For those who are in the habit of ranking Christopher Nolan films, Oppenheimer should rank as one of his best. Based on the 2004 biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer is a drama-packed film with a stellar cast and excellent dialogue, about the life and exploits of the one most prominent men of the 20th century. A man who can honestly be said to have changed the course of the world.

Of course, as Nolan is wont to do, Oppenheimer is told in a non-sequential manner, and is broken up into two different timelines, "Fission” and “Fusion.” The “Fission” timeline is filmed in color and is meant to tell the story from the first-person subjective perspective of the character of Oppenheimer. The “Fusion” timeline on the other hand is filmed in black and white and is meant to represent a more objective point of view of historical events as they unfolded. Contained within these two timelines are numerous events from Oppenheimer’s life. From his bumbling and awkward days as young student at Cambridge, to his personal and professional life as a professor of theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley. His recruitment to join the Manhattan Project, and his life at the secret Los Alamos base where he and an elite team of scientists rush to develop the atomic bomb.

Lastly, much of the film is devoted to two sets of hearings. The first (in the Fusion timeline) is the Senate confirmation hearing of a colleague of Oppenheimer, Lewis Strauss, who is ultimately blocked from being Secretary of Commerce for his treatment of Oppenheimer. The second (in the Fission timeline) is a rigged hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission (and engineered by Strauss) where Oppenheimer’s past is scrutinized and eventually his security clearance to engage in further atomic/nuclear research is revoked.

Despite the film’s three hour run time, it moves along at a decent pace, as we are given not just a historically accurate (mostly) biopic but also a percipient character study of a pivotal man during pivotal times. Oppenheimer is a film that offers an unvarnished look at the personal lives of its key characters, which most of us are well-acquainted with.

The Life of a Genius and a Fool

By all accounts, Oppenheimer grew up in an affluent and sheltered life, where his great intellect and interest in science offered him a refuge in a life that was otherwise lonely and detached from people his own age. By the time he graduated from Harvard at age 21, he was already known to be arrogant, aloof, prone to fits of depression, and often self-destructive. Essentially he was the prototypical genius who was intellectually beyond his peers, but emotionally stunted compared to them. This left him awkward and stultified in his emotional and personal attachments.

Nolan and Cillian Murphy (who plays Oppenheimer) brilliantly portray this aspect of Oppenheimer’s life, as we see a man who seems to achieve his highest potential only in his thoughts and theories. In fact, it is almost as though Nolan is portraying Oppenheimer as more of an artist than a rigid thinking scientist, by the way he gives us a glimpse into Oppenheimer’s mind through a series of visions or images. It reminded me of the 1991 movie Little Man Tate about a child prodigy whose thought processes we see as he works out a math problem.

Yet despite this genius and insight, we are shown a man who can decipher the workings of the subatomic world, but cannot fully relate to people at both a professional and personal level. From his colleagues at Berkeley, the other scientists at Los Alamos, or the love triangle he’s in with his wife Kitty and his mistress Jean Tatlock (let alone his own children), Oppenheimer shows us a man who is a towering intellectual genius but also a stunted and rather naïve fool.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the feelings Oppenheimer has about destructive power he is creating as the bomb gets closer to completion, especially when he learns that Hitler is dead and Germany has surrendered. However, he is unable to translate those qualms into any sort of meaningful dialogue with his peers or the military. When the army comes to pick up the bomb after its successful test, Oppenheimer tries to offer some last minute details, but is snubbed by the army officer coming to pick it up who says, “We’ll be taking it from here, doctor.”  Later, after Japan surrenders and he begins to have visions of the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs, he once again cannot articulate his concerns and insights well enough to be part of any post-war atomic research.

The God in the Gadget

In Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin there is a scene where the Genie tells Aladdin that he possesses “phenomenal cosmic power in a little bitty living space.” A fact that is later used to trap the villain Jafar. In a similar way Oppenheimer (in the film and in real life) unleashed the “cosmic power” of the universe into the “itty bitty” space of a destructive weapon of war. Thus when he utters the famous quote by the Hindu god Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita that he “has become death, the destroyer of worlds” it is as though he is realizing that he (like Jafar) has become a prisoner of that destructive power. Instead of three wishes granted by a genie inside a lamp, Oppenheimer created his own light-giving “gadget” which contained a god-like power that could be used to fulfill the wishes of ambitious and vainglorious men who are mired in the realpolitik of a fallen world. As Niels Bohr says in the film, “You are the man who gave them the power to destroy themselves. And the world is not prepared.”

This is precisely why Oppenheimer is a film for the ages, and one well-worth seeing. For in it we see the folly of a well-educated and literate man with “Promethean” ideas and high ideals which did in fact reshape the world, even to this day. But he is a diminished Prometheus. A brilliant man who is as weak, dithering and foolish as the rest of us. A man surrounded by people who are in no way his equal in intelligence, but who far exceed him in their commitment to causes greater than themselves, such as patriots like Gen. Leslie Grove or communists like Haakon Chevalier. A man who had enough loyalty and sense of urgency to join the Manhattan Project in order to stop the Nazis, but who could not cope with and was discarded by the ensuing bi-polar world of the Cold War that came afterwards.

For those who subscribe to the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, the dropping of the two atomic bombs represented a fiery Ekpyrosis or ending of one era or "turning" and the beginning of another. Oppenheimer deftly shows us a very flawed genius whose life and achievements we can admire, but whose life was nonetheless filled with many such ekpyrosis in which he was the "bringer of death" both literally and figuratively, as well as personally and professionally, to so many events and people in his life.

As a last note, I want to say something about the nudity in the film. Granted this is a change for Nolan, and according to Eric Sammons over at Crisis it’s not worth sinning over to see it because of the sexual content and nudity. I respect his insight, but disagree with his conclusion. I will say that they nudity added nothing to the film and could’ve been filmed without it, as it revealed nothing about the story or Oppenheimer himself that we don't learn elsewhere in the film. Theaters in India and Malaysia showed a version of the film where a digital dress was added to the character of "Jean Tatlock” when the two are sitting and talking. So it's not as though the film can work without the nudity.

Photo Credit- insider. com