Oppenheimer is a landmark picture in many ways, not least because it’s a total throwback. We’re talking about a self-conscious middlebrow epic about America, once a subgenre of its own and relatively common product for studios hungry for awards. These types of films fell radically out of fashion after the 1980s and have barely been attempted since.
In fact, there was just such a movie in 1989 that covered much the same ground as Oppenheimer—a very prestigious historical drama starring Paul Newman called Fat Man and Little Boy about the project to build an atomic bomb during World War II. It was overwrought and clunky. But it got made because the people who made it and the people who financed it thought it was the kind of thing that could win them Oscars and make them a lot of money. And its failure—along with other finger-wagging cinematic lectures made by very rich people designed to expose the hoi polloi to the country’s shortcomings and evils—helped bring the era of this pompous sub-genre to a close.
At the time, I found these didactic, middlebrow, mostly humorless movies annoying and self-congratulatory, and celebrated their demise. But as the late Terry Teachout once said, there is a cost to the disappearance of the middlebrow. One virtue of middlebrow fare is that it wants to be serious rather than glib and shallow and to engage with the world as it is. When middlebrow movies of this kind—Gandhi, Cry Freedom, The Killing Fields, and many others—vanish from the scene, that doesn’t make new space for highbrow stuff, because high culture will always be an elite minority taste. Instead, everything just goes lower. And that’s exactly what happened with Hollywood. Over the past two decades, movies that try to tell a real story about real people (and I don’t just mean actual real-life people like Oppenheimer, but just everyday folk) have gotten smaller and more insignificant. They are unambitious and unassuming. When they work, they work because they are touching slices of life and seek only to make us shed a tiny tear. They’re not weighty. They’re gossamer.
Oppenheimer is weighty, and it’s kind of magnificent. Writer-director Christopher Nolan has decided the story he is telling is the most important story in human history, and he wants to do it justice. This movie’s level of ambition is something I’m not sure we’ve seen in a major studio release in decades, and Nolan is so skilled a storyteller and so authoritative a director that his reach blessedly does not exceed his grasp. This is not a subtle movie, and there’s barely a joke or a laugh in it; as in all his pictures, Nolan presents us with an earnest, formal, and heavy world. But what he doesn’t do is preach, and that is what makes this movie such a triumph. Oppenheimer is a wildly ambiguous portrait of its titular subject, the work he did, the life he led, and even the humiliation to which he was subjected by political and ideological enemies. The titanic performance of Cillian Murphy, who does nothing to ingratiate himself with the audience, takes this incredibly complex and deeply troubled man and follows him through four decades of scientific growth, political activism, engineering achievement, and raw power politics. And it does a beautiful job posing the key question of his life without answering it: In doing something transcendently great, did he do something evil?
The movie is far more ambiguous, in fact, than its source material—the Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus. That book, coauthored by a longtime editor and columnist for the Communist-apologia rag called The Nation, is an apologia for Oppenheimer, written as such to defend his noxious radical politics in the 1930s and to salute his visionary advocacy of a lunatic one-world-government approach he advocated in the wake of the bomb he helped create. The book both soft-pedals and excuses the very real evidence that Oppenheimer had been a secret member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. He was, the authors claim hollowly, just a "social-justice" advocate rather than someone who believed the future was to be found in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The book also tries to justify the fact that he had lied about his associations to the government—first, when seeking his security clearance in 1942 and then, 12 years later, when that security clearance was up for renewal—because he was a good friend and a good brother. While the movie follows the course charted by American Prometheus, it never really sides with Oppenheimer, even as it does accept the idea that the bureaucratic war we see waged on him in the movie’s final hour was a set-up job.
It's an immensely complicated life story and one of the best biopics ever made. There is much to argue over here, especially the movie’s depiction of Oppenheimer’s key antagonist, Lewis Strauss (played dazzlingly by Robert Downey Jr.). Was the dispute between them really a matter of wounded pride rather than a deadly serious ideological and geopolitical dispute over how best to manage the nuclear age with an extraordinarily dangerous Communist regime in Russia on the other side of the equation?
The point is that American movies haven’t asked these questions for so long it’s revivifying to have them addressed at all. There won’t be a better film this year than Oppenheimer. There might not have been a better film in the past 10 years.