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23rd October 2023

Oppenheimer reflections: The most ambitious biopic to date

The Mancunion reflect on the successes and flaws of one of the most critically acclaimed but divisive films of the year
Oppenheimer reflections: The most ambitious biopic to date
Photo: Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in OPPENHEIMER @ Universal Pictures

This summer, cinema was at its zenith with a trifecta of box office hits including Barbie, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part I, and Oppenheimer. The double bill ‘Barbenheimer’ was particularly popular as Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan’s films were both released on June 21 2023, prompting TikTok discussions about outfit ideas, itineraries for the viewings, and more. Whilst I did enjoy both films, Nolan’s biopic stood out to me as one of the best.

Surpassing Bohemian Rhapsody‘s (2018) record for the highest-grossing biopic of all time, and receiving 93% and 91% ratings from critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively, it begs the question of why was Oppenheimer so successful?

Warning: Contains spoilers

Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers in the game with an array of critically acclaimed masterpieces including Memento (2000), Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). I have personally never been a Nolan fanatic but I, of course, recognise his considerable contributions to the industry. However, after watching Oppenheimer numerous times in the cinema, I have re-evaluated my take on Nolan and filmmaking as a whole.

Biopics have become increasingly popular in the past decade with huge names taking on roles from; Freddie Mercury to Tonya Harding, King George VI to Alan Turing. Following the success of Elvis (2022), people are eagerly awaiting Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023). Angelina Jolie is set to play the acclaimed opera singer Maria Callas in a film by Pablo Larraín. Last summer, Baz Luhrman’s Elvis was one of my favourite films of the year and was disappointed at its lack of Oscar wins.

Fast forward to this summer, I was impressed with Oppenheimer‘s ability to be ahead of its time in both its narrative and music score. Critics seem to agree too; The Guardian‘s Wendy Ide wrote “‘biopic’ seems too small a word to contain the ambition and scope” of Nolan’s film. The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis proposes that “Nolan is one of the few contemporary filmmakers operating at this ambitious scale.”

Controversially, some audiences failed to see this “scope” as criticisms have been made about its three-hour runtime. Considering Nolan condensed Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s epic 700-page biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the runtime feels justified as he had so much material to pull from.

The film unfolds in two strands named ‘fission’ which is portrayed in colour representing J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) more subjective view of the world, and ‘fusion’ which details Admiral Levi Strauss’ (Robert Downey Jr.) black and white perspective.

At first, the prospect of a three-hour film was somewhat unappealing. Yet the idea of these two narratives mixed with Nolan’s mathematically inspired storytelling intrigued me. It certainly added another dimension to the film as the reasoning behind the two strands isn’t revealed until the end.

Initially, it appeared to represent two timelines: before the creation of the atomic bomb and after its invention. But of course, Nolan didn’t choose the ‘obvious’ path – I should have known from the start.

Oppenheimer was shot in 65mm film and projected in 70mm, setting it apart from other biopics. “[T]he picture has a depth of detail you could drown in,” writes Ide.

From the striking landscape of Los Alamos to Oppenheimer’s scrawls on blackboards, everything is richer and brings the audience into Oppenheimer’s world. Nolan establishes all elements of the film almost in juxtaposition with each other: the two narratives from opposing perspectives to the monochrome palette in the classrooms against the azure blue sky of Los Alamos. Dargis goes so far as to say that Nolan creates a “Cubistic portrait” of a film and allows us to experience “by proxy the kinetic excitement of intellectual discourse.”

This is true as we watch Oppenheimer read classic literature, write complex equations, visit galleries, and witness quantum theory turn into reality almost simultaneously. Murphy’s portrayal of Oppenheimer was exceptional as he was captivating and enthralling. Robbie Collin rightfully states that Murphy gave “the performance of his life”, it was clear to see that the complexities of a man haunted by his past and tormented by the future were clearly not lost on Murphy.

Whilst the film is visually striking, it was the soundtrack that captured my attention from the offset. In an interview with Vulture, composer Ludwig Göransson said that he was inspired by Nolan’s visual effects of particles, light waves, and bursting stars to create the soundtrack: “I was sitting in a dark theatre seeing this huge screen and these lights swirling around, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want the music to sound like’.” He creates an atmosphere akin to the ideas of intellectual excitement and discovery that somehow still has a lingering sense of doom.

French director Francois Truffaut once said, “War films, even pacifist, even the best, willingly or not, glorify war and render it in some way attractive.” But Oppenheimer is not a war film: it’s a character profile of one important man. Within the film, the only visual cue we have of ongoing conflict is a newspaper reporting of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. The film has come under fire for its negligence in depicting the aftermath of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “The reality in Japan was far more gruesome than the artful depiction in the film, which skirts around the human suffering caused by the bomb” writes Rachel Hall in her article about anti-nuclear views on Oppenheimer.

Opinions are conflicted with some praising how it “Look[s] at the scientific quest in the US to build a nuclear weapon faster than the Nazis,” but others say this focus on scientific ‘achievement’ may undermine “the existential threat posed by nuclear arms.” Some campaigners have said that “although it was historically accurate” to depict Oppenheimer’s moral quandaries and persecution by the American government this “turned him into the film’s hero,” since filmmaking convention require a protagonist and an antagonist.

However, others said that the “internal struggle Oppenheimer faced really played out at a societal level” as the “human story” is a “useful way” into spurring the public into campaigning on nuclear issues, such as “the rights of Indigenous communities affected by weapons testing and uranium mining.” We also can’t ignore the fact that the film’s script claims that in Los Alamos there was “nothing for 40 miles in any direction” except for “the local Indians [who] come up here for burial rates” and a school. This is not accurate as Indigenous and Hispanic families were forced and displaced from their homes. Seb Flatau writes, “Oppenheimer‘s sweeping shots of the barren desert… imply that nothing lives or has ever lived in the area Los Alamos occupies, but history tells a different story.”

Ide describes it as “the ultimate monster movie,” except for her the so-called monster is “not Oppenheimer’s invention but the appetite for annihilation that it unleashes in mankind.” Nolan recounts how growing up in the 1980s, “we were convinced we were going to die in a nuclear holocaust” and when one of his children told him that no one today is really worried about nuclear weapons, he told them “[w]ell, maybe they should.”

There’s no doubt that Oppenheimer is a flawed film but it is certainly one of the most ambitious biopics produced to date.

Imogen Mingos

Imogen Mingos

Head Fashion & Beauty Editor 2023-24 | Awarded Best Newcomer (The Mancunion) at MMG Awards 2023 | Highly Commended for Section Editor of the Year at MMG Awards 2024

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