Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic of the father of the atomic bomb, unites great performances with original story-telling to make a genre defining film argues Eliot Wilson

The biopic is as old as cinema itself. Telling the life story of a great historical figure was just as attractive to the earliest film-makers as it had been to millennia of writers, dramatists, poets and bards, and a biopic provides the double benefit of an existing public awareness and the fact that historical chronology has already built your narrative framework. It is like choosing a template from word processing software.

Although Thomas Edison had produced an 18-second short called The Execution of Mary Stuart in 1895, complete with stop trick to substitute a mannequin for the actor playing the queen just before the executioner’s axe falls, a plausible contender for the first true biopic is Jeanne d’Arc (1900). Directed by the innovative and imaginative French director Georges Méliès, it is a 10-minute silent work, it starred Jeanne Calvière, a Parisian stablewoman, as the titular saint, and gallops from the teenaged Jeanne’s first angelic visions in Domrémy in 1428 to her execution by fire in Rouen’s Vieux-Marché on 30 May 1431.

The history of cinema offers models of near perfection and cautionary tales when it comes to biopics. It is hard to beat David Lean’s sprawling, visually exquisite Lawrence of Arabia, which scooped seven Academy Awards in 1963 and made not just a star but an icon of its 30-year-old lead Peter O’Toole. (Noël Coward remarked to him at the Leicester Square première, “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia.”)

Citizen Kane, of course, often rated as the best motion picture ever made, is a biopic of sorts, albeit of the fictional newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, since it drew heavily from the biography of the very real William Randolph Hearst Sr. There were elements of other historical figures like Samuel Pulitzer and Howard Hughes, but the inspiration was clear enough that Hearst hated the film in principle, tried to stop it being released and then used his enormous influence to restrict its availability when it did appear in 1941.

On the debit side, Naomi Watts made a rare career misstep by taking the title role in Diana (2013), a portrayal of the last two years of the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, directed by German Oliver Hirschbiegel. He had helmed the mesmerising Downfall only nine years before, but this attempt at biography was widely regarded as a disaster: on a modest $15 million budget it looked cheap and the script was mocked as simplistic and clichéd (though whether Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian was being arch when he called it “car crash cinema” is not clear).

Another glaring stinker was Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). He was not the first director to tackle the Macedonian conqueror: Richard Burton had given an impressive performance for Robert Rossen after Charlton Heston had turned down the lead in Alexander the Great (1956). Irish rogue Colin Farrell, under a bleached blond mop of hair, was regarded as eccentric casting for the lead, especially with Angelina Jolie, a year Farrell’s senior, playing Alexander’s mother Olympias. A leaden script, partly Stone’s work, made the 175 minutes seem longer still, and financially the film was a flop. Farrell later admitted the reaction to Alexander was so bad that he’d considered walking away from showbusiness.

If you discount Batman and Superman, the legendary physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s first foray into biopic. It is a characteristically bold and complex choice for the British-American director: theoretical physics is not the most obviously cinematic subject and viewers who understand quantum mechanics will be few and far between. But there is something oddly appropriate about the twisting uncertainties of Oppenheimer’s scientific discipline when framed by Nolan’s bravura disregard for conventional storytelling.

On a simple level, Nolan’s film is an account of Oppenheimer’s life from his days as an unhappy graduate student at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the 1920s; all the way to his presentation with the Enrico Fermi Award by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. The central feature is, of course, his role in leading the Los Alamos Laboratory from 1943 to 1945, where his team, part of the now-famous Manhattan Project, created the first atomic bomb. Here Nolan benefits from a carousel of fascinating characters.

Matt Damon is exceptional as General Leslie Groves Jr, the dynamic but often abrasive military engineer who had built the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, as a revolutionary new headquarters for the War Department and who was chosen to lead the Manhattan Project. Benjamin Safdie, the versatile director, editor and screenwriter who now spends more time in front of the camera, is perfect as the prickly Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, so-called “father of the hydrogen bomb” who was more interested in the concept of a nuclear fusion bomb than the intermediate step of the fission weapon which would be used on Japan. Hollywood stalwart Matthew Modine, who worked with Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises, puts in a finely understated performance as the MIT/Harvard-trained engineer and administrative maven Vannevar Bush.

Atomic narratives

Nolan would not be Nolan, however, if Oppenheimer’s story was presented as – to steal Alan Bennett’s description of history – ‘just one fucking thing after another’. There are three distinct strands making up the narrative: Oppenheimer’s main biography, presented in colour; a subset of this, the hearing of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to assess the scientist’s reliability and security clearance; and, in black-and-white, the US Senate hearing to consider the appointment as secretary of commerce of Lewis Strauss (an electric Robert Downey Jr), formerly chairman of the AEC and a long-time antagonist of Oppenheimer. As an interwoven collection of scenes of white men in suits talking about science and politics, this should present the viewer with a challenge in terms of comprehensibility.

It is a testament to Nolan’s inspiration and silky-smooth direction, as well as the strength of the outstanding cast, that everything comes together immaculately. I had no difficulty following the chain of events at all, to the point at which you almost forget that it isn’t a straightforward narrative. Nolan’s presentation of the story seems somehow obvious, inevitable, as if it could hardly have been done any other way.

This is a film to which everyone brings their A-game. Cillian Murphy is magnetic as Oppenheimer. Intellectually brilliant and tense, he is nevertheless more human and more charming than one expects from a standard Hollywood boffin, and his friendships, within and outside the pre-war Communist Party and its hangers-on, allow us to connect with an Oppenheimer whose blood flows hot. His on-off relationship with the psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), whom he meets at a fundraiser for Spanish Republicans when she is a graduate student and he is professor of physics at Berkeley, is heart-poundingly raw and intimate, the chemistry between them leaping off the screen.

Some have criticised Nolan for minimising the narrative space given to this relationship, which lasted from 1936 until Oppenheimer’s marriage in 1940, sidelining Pugh, and eyebrows have been raised at the disproportionate amount of her screen time the actress seems to have to spend naked, as if she is making up a kind of bare-flesh quota. I’m not so sure that’s fair. Most importantly, Pugh has not expressed discomfort with the way the scenes were written and filmed, and much of the criticism has been unpleasant and misogynistic commentary on the actress’s figure and weight. For what my view is worth, it’s one element that brings home the powerful sexual chemistry between the two, the extent to which Oppenheimer is overwhelmed by the young woman and the bond which quickly forms between them.

Pugh is outstanding, however limited her screen time. As Dame Judi Dench’s 1998 Academy Award for best supporting actress, won for her eight minutes on camera in Shakespeare in Love, would tell you, it’s possible to give an iconic performance in a short space of time, and Pugh blazes off the screen. She is lit with the fire of youth, and idealism, and that sense—for some it never fades—that anything is possible. But Pugh projects the danger, frightening to behold, that her fire is too bright, almost out of control. Even those familiar with Jean Tatlock’s life will be shocked by how its end is conveyed on screen.

The fulcrum of Oppenheimer’s personal life is his wife, Kitty, played by Emily Blunt. Katherine Vissering Puening was born in a large town in Westphalia in 1910 but arrived in the US with her parents when she was not quite three years old. Before she met Oppenheimer at a garden party in summer 1939, she had crammed a lot into a young life. Having begun a degree at the University of Pittsburgh, she spent a period of time in Germany—she was bilingual and accentless—in 1930 where she met an American music student, Frank Ramseyer, and they married in Pittsburgh in 1932. Kitty was unfocused: she re-enrolled at Pittsburgh in 1933, but a few months later, she and Frank returned to Europe. But she was soon back in the US, enrolling at the University of Wisconsin (though there is no evidence she ever took classes), and by the end of 1933 the marriage to Frank had been annulled.

As the hours of 1933 ticked away, Kitty, attending a New Year’s Eve party, met a young Communist called Joseph Dallet Jr. A well-known labour organiser in the Mid-West, Dallet had already been married and divorced, but in 1934 Kitty moved in with him in a rundown boarding house popular with Communist Party members. It would not last, and they separated in the middle of 1936. The next year he wrote to her, announcing that he was sailing for Spain to fight with the International Brigades. Kitty wanted to join him but was delayed by a health scare. When she had recovered, she found out that Dallet had been shot and killed near Fuentes de Ebro in October 1937. Eventually she met a doctor, Richard Stewart Harrison, marrying him in November 1938. Not long after, he moved to Pasadena to study at the California Institute of Technology; Kitty followed him west in the summer of 1939, having been awarded a research fellowship at UCLA, and it was at that point she met Oppenheimer.

Blunt has had a varied career so far. She was outstanding in her cinema debut as the upper-class-but-unloved Tamsin in 2004’s My Summer of Love, and was a scene-stealer as Emily Charlton, frantic assistant to Meryl Streep’s extraordinary Miranda Priestly, in The Devil Wears Prada two years later. In Oppenheimer she is perfect, her chaotic energy absorbing Oppenheimer, and by the time of his award ceremony in 1963, Blunt shows the weight of every burden and every blow on her face, yet still makes the survival of their relationship the obvious outcome.

Pulling the strings on Strauss

The other towering performance in Oppenheimer is Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss. I’ve always had a fondness for the prodigal player, right from the outrageous charisma of his early Brat Pack pomp. Everyone knows the brutal fights he’s waged with addiction—the full spectrum of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, crack and heroin—and he has always been open and honest about the price he has paid, yet I have never discerned in him much self-pity, just a wryness and, now, an ability to take each day as it comes. But, like any actor whose personal life becomes very public, Downey has run the risk of becoming a celebrity addict rather than a star who has had problems. But he is a titanic talent.

Downey has his own biopic pedigree, having stunned as the hero of Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992) to the extent that Chaplin’s own daughter Geraldine, who was part of the cast, found the performance unnerving. He gave a classy turn as CBS correspondent Joseph Wershba in George Clooney’s solemn media meditation Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and carved out a special place on fictional biopics with his breathless bravura interpretation of fiction’s most famous consulting detective in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011).

It took me a few beats even to recognise Downey in Oppenheimer. Most of his screen time is devoted to the June 1959 Senate hearing in which he sought confirmation to be President Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce; then, as now, it was a middle-ranking post, and the president had already offered Strauss the posts of White House chief of staff, replacing scandal-hit Sherman Adams, and secretary of state in succession to the ailing John Foster Dulles. Strauss, whose national reputation as a successful and adroit bureaucrat was high, nonetheless had a gift for giving offence, and his clash with Oppenheimer had soured many people’s regard for him. He was already acting secretary after a recess appointment the previous November, and the Senate’s commerce committee had let his nomination go forward to the full body, albeit by the narrowest possible 9-8 margin. But Strauss’s birds came home to roost in the media glare of the Senate.

Downey gives a sensational and nuanced performance. His authority is obvious but he gives glimpses into the prickly backwaters of his character that caused so much difficulty, seen when he corrects Oppenheimer on the pronunciation of his surname—”Strawss” rather than “Strouss”—raising the scientist’s eyebrows. His descent from anxious nominee told to expect a formality to a raging, finger-pointing man betrayed, is not presented in pure linear form and requires a little effort to reconstruct, but it is a brilliant performance. Is it Downey’s career-best? I certainly wouldn’t try to argue people out of that opinion. Some suspect that the Academy Award for best supporting actor is already being engraved, and it would be a fine reward for him, having been nominated for the very different vehicles of Chaplin and Tropic Thunder.

It almost goes without saying that the mesmeric heart of the film is Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer. The Irishman is, of course, one of Christopher Nolan’s stalwarts, having appeared in The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk, though this is his first lead for Nolan. As soon as Murphy was announced in the role in October 2021, this was a mouth-watering prospect. He is an actor of unusual intensity in a calling which can fetishise it, a quality magnified by his lack of interest in the hoopla surrounding showbusiness; he rarely talks about his private life, is hardly ever seen in the green rooms of talk shows and lives in Dublin, a friendly city but fiercely protective of its own against outsiders, with his wife, visual artist Yvonne McGuinness, and their two sons.

Murphy is in his prime. The past decade has been dominated by his role as Tommy Shelby in Steven Knight’s sprawling crime drama Peaky Blinders, the last episode of which, “Lock and Key”, aired only in April 2022. It was the first television script Murphy had ever been sent, and Knight had originally earmarked Jason Statham for the role. Shelby is a classic example of the morally dubious protagonist; manifestly he is not a hero in the traditional sense, but Murphy’s rich, dense, compelling performance has defined the series. American critic Emily St James admitted that “to call Murphy magnetic might be underselling his presence, and even though the rest of Blinders is quite good, the show can’t help but sag a little whenever Murphy’s not around.”

Apart from his work on television, Murphy was Matthew Joy, second mate of the Nantucket whaleship Essex in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (2015), the chilling tale of shipwreck and cannibalism which inspired Moby-Dick. He lost a dramatic amount of weight for the film, confessing afterwards “I think I actually went mad”, and the shoot was physically gruelling. Howard wanted as much of the Essex’s voyage to be “for real”, so the cast had to learn the rudiments of sailing, and long, punishing days off the Canary Islands were spent perpetually soaked through. It is a gut-wrenching performance as Joy struggles with an inner demon of alcoholism while gritting his teeth to remain stoic in the most horrific of circumstances, and as his body shrinks and wastes, you can see the second mate turning in on himself, his whole persona somehow folding up and becoming a concentrated, reduced essence of itself.

Weight loss is on the agenda in Oppenheimer too. Murphy draws attention to the scientist’s “very distinct physicality and silhouette, which I wanted to get right”, explaining that Oppenheimer existed mainly on cigarettes and martinis. To echo that appearance, Murphy ate very little, though he won’t reveal the details of his diet, and reflected that it made him become inwardly competitive, challenging himself to see how many pounds he could shed. But it would be grotesque to dismiss Murphy as a thin man in a hat: as Oppenheimer he projects a surprisingly warm and sociable character, far from the awkward boffin of Hollywood cliché, but underneath lies an impregnable core of intellectual self-assurance. Intellectual, perhaps, but it is Oppenheimer’s emotional existence which becomes darker and stormier as the Manhattan Project progresses. He is initially gung-ho about the atomic bomb, seeing his task as simply to ensure that the US develops the weapon before Nazi Germany does. Nuclear fission was, after all, discovered at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin in 1938, and one of the leaders of the German atomic weapons project was Werner Heisenberg, who had won the Nobel Prize of Physics in 1932 for creating quantum mechanics.

Oppenheimer knew Heisenberg (portrayed in the film by accomplished German actor Matthias Schweighöfer) and held him in very high esteem. It is generally acknowledged in the scientific community that, for all his fame and undoubted intelligence, Oppenheimer was not in the front rank of the physicists of his age, partly because the random factor of his year of birth, three years after Heisenberg and four after Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian physicist who developed the exclusion principle. 

However, contrary to the fears of Oppenheimer and others, Germany never even got close to developing an atomic bomb before the Third Reich was battered to death in May 1945. Some now believe that the scientists in charge of the project deliberately sabotaged it, but it was hardly necessary; Germany had all the intellectual and theoretical capability to produce a nuclear bomb, but the kind of resources available to the Manhattan Project were never in supply inside the Reich. According to Albert Speer, minister of armaments from 1942 to 1945, the project was effectively sidelined after the autumn of 1942. It was privately admitted that the creation of a working bomb would have consumed all the state’s resources and would still not have been ready until around 1947.

The dramatic heart of the film, in many ways, is the Trinity test of the world’s first atomic bomb on 16 July 1945. The code-name ‘Trinity’ was Oppenheimer’s suggestion, a nod to John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV and its opening line, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”and to Jean Tatlock who had introduced Oppenheimer to Donne’s poetry. The test involved the detonation of ‘the Gadget’, as the nuclear bomb was called, at the top of a 100-foot tower to simulate the fact that it was designed to explode before it hit the ground, and its timetable was driven by hard political necessity: the scientists wanted to wait for good visibility, low humidity, light winds at low altitude, and westerly winds at high altitude, and the meteorology suggests that a date between 18 and 21 July was the best hope. But that was too late. The three-power Postdam Conference was due to begin on 16 July, and President Truman, who had been propelled to the Oval Office after Franklin Roosevelt had died on 12 April, wanted to know that the new weapon worked before he arrived, so that it might give him leverage against his allies.

A director could hardly ask for better visual cues than a nuclear detonation, and Nolan does not disappoint. The device exploded at 5.29am Mountain War Time (six hours behind GMT), and began with “a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun”, starting purple before becoming green and then white. The fireball rose and slowed to a column of white smoke which punched through the clouds as two fog rings appeared well above. The mushroom clouds stretched more than seven miles into the air. Then, in that eerie demonstration of the speed of light compared to the speed of sound, there was no sound for 40 seconds before the apocalyptic roar of the blast reached the observers. Nolan wrings every last disorientation and sense of unreality out of this. The flash is painfully bright, like an arc lamp directed to a darkened corner, and the observers have time to begin celebrating. Yet it is like silent film, everyone moving without a sign. But you know it is to come. You know that a nuclear bomb creates a devastating blast wave which charges out from the epicentre, flattening everything in the immediate area. The heat at the point of detonation was so extreme that the sand of the desert melted and became a slightly radioactive light green glass, later named trinitite. Still, you know it is only the first act.

The aftermath

The blast arrives with a deafening, booming howl, stretching even modern cinema surround sound to its fullest extent. Be aware: you will feel the explosion through your seat and in your bones, you will feel it resonating in your chest and pounding in your skull. It is exactly what Nolan wants. Eschewing the possibilities of elaborate special effects, he recreated as much of the detonation as possible with genuine explosives, though a wilder internet rumour that he had set off a real atomic bomb is as plausible as you would think with even a moment’s consideration. But the drama is raw, primal, and vital. It reminds you that, for all the tortured human relationships, the intellectual genius and intense effort, the Manhattan Project was at its heart an industrial process to create a weapon of unparalleled destructive power. Arguably, equally as permanent is Oppenheimer’s quote of The Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer is a film of complex and profound brilliance. A compelling historical tale is told cleverly by a dazzling cast, and the narrative is suitably twisting and reptilian. Robert Oppenheimer is depicted as a multi-layered figure, proud, ambitious, emotional, selfish, domineering, but increasingly irradiated by self-doubt. The necessity of building a bomb before Nazi Germany does is irresistible for the Jewish Oppenheimer, even if in reality he was participating in a race in which the US was the only possible victor. But he sees what he and his colleagues have done, and it is his conversion to the cause of arms limitations shortly after the war which frames the last years of his public life (including the conflict with Strauss).

There have been some criticisms of Nolan’s film that it somehow diminishes or erases the hundreds of thousands of Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that it focuses on the “white” experience and that it presents Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, as a victim. This is, on one very basic level, true, but on every other, it is a moronic absurdity. Oppenheimer is not a film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki (though in fact, before he charged off down the cul-de-sac of the Avatar films, James Cameron had expressed an interest in adapting Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima, purchasing the rights, and he has hinted he could still pursue the project in 2024, once Avatar 3 is in the can). It is impossible to watch Oppenheimer and think it in any way diminishes the horror of the bomb’s destructive power and the enormity of its effects. But the story of the victims is a different film, and it is an annoyingly common trait among film critics to judge against the standard of a different film which they have in their heads.

In a market saturated by sequels, reimaginings, origin stories and multi-volume superhero franchises, Oppenheimer is doing brisk business. It cost $100 million to make, which is about what one would expect for a major Hollywood release: less than Barbie, on a par with John Wick: Chapter 4 and rather more than Cocaine Bear. It has grossed $208.2 million in the United States and Canada, and $245.6 million in other territories, which goes beyond washing its face into profitability—reassurance that a complicated and high-concept film can still make money if it is well made and has a strong cast. It deserves to be a financial success for its producers, Syncopy Inc. and Atlas Entertainment, as well as for the distributor, Universal Pictures.

It is also, however, a signal artistic achievement. A biopic by broad categorisation, it is much more than that, an examination of a vastly complex human being about whom we know less than we should, a delicate exploration of the fate of morality in the blood-soaked fog of war, a consideration of how competing harms are balanced when each seems an act of the deepest moral turpitude and a disquisition on the fine line between personal character and public beliefs.

Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. He has combined his fascination with history, shown to good effect in Dunkirk, with his flair for complex and unorthodox narrative structure, and produced a film which should be one of the stand-outs of the year, if not the decade. It is richly textured and long, dealing with abstruse subjects, but it never baffles or obfuscates, and often astonishes. This is what great film-making can be like.

Image top – Oppenheimer Poster Design by tuhin889

Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson is policy editor of Culturall. A writer and strategic adviser, he is co-founder of Pivot Point Group, and is also a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and City AM. He was previously a clerk in the House of Commons.