The highly-anticipated biopic about notable theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer has officially been released. Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Dunkirk), the film premiered in theaters during the competitive summer box office season in 2023.
Oppenheimer has a chance of becoming one of the year’s most successful films. What’s more, it presents the historical figure’s life in a way Nolan has never before attempted: first-person.
Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer?
J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work on the Manhattan Project. From an early age, he showed an interest in education, but it wasn’t until his final year at the Ethical Culture Society School that he decided to pursue chemistry. He went on to study the subject at Harvard University, before continuing his studies in Europe, where he earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree at just 23 years old.
Oppenheimer subsequently returned to the United States, where he made contributions to a number of physics-related fields. When the Second World War began, the theoretical physicist became involved in the development of the first atomic bomb. Dubbed the “Manhattan Project” by the US Army, it involved the construction of a laboratory in Los Alamos (Project Y), where the best scientists were brought together.
As the war progressed, anxiety increased over the possibility the Germans could develop an atomic bomb before the US, which added pressure to the some 3,000 physicists employed by Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. He focused his energy on developing a process to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium, which would allow him to determine the critical mass needed to create a nuclear device.
Fast forward to July 1945, Oppenheimer was present at the “Trinity” test in New Mexico, the first time an atomic bomb was successfully detonated. This led to the deployment of Fat Man and Little Boy, which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and forced Japan to surrender.
Following World War II, Oppenheimer served as the chairman of the General Advisory Commission, fighting for control measures when it came to nuclear power, to prevent an arms race with the Soviet Union. He also opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. This caused disagreements with military and government officials, which led the theoretical physicist to lose his security clearance in 1954. US officials have since come out to say this shouldn’t have happened.
What is Oppenheimer about?
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is a biographical film based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a biography written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Published in 2005, the book went on to win the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and was named the Chicago Tribune‘s Best Book of the Year.
Put together following two decades of research, American Prometheus covers Oppenheimer’s involvement in the Manhattan Project and his later pivot into a figurehead for atomic bomb ethics and political discourse. The book also delves into the theoretical physicist’s personal life and his relationships with others in the field.
In an interview with Total Film, Nolan shared that any preconceived notions about the film need to be thrown away. “It’s a story of immense scope and scale, and one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever taken on in terms of the scale of it, in terms of encountering the breadth of Oppenheimer’s story,” he shared. “There were big, logistical challenges, big practical challenges. But I had an extraordinary crew, and they really stepped up.”
Oppenheimer features a star-studded cast
Christopher Nolan was announced as heading Oppenheimer in September 2021, with Universal Pictures as the film’s distributor. A star-studded cast was then revealed, with Irish actor Cillian Murphy portraying the famed theoretical physicist, alongside co-stars Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Gary Oldman, Josh Harnett and Rami Malek.
Filming for the project began in February 2022 and wrapped that May, with a production budget of $100 million. It then entered post-production, with Nolan teaming up with Ludwig Göransson for the movie’s score. The composer had previously worked with the director on Tenet (2020).
Most interesting is the fact Nolan was able to recreate the first ever atomic explosion without the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Speaking with Total Film, the director said the task was a huge undertaking:
“Andrew Jackson – my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on – was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there – there were huge practical challenges.”
Christopher Nolan reveals the direction he took with Oppenheimer
In a June 2023 interview with Empire Magazine, Christopher Nolan opened up about bringing Oppenheimer to life. He told the publication about the struggles he faced bringing the internal workings of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s mind to audiences.
“There’s the idea of how we get in somebody’s head and see how they were visualising this radical reinvention of physics,” he said. “One of the things that cinema has struggled with historically is the representation of intelligence or genius. It very often fails to engage people.”
He went on to explain how he worked with the film’s visual effects supervisor, Andrew Jackson, to ensure Oppenheimer didn’t fall into category. On top of this, he chose to present the theoretical physicist’s experiences in first person, a first for his career.
“I actually wrote in the first-person, which I’ve never done before,” he explained to Empire. “I don’t know if anyone’s ever done it before. But the point of it is, with the colour sequences, which is the bulk of the film, everything is told from Oppenheimer’s point of view – you’re literally kind of looking through his eyes.”
He added, “I wanted to really go through this story with Oppenheimer; I didn’t want to sit by him and judge him. That seemed a pointless exercise. That’s more the stuff of documentary, or political theory, or history of science. This is a story that you experience with him – you don’t judge him. You are faced with these irreconcilable ethical dilemmas with him.”
‘Kind of a horror movie’
While it might not look it from the previews, Oppenheimer touches upon the horror genre. Speaking with Wired, Christopher Nolan made this fact known, telling the publication,”I showed it to a filmmaker recently who said it’s kind of a horror movie. I don’t disagree.”
He also revealed that audiences who’d been given an early viewing also experienced an intense emotional response. “Some people leave the movie absolutely devastated. They can’t speak,” he explained. “I mean, there’s an element of fear that’s there in the history and there in the underpinnings. But the love of the characters, the love of the relationships, is as strong as I’ve ever done.
“Oppenheimer’s story is all impossible questions. Impossible ethical dilemmas, paradox” he continued. “There are no easy answers in his story. There are just difficult questions, and that’s what makes the story so compelling. I think we were able to find a lot of things to be optimistic about in the film, genuinely, but there’s this sort of overriding bigger question that hangs over it. It felt essential that there be questions at the end that leave you rattling in people’s brains, and prompting discussion.”
This aspect of Oppenheimer’s story ultimately stuck with the director, who expressed the relief he felt upon finishing the movie. “As I started to finish the film, I started to feel this color that’s not in my other films, just darkness. It’s there. The film fights against that,” he shared.
Cillian Murphy issues a warning to audiences
As aforementioned, Irish actor Cillian Murphy portrays J. Robert Oppenheimer in the film. This isn’t the first time he’s teamed up with Christopher Nolan, with the pair first coming together for The Dark Knight trilogy, in which he portrayed the Scarecrow.
Speaking with The Guardian ahead of the release of Oppenheimer, Murphy shared the movie is “an extraordinary piece of work. Very provocative and powerful.” However, he added a warning to audiences, saying, “It feels sometimes like a biopic, sometimes like a thriller, sometimes like a horror. It’s going to knock people out. What [Nolan] does with film, it f***s you up a little bit.”
With all the hype over Oppenheimer, it’s no surprise to learn there’s currently Oscar-buzz over Murphy’s portrayal of the famed physicist. Part of the reason could be that Nolan had trust in the actor from the very beginning, going so far as to call him at his home in Ireland to ask if he’d consider taking on the role.
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s grandson has some thoughts
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s grandson, Charles, has since spoken out about the film. He visited the set numerous times while it was being shot, and while he’s happy with the release overall, there is one particular scene he wishes Christopher Nolan omitted – and it deals with an unconfirmed incident in the physicist’s past.
While studying at Cambridge, Oppenheimer allegedly did something that doesn’t reflect well on his person. The story goes that he poisoned an apple with potassium cyanide and left it for his tutor. It’s unknown if there’s any truth to the tale or if it’s the result of Oppenheimer’s fame.
Speaking with TIME, Charles shared that he wished this has been left out of not just the movie, but excluded from American Prometheus, as well, as there’s no record of his grandfather actually attempting to take someone’s life.
“The part I like the least is this poison apple reference, which was a problem in American Prometheus,” he explains. “If you read American Prometheus carefully enough, the author says, ‘We don’t really know if it happened.’ There’s no record of him trying to kill somebody. That’s a really serious accusation and it’s historical revision. There’s not a single enemy or friend of Robert Oppenheimer who heard that during his life and considered it to be true.”
Charles says Nolan covers the alleged incident vaguely in Oppenheimer and explains that his gripe is more with the authors who wrote and published American Prometheus. “It bothers me that it was in the biography with that emphasis, not a disclaimer of, this is an unsubstantiated rumor that we want to put in our book to make it interesting.”