Nolan’s Atomic Portrait

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer explores the enigmatic life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, with Cillian Murphy’s riveting performance. The film intertwines scientific innovation with ethical introspection, set against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project and its aftermath.

By Cemal Can Özmumcu

Picture: Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, Civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer offers an intimate character study of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project developing the first nuclear weapons. Cillian Murphy’s hypnotic performance in the lead role makes the audience forget they’re watching a famous actor; he fully inhabits Oppenheimer’s quirks and mannerisms. However, the breathless three-hour runtime, packed with fast and dense dialogue, leaves little room for quiet contemplation. Oppenheimer delves into the complex life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, oscillating between the development of the atomic bomb and a retrospective courtroom trial. This dual-timeline approach not only charts scientific milestones but also introspectively explores Oppenheimer’s moral dilemmas and internal conflicts, as well as the far-reaching consequences of his work.

Schrödinger’s Cat-astrophe: Kitty’s Unseen Position

Murphy’s outstanding acting with the eye movements and blank stares closely resemble the real Oppenheimer’s world-weary eyes. Yet, many other characters in the film, central or cameo, don’t get their due. The relationship between Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, for instance, feels underexplored. Except in a few scenes, the film often shows her angrily confronting Oppenheimer, leaving the viewer with insufficient background on their marriage and her perspective. More scenes exploring their relationship would have helped make Kitty seen as a fully realized character rather than a one-dimensional angry wife. Similar to the brief and underdeveloped portrayal of Kitty, the film also includes cameo appearances of famous physicists, whose roles, while intriguing, are equally fleeting and underutilized.

There are quite interesting cameos from renowned physicists that enrich the film, but their marginalizing leaves the viewer wanting more. Along with others, Nolan shows us a teaser of Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein, who started everything when he warned Roosevelt about the Nazi nuclear threat and later regretted his involvement. We also get to see Kurt Gödel, a friend of Einstein and one of the most important logicians of all time, for a couple of seconds. It’s exciting to see these legendary figures brought to life on screen. However, with so many larger-than-life characters crammed into one film, none of them gets more than a few minutes of screentime.

Special Relativity of Color and Greyscale

Nolan makes powerful use of the contrast between the black-and-white footage and the vivid colors of the dramatization. While the colored scenes show the director’s vision and subjective perspective, black-and-white scenes tend to be more as a documentary, and side with the supporting characters. Moreover, watching the film in a 70mm IMAX screen is a stunning experience that enables the viewer to see every detail on Murphy’s face. Unlike conventional movie formats, which typically use digital projection or standard 35mm film, the 70mm film used in IMAX has a much larger frame size. This increased size captures more image detail, resulting in a crisper, more vivid picture. As a result, the camera frequently employs extreme close-ups on the characters’ heads, an effect possibly intensified by the 70mm film format.

The close-up technique accentuates the film’s focus on individuals and ideas. Just as the scientists were intensely focused on tiny details at microscopic levels, like manipulating individual atoms and particles, Nolan’s camera remains fixed on small details as well – the micro-expressions and tiny gestures that incrementally reveal the characters’ inner workings. By tightly framing the actors’ faces, the camera provides a window into the internal psychological and emotional worlds of the characters. Oppenheimer’s moral anguish, grief, exhaustion, and despair become palpable in Murphy’s minute performances captured in vivid detail. The camera’s claustrophobic proximity to the actors aptly conveys the stifling psychic pressure these individuals endured while changing the course of history.

On both the atomic and personal levels, microscopic attention to detail yields an explosive chain reaction. Just as the scientists scrutinized infinitesimal particles and quantum physics, Nolan’s camera scrutinizes the characters by staying intimately attuned to them. The tight framing which blurs out the background in order to focus on individuals parallels the way the scientists themselves, in their labs, zoomed in myopically on their work, losing sight of the larger human context.

One area where Oppenheimer falls short is directly addressing the broader significance of the atomic bomb. While the film focuses heavily on Oppenheimer’s personal journey, it largely overlooks the immense moral dilemmas and devastating global impact tied to this creation. Aside from some brief scenes after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the narrative does not fully convey the aftermath of this world-changing weapon.

Entropy of the Glass and the Sound of Silence

One of the details reiterated throughout the film is the recurring symbol of glass. The ample appearance of glass symbolizes the idea of irreversible entropy. Like entropy in an isolated system which can only increase over time, the shattered glass represents cascading damage that cannot be undone. Its fractured state resembles the fracturing of atoms, societies, and civilization itself. A fragile system is smashed and can never return to its prior state of innocence.


USA 2023
173 minutes
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey, Jr., and others

Nolan employs a unique technique in certain scenes, withholding sound for extended periods, creating a sense of anticipation and heightening the tension. This intentional absence of sound prompts internal questioning and adds to the overall impact of the scene, amplifying its emotional weight. Moreover, Oppenheimer’s character is portrayed as someone who doesn’t frequently express himself through shouting or confrontation. Instead, he internalizes his emotions, retreating to solitude to release his sadness and anguish in private. This portrayal parallels the implosion design used in the atom bomb project itself, where energy builds up internally before a powerful explosion. It effectively conveys Oppenheimer’s internal struggle and the immense burden he carries.

At its core, Oppenheimer excels as an intimate character study exploring the inner world of the man behind the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy’s haunting performance captures Oppenheimer’s repressed anguish as he reckons with the terrifying forces he has unleashed. Though the three-hour runtime barrels through events at a breathless pace, it succeeds in humanizing the enigmatic scientist and providing a psychologically penetrating, if broad-strokes, portrait of a contradictory figure who irrevocably shaped human history. Like the microscopic particles Oppenheimer studied, Nolan’s camera zooms in on the subtle details of his manner and expressions that accumulate into an engaging, if incomplete, depiction. Oppenheimer presents a complex man crushed under the weight of his creation, a figure who embodies both the potential and perils of scientific progress without conscience. As the screen cuts to black, we are left with troubling questions about individual morality and responsibility in the atomic age Oppenheimer so conflictedly ushered in.

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