On the surface, Christopher Nolan’s celebrated film, Oppenheimer, bears little resemblance to your average blockbuster. Coming in at an intimidating three-hour runtime, this R-rated war biopic features no action scenes, no clear heroes, and no real mystery, presumably because the history the movie covers is known to most audiences. It can be hard to follow, as Bruce Ramsey found it.
And yet Oppenheimer has managed to earn, at the time of writing, $650 million at the box office. The film has managed to click with audiences of all kinds and has garnered enough positive word of mouth to make a respectful splash despite going head-to-head with the summer’s heaviest box office hitters.
Oppenheimer walks a thin line between an artful biopic and summer blockbuster. It attempts to portray the nuances of the lives of morally grey characters, while also making the whole show entertaining and accessible. These contradictory goals usually call for subtlety while the other goal calls for bombast, at the risk of feeling disjointed and empty. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan is just the director to pull this off. Nolan’s style is tailor made for such cerebral blockbuster hits, with thrillers such as Inception and Interstellar populating his impressive catalogue.
Oppenheimer, however, is an interesting departure from typical Nolan fare, lacking a high concept genre twist. This allows us to see how Nolan’s distinctive style works to create thrills outside of the context of the fantastic.
The script of Oppenheimer nods towards the art house. Despite being a time-spanning epic rooted in a defining point of human history, the script rarely calls for much more than dialogue between characters. Notably for a film set during a war, no footage of the war is ever shown. Even when the nuclear bomb is dropped on Japan, there is no footage of the event itself. When the film strays from the simple dialogue scenes, it often takes the form of almost surrealist evocative imagery, speaking to the inner experience of the central character.
The writing is tight and engaging. Talks of science and philosophy populate the movie, never feeling simplified. Every scene can use these discussions to build portraits of the central characters, who are revealed just as much in their words and arguments as they are by their actions. All of this would fall apart if not for the performances of the actors, who give deeply engaging performances that draw you into the emotion of the story. This is especially true of Cillian Murphy, who gives a deeply nuanced and uncompromising performance of a complicated man, making Robert Oppenheimer a compelling figure to follow without ever asking for reverence or sympathy, nor hatred.
With a predominantly small-scale script, the technical elements Nolan brings to Oppenheimer bring the feeling of an epic blockbuster. Nolan has a knack for bold, expressive imagery, and this trait is powerful in Oppenheimer. The New Mexico desert is shot in the epic panorama of an old western, and every scene is composed and shot to evoke very specific and powerful emotion — from the creeping dread of a mechanical lab to the paranoia of stuffy hearing.
The cinematography is accompanied by a commanding soundscape, with a score composed by Nolan favorite Hanz Zimmer. Every sound is carefully crafted and visceral, and a surging and dramatic score heightens the emotion of every scene. The soundscape created by Nolan is non-stop, inundating the audience with music and dialogue. These technical aspects reach a peak in the jaw-dropping first test scene, where all of Nolan’s skill with thrillers is dialed up to create a truly memorable build and release of tension.
The editing that blends these two goals of art-house and blockbuster into one. One of Nolan’s notorious quirks is his obsession with time and non-linearity, and this aspect sets Oppenheimer apart from other biopics. Rather than opting for a standard linear structure, or even a linear structure with a framing device, Nolan opts for three timelines, from three different perspectives, each separated by color grading (one classic and vibrant, one dramatic and black and white, and one beige and dull).
Rather than coming off as overly complex, Nolan uses these timelines to great effect, cutting meaningfully between each to build tension and dramatic irony in ways that are both expected and unexpected. The difference in perspectives allows us to view Oppenheimer through multiple lenses, creating a more three-dimensional view of the man that paints him neither as hero nor villain, but something in between.
Nolan’s willingness to experiment with structure in this way gives the film tension and narrative thrust. He ultimately crafts a compelling and unexpected climax that complements both the artistic and blockbuster goals, seamlessly blending spectacle with the philosophical.