Bleak, Beautiful Oppenheimer Tells Us About Our Apocalyptic Future | CBC News


Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s new biopic, is an astounding testament to the possibilities of Hollywood and film. It soars highest, though, when predicting an uncomfortably apocalyptic future.

Biopic about father of the atom bomb pulls no punches in its fatalistic look at nuclear age

Jackson Weaver · CBC News

· Posted: Jul 21, 2023 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: July 21, 2023

Actor Cillian Murphy as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who director Christopher Nolan calls ‘the most important man in the world.’ (Universal Pictures)There are few figures in American history as mythologized as J. Robert Oppenheimer — in no small part due to the man himself. 

So building a cohesive story about him — the physicist who helped define an entire scientific field so new and arcane it was called “boys’ physics”; the precocious child-genius who delivered a scientific lecture at 12; the prideful, self-promoting father of the atomic bomb; the financial supporter of both communists and Jewish victims of the Nazis; the forgetful and rude philanderer whose first media attention came from leaving a woman stranded in a car on a mountain peak as he walked home and went to sleep — is, if nothing else, a feat of economy. 

American Prometheus, the biography upon which Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is based, took 25 years and 600 pages to describe it all. If you asked Nolan, he’d probably be proud he cut it down to three hours. 

WATCH | Oppenheimer trailer: 

The way he achieves it is a testament to that story, as well as to what the dying world of Hollywood can produce when championed by an auteur.

Because as it follows the harried physicist (played by Cillian Murphy) through his early days of self discovery, a successful career in quantum physics, to his management of the Manhattan Project and eventual pillorying by the government, Oppenheimer doesn’t concern itself with a classically satisfying character arc.

Instead, it uses Oppenheimer as a static and ultimately tragic beacon to examine how hopelessly doomed the nuclear age has left us. 

That both elevates Oppenheimer into something more than just another biopic and threatens to make it difficult to access. Because while Oppenheimer will likely be remembered as one of the best popular films of the decade, the careful and incisive character study is worlds apart from the Dunkirk-style, visual war-spectacle it’s been billed as.

Complicated by its incredible fidelity to historical fact, slightly hurt by an overabundance of stars and triumphant in its performances, Oppenheimer is an extraordinary movie both because of and in spite of its morose complexity. 

WATCH | What’s the deal with ‘Barbenheimer?’: 

What is ‘Barbenheimer’? The cultural phenomenon, explainedWith Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer set to hit theatres on July 21, CBC’s Ashley Fraser unpacks why the two films have become a cultural phenomenon spawning memes, T-shirts and double-feature plans.

When it comes to deciding whether Oppenheimer is deserving of attention, though, the first question is practical. Ever since his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has long had an affinity for filming in the Imax format, leaving audiences struggling to decide which of the various screenings his movies warrant.

Unfortunately, there are only six theatres in Canada capable of screening Oppenheimer in the Imax 70mm format Nolan made the movie for. While the director recommends a 70mm screening if you can’t find an Imax 70MM one, and Imax recommends seeing it in any Imax format possible, it hasn’t stopped debate between fans over which is best. And as that debate grows, it only serves to fuel the misconception that Oppenheimer is a typical WWII movie held up by fantastic visuals.

While there are beautiful, Tree of Life-esque moments showing particles and waves, most of Oppenheimer is told in boardrooms, laboratories and parks. Depending on which format you watch it in, you may feel more immersed — but those who expect to feel the full power of Saving Private Ryan’s beach storming scenes, or are just excited for a big Imax boom, will likely feel let down.

LISTEN | Historian John Hunner on the enigma of Oppenheimer: 

The Current10:13Unpacking the Oppenheimer enigma

A blockbuster biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer hits cinemas today. We talk to a historian about the physicist’s role in the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb — and why his legacy continues to shape the world.

Instead, Oppenheimer works almost as a diptych — an artwork split into two halves that, while separate, inform one another. Here, it feels like two movies with two messages. The first is the more typical: the tortured genius enlisted into a secretive government project to win the war by Matt Damon’s gruff Lt.-Gen. Leslie Groves. 

Damon is only the first of a host of familiar faces to pop up in the background. Everyone from Casey Affleck, to Josh Peck, to Josh Hartnett to Florence Pugh show up in the dust-whorled backgrounds to, at times, break the immersion.

The beginning of the movie operates more as a clip show than establishing sequence, as we spend nearly 45 minutes following a flatly affected Oppenheimer, dutifully detailing the early events of his life without much character development. 

That said, those events are impressively faithful to history: yes, U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson really did save the Japanese city of Kyoto from bombing because he enjoyed holidaying there, and Oppenheimer really did read all three volumes of Das Kapital in German. 

Murphy, centre, appears in a still from Oppenheimer. The movie was filmed in both black and white and colour. (Universal Pictures)Oppenheimer deconstructedBut it’s the second half of the movie where Oppenheimer really earns its accolades. After successfully building the bomb, Oppenheimer is plagued by guilt and made to grapple with his past communist leanings through protracted security hearings born of the “red scare” McCarthyism era in the U.S.

Those concerns, along with guilt over his rampant infidelity, produce some of the most compelling scenes. As in Pablo Larrain’s criminally underrated Spencer, Oppenheimer’s world breaks around him into metaphorical symbols and hallucinations — revealing the inner psyche of the man as it crumbles in on itself. As he is forced to celebrate his achievement among an ecstatic crowd, Oppenheimer is suddenly stepping into a cracked and burned corpse. As he is forced to describe his affairs in front of a government hearing and his own wife, he is suddenly naked and with her as the committee continues on. 

These scenes also bring up, surprisingly, the strongest conflict in a film about a world war: eccentric genius Oppenheimer versus the vindictive, jealous naval officer and then nominee for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. 

Their conflict of a doomed but brilliant iconoclast taken down by a self-important runner-up to their own peril is nothing new: think Mozart and Salieri, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr or even Patch Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s surly Mitch. 

Here, though, it’s less about the characters than a finding. From the beginning to Nolan’s visually stunning and prophetic end, Oppenheimer never seems able to exert control over where he — or humanity as a whole — is headed. He is unable to control the outcome of his relationships, fight back against the sham hearings against him, control the use of his weapons, or stop the later development of the even deadlier hydrogen bombs. 

With its fatalistic bent, Oppenheimer is another of the year’s pessimistic parables like Beau is Afraid and Asteroid City, seemingly plucked right from a public unconscious staring right at an apocalyptic end.

As an obviously bleak counter to the bright, simultaneous release of Barbie, it works as a rumination on America’s building up and destruction of its heroes while wielding Oppenheimer himself as a window into America’s debate over whether its actions to save the world have ultimately — and inevitably — doomed us all.


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver

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