A Non-Linear Courtroom Drama
With ‘Oppenheimer’ director Christopher Nolan has overhauled the Biopic genre
‘Oppenheimer’ is the eponymous biopic of Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the man who invented the Atom Bomb and changed our world forever. Directed by Christopher Nolan, it is a paradoxically salivating proposition for film fans all over the world. Because one would never think of Nolan, a man who has reinvented cinematic non-linear storytelling, to helm something that is so intrinsically assumed to be a linear experience, a telling of a person’s life.
The main question here is whether Nolan has made a biopic in the traditional sense of the word, or is the film actually more of a typical Nolan outing, where linearity gives away to a structure that is more like musical progression than cinematic story-telling. The answer is neither. Nolan has done only what he could have possibly done and in the process, has likely overhauled the Biopic genre.
Before getting carried away so far that an impartial critique starts sounding more like fan service to Christopher Nolan, one must state that ‘Oppenheimer’ is not necessarily his best work. But it is not nearly his worst either. It is certainly a far cry better than 2021’s mind-numbingly nonsensical ‘Tenet’. ‘Oppenheimer’ rests solidly in the middle of Nolan’s filmography.
The film's biggest achievement, perhaps, is making what is essentially a three-hour drama with unending dialogue, seem like a huge scale event film which whizzes by before the audience has a moment to realize what just hit them. Paradoxically enough, this is the same reason why one wishes Oppenheimer’s story were told in a more traditional manner.
The sheer pace and intensity at which Nolan’s film moves, causes several important and interesting junctures of the man’s life and times to pass us by, without giving us a proper chance to embrace and enjoy those nuances.
For example, the scene where the great scientist and his acolytes conceive the creation of the atom bomb after seeing the results of research on the topic in a newspaper article, or the moments between a young Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh, and how she impacted his life, and even the moment when a colleague of Oppenheimer’s on the Manhattan project conceives and pitches the idea of an even bigger bomb – a Hydrogen bomb – to Oppenheimer.
One can only imagine and rue the possibility of how interesting it would have been to witness the impact of these moments and arcs had they been allowed to play out with the proper time and depth they deserve. At such times, it does seem like a more conventional, linear, and perhaps even slower approach to Oppenheimer’s story would have done better justice to the scale of the man’s achievements and complexities.
Nonetheless, Nolan’s film is nothing short of a magnificent achievement in filmmaking. His mastery over the medium sparkles through almost every frame of image, and every note of sound. The man is in total control, and has created something that only he could ever conceive, and only he could ever create in flesh and blood beyond that point of conception.
‘Oppenheimer’ might disappoint those who go in hoping for a large-scale action or adventure outing, the kind that Nolan often delivers. Instead, this is his most meditative and perhaps most mature work on a narrative level.
Nolan seems to be as aware, just as we are, that he is delving into a genre of storytelling which he has stayed away from thus far and the tenets of which are completely contrary to his cinematic approach as it has come to be known. He is also acutely aware of the gravity of the subject matter that he is dealing with. The story of a complex man who’s actions played a vital role in creating the geo-political world we live in today.
While ‘Oppenheimer’ is primarily a non-linear courtroom drama which is acutely aware of the real world implications of the actions of the man that it is dissecting, Nolan stays away from any overt political commentary in the context of the present day. That it has come out at a time when the world is again realistically staring down the barrel of a possible nuclear world war is merely a coincidence. One can be sure of this because the film was planned and started long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
But that does not mean that Nolan has stayed away from politics totally. In fact, all the major themes of the film are political. But only in the sense of political philosophy. Philosophy that would have been impossible to ignore when telling the story of a man who was as interested in the ideas of the Bhagavad Gita as those of Karl Marx.
This being a Nolan film, it goes without saying that his cast and crew would bring their A game to set. But beyond that it is difficult to point out specific superlatives about their work, a direct result of the density and pace at which the narrative unfolds.
It does not allow one to really connect with any of the characters despite the acting and characterisations being top notch. The only exception in this regard being Robert Downey Jr’s Louis Strauss. Given the most dramatic scenes of the film, RDJ steals the thunder from even Cillian Murphy’s balanced portrayal of the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The same, however, is not true of the technical aspects of the film. The cinematography, editing, and especially the powerful sound design are so thunderous yet nuanced that it should not surprise anyone if they all walk away with the technical awards at next year's Academy awards. They truly do their part in making a dialogue heavy period piece feel as energetic and intense as a large scale magnum opus.
This is not just storytelling. This is very self-aware cinematic storytelling at its peak. Rarely will we see a film where the tools of cinema have been used to create such glorious sensual and emotional impact.
Interestingly, this sheds light upon a facet of Nolan’s work which has become a clear arc of his style if only one were to follow his filmography for a while, the increasing obsession with technical brilliance over narrative and emotions. That is not to say the narrative or emotional aspects of the film are not top notch, they are, but one cannot ignore the fact that this, like most of Nolan’s recent work, is more of an achievement in the technical facets of filmmaking than the narrative.
Which is a shame because Nolan was really at his best when he gave both sides of the see-saw equal importance – like in his early works Inception, Memento, and The Prestige.
All in all, Oppenheimer is a cinematic achievement that is not to be missed, but that does not mean that it is perfect. Far from it, in fact.