utilisation capacity to be realized, however, on a Shakespearean context of a character such as this one, he (Nolan) makes the audience feel too absorbed by the logic of Oppenheimer’s thought as against the emotional context of his heart and lived experience-even if there is lesser commentary offered on the effects of what he did.
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