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The end of the world

Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s best and most important film

An apple, unnaturally green and perfect, sits in a cold laboratory. A man lurches towards it, his body fizzing with ambition, his heart seething with anger, his eyes alight with curiosity, and seizes it. He injects cyanide into the fruit, carefully measuring out the dose. He replaces the apple on the table, clear poison like pure water sliding off its glistening skin. Just one scene, unforgettable, from Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which depicts the nuclear scientist caught between the sins of Adam, Cain and Prometheus. 

I was gripped by every minute of what proved to be a startling, disturbing, and magnificent spectacle

What can one say? I was ready to be bored. Three hours? A biopic? Critically acclaimed? It’s the unholy trinity of elements that reliably predicts ponderous, awards-fodder pretentious snooze fests. I recalled with dread seeing Lincoln, 150 minutes of tiresome American grandiloquence, which, like Oppenheimer, injected a complex political sub-plot based in Washington DC. But as it turns out, I was gripped by every minute of what proved to be a startling, disturbing, and magnificent spectacle.

The film begins with a young Oppenheimer, lost in gloomy Cambridge, obsessed with the emerging field of quantum physics. His mind is filled with flickering, apocalyptic visions of subatomic particles, invisible forces, terrible, unimaginable energies. All these effects, from his restless atomic dreams to the final ghastly glory of the Bomb are produced, Nolan tells us, without the use of CGI, as if the director were removing some invisible veil between the audience and the terrible powers with which Oppenheimer and his colleagues play. 

It’s a film about physics, but even more decisively it’s a film about morality, the essential link between the two. Oppenheimer’s life is far from an admirable one — he dabbles with communism, conducts numerous extramarital affairs, treats colleagues and friends with arrogant disregard, openly defies authority, and glories in his own power, brilliance and charisma. Brought to life by Irish actor and Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy, his mercurial, dreamlike quality seduces and hypnotises his audience as much as it does admiring colleagues, adoring students, and attractive women. 

Nolan, who was brought up Catholic, has created a kind of morality play, a modern-day Faust legend, but one that owes as much to Jewish as it does Christian sensibilities. The race for the Atom Bomb occurs in part due to a letter signed by Einstein, warning of Germany’s own nuclear programme. Jewish scientists predominate in the research at Los Alamos, including Oppenheimer himself. The urgency of the race is framed by many of the characters in the film as about stopping the Nazis and protecting Jewish people from annihilation.

Jewish elements, both secular and sacred, predominate. The ideas of Freud and Marx feature, but the strongest subtexts are religious, from the golem-like tale of secret knowledge unleashed to defend the Jewish people, to the Kafkaesque inquisition of Oppenheimer that serves as the film’s framing device.  

Oppenheimer’s original sin, as the film teases out, is related to his vision of physics. In an early scene, he lectures a single startled then enraptured student. “Is light a wave or a particle?” he asks — “It’s both!”. His embrace of paradox, of the apparently contradictory, is, long before the bomb itself, the Promethean moment. On the one hand it’s a refusal of structure, law, and limit, a rebellion against the orderly cosmos of Einstein, who is quoted in the film as saying “God doesn’t play dice”. On the other, it’s an assumption of the divine itself, of a supernatural and immaterial world unbounded by the limitations of mortals. 

Oppenheimer applies this power to his own life and relationships well before he applies it to weapons research, and it is no less destructive. He flirts with communism, conducting affairs with communist party members, sending money to communists in Spain and attempting to unionise his physics department. But unlike his brother, he refuses to actually join the party, and rapidly disowns the union when he is given the opportunity to work on the Bomb. His brother accuses him of cowardice, which he defends as caution, but in fact there is little sign of either — the real reason, as we see over the course of the film, is a refusal to be bound, to make decisions and commitments and to be held to them. For Oppenheimer, politics as much as physics can be rendered safely to the realm of abstraction, contradictory ideas held together in timeless tension. 

The purity of abstraction has been forever lost

The Bomb itself, which takes shape in the abstract with the elegant plink of marbles dropped in a fishbowl, representing the amount of nuclear fuel refined, is finally revealed as something unnatural and malevolent. Far from the sleek realm of sci-fi weapons, the Bomb is a kind of witches cauldron, a grotesque mass of wires, tape and black metal squatting on a structure like an old water tower. After the weapon is unleashed, the scientist erupt into a Dionysiac celebration — couples embrace, women burst into tears, Oppenheimer passes a man puking his guts out, staring at him balefully. The purity of abstraction has been forever lost, and all the apparent power swiftly vanishes, disappearing as the atomic devices are removed on the back of a truck, trundling towards mass murder. 

Oppenheimer, who acted as if he stood outside the laws of man, nature and god, is eventually subjected to all three. His Communist connections lead to a brutal interrogation of every aspect of his life, the weapon he develops to end war is dropped on a civilian population, his personal betrayals lead to a death, and to his being betrayed in turn. 

The film is at once tense political thriller, classical tragedy, modern fairy tale, historical drama and religious allegory. Where other Nolan films have produced magnificent spectacle and intricate, intriguing plots, with Oppenheimer he has broken through into something far more psychologically complex and philosophically sophisticated.

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