Evelyn Freja/The New York Times

August 22, 2023


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There is one triumphant moment in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer: an imaginative flash of apocalyptic anxiety for a post-nuclear world. In the film’s final exchange, Nolan leaves us to consider a man’s regret for his development of the atomic bomb that brutalized the civilian families of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a moment that neither Oppenheimer the film nor the man deserves. 

Nolan cites Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror as a reference for Oppenheimer — a revelation that exposes the superficiality behind its tangled narrative. In Mirror, Tarkovsky weaves disparate narrative strands to plot the scattered thoughts of a dying man. It ditches the comfort of linearity for conceptual cohesion. The result is inventive, transcendent. It compels a new ontology of film. 

Nolan perverts Mirror’s legacy. His structural subversions are confused. What is Oppenheimer even about? What are we meant to make of its protagonist? The film meanders — Nolan treats its chronologies like wind-up toys. They are left upon release to determine their own divergent trajectories: the humiliation of Lewis Strauss, the loss of Jean Tatlock, Kitty Oppenheimer’s depression. Those that attempt to assign meaning to this film will often say that it is about Oppenheimer’s regret. This is what Nolan would have you believe, if the film’s final scene, that one triumphant moment, is any indication. Then what do you make of its preceding three hours? Its preoccupation with the physicist’s reputation and romantic life leaves little room to contemplate his culpability. One redemptive sequence of the film is a harsh cross-examination in which Oppenheimer admits that he recommended Hiroshima and Nagasaki for decimation. But Nolan’s reproach is insincere — the film answers his sin with Rami Malek’s moment of glory, in which his character defends the physicist’s honor. This is the incoherency of a noncommittal Nolan who juggles ideas with little concern for where they land. He abuses Göransson’s score to foster some mirage of thematic cohesion. 

One can only imagine what Stanley Kubrick could do with Nolan’s footage. He might allow us to at least sit with an image long enough to contemplate it. Nolan commands the edit like a schizophrenic autocrat, dictating the placement of film with misguided conviction. He would rather have us glimpse at Jack Quaid’s astonishment than spend a few seconds with an atomic bomb. Nolan champions this film as a historic development for practical effects in cinema — so let us look at the effects, Christopher! 

An unsuspecting casualty of Oppenheimer’s disorientation is the American Left. Do not be fooled by Nolan’s sympathetic treatment of the film’s Communist Party; he grants no real credence to Leftist ideas. He condescends them. In the same breath that Nolan condemns McCarthyism, he justifies its characteristic paranoia through his sensationalization of the Chevalier incident. He scorns the thought that the Manhattan Project could have been a nationalist strategy of empire-building. His neglect of the Japanese and Indigenous American victims of the Project is a whole other discussion. Oppenheimer carries this cosmopolitan attitude: “Let us play nice with the communists, everyone deserves a right to express their beliefs,” and so on. It understands communism as some respectable but still misguided alternative lifestyle — the way that an agnostic might tolerate a religious moderate. This is a fundamental misinterpretation of Marxist doctrine, which places socialism as the exclusive order of social organization that must, as the historical dialectic demands, wholly replace capitalism. Nolan’s communists are lethargic, innocuous. The Nolanite brand of technocratic, liberal idealism infantilizes the American Left at the same time that it upheaves Nolan’s very own industry. 

It is a shame that Oppenheimer is an impressive film. Its performances are tremendous. Its score is tremendous. Every Nolan release carries a certain smugness — this grand, attention-seeking self-importance. It is a pretentious attitude that will have cynical critics often root against him. And yet, as with Interstellar, Dunkirk and the like, Oppenheimer succeeds by embedding its problems into a popular vehicle for technical flourish. So long as Nolan can claim critical success, popular filmmaking will continue to sedate its audiences and justify ideological perfidy. The Left is not safe with Nolan. 

Eric Han is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].