Directors Christopher Nolan and Alfred Hitchcock do not have a whole lot in common—very different styles, very different eras, very different tales. All the same, during the five months in early 2022 when Nolan was shooting his blockbuster Oppenheimer, he found that Hitchcock’s work bubbled to mind more than once—specifically the iconic scene in Psycho in which Anthony Perkins stabs an unsuspecting Janet Leigh as she showers.
The scene is savage, but after the mayhem is over, all turns orderly. Perkins washes down the shower, swaddles up the body, and places it in the trunk of a car which he tries to sink in a swamp. Half-way down, however, the car stops, its rear end poking above the water.
“[Perkins] looks worried,” Nolan says during a conversation in New York City in early January. “And suddenly you’re worried as well. How did that go from someone being massacred to me being worried that the guy covering up the murder is going to get caught?”
The answer is in what Nolan calls “cinema’s magical point of view,” the camera’s ability to immerse the audience so deeply in the experiences of the people on the screen that we feel what they’re feeling—root for what they’re doing—even if we don’t want to. A lot of that was necessary in Oppenheimer, Nolan’s biopic of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project—the government program that developed the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Oppenheimer’s work, unlike the murder in Psycho, claimed 200,000 lives, not just one. And Oppenheimer’s really happened: those cities were incinerated; those 200,000 lives were lost.
So Nolan took a lot of steps to make sure we remained on Oppenheimer’s side. He wrote the stage directions in the screenplay in the first person—not “Oppenheimer enters the room,” but “I enter the room,” to help Cillian Murphy, who is nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Oppenheimer, feel more central to the scene, and help moviegoers feel that too. The cameras huddled up closer to Murphy than they did to other characters as well, says Nolan. And the film opens and closes with matching shots—Murphy’s face with his eyes closed.
The result is not just a movie that has earned nearly $1 billion worldwide since its release in July, not just one that garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and dominated January’s Golden Globes. The result is a movie that has rekindled a global conversation about the existence of nuclear weapons and their role in both keeping and menacing the peace over the past 80 years; about the intersection of politics and science—with the U.S. government driving and bankrolling the invention of the bombs and other nations following; about the dangers of cooking up new technology—like artificial intelligence—that can slip out of our control.
“The idea of nuclear war used to be limited to just the U.S. and Russia,” says Steven Shapin, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “Now, even North Korea has the bomb.”
That deadly proliferation of humanity’s worst weapons was much on Nolan’s mind when he made Oppenheimer, a cinematic tale that deals with nothing less than our species’ ability to commit nuclear suicide—or, if our better angels prevail, to save ourselves from destruction. “Nuclear weapons are in a class of their own in terms of destructive power for humankind,” Nolan says. “It speaks to the heart of why I wanted to make a film about the Manhattan Project. These [scientists] were the most brilliant people on the planet; they knew exactly what was going to happen.”
The Oppenheimer film had its origins in a 2005 book—the Pulitzer-winning American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin. The book begins at Oppenheimer’s funeral and then flashes back to his childhood, before churning on through the prewar years and the development of the bomb. The screenplay, written by Nolan, dispenses with much of that prologue and opens in 1926, when Oppenheimer was studying physics at the University of Cambridge; he later made his way back to Caltech where he taught theoretical physics until, in 1942, U.S. Army Col. Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon) tapped him to lead the Manhattan Project.
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When it came to crafting a new timeline for the screen, Nolan had a lot of latitude with American Prometheus. “As you start to unpack it, you realize it's not purely chronological and the chapters are very neatly kind of interleaved,” he says. “It’s thematic with this sort of underlying chronology.” Nolan read the 720-page book once through, secured the screen rights to it, read it through again and then once more, this time taking copious notes.
“I let that kind of seep into my imagination,” he says. “Almost the way that we do with a fictional story.”
That kind of preparation pays off, as Nolan’s narrative craft keeps the movie moving efficiently through multiple mileposts—from the three-year development of the bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; to the U.S. military’s surveillance of Oppenheimer’s political leanings; to a post-war tribunal orchestrated by rival Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr., who received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor), head of the Atomic Energy Commission, to strip him of his security clearance and thus his influence. It also turns inward, exploring Oppenheimer’s struggles with guilt after the bombs have been dropped; as well as his extramarital affair with San Francisco-based physician and psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh); and his marriage to his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt, also Oscar-nominated for the role). Both women were known communists, at a time when those kinds of political affiliations were a dangerous thing in the U.S.
For a man trusted with such political and military power, Oppenheimer left both historians and Nolan scratching their heads at the recklessness of some of his personal choices. “Every person in his close circle is or was at one point either a member of the Communist Party or very close, and he was probably very close himself,” says Alex Wellerstein, a science historian specializing in the history of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Adds Nolan: “During the [bomb development] he's going to San Francisco and having a tryst with a known communist, and he's doing it while he's under surveillance by military intelligence. This is where he exhibits the sort of naïveté that only the most brilliant minds have.”
In one case at least, naive behavior may have existed beside homicidal behavior. In an early and controversial scene in which Oppenheimer is still at Cambridge, Nolan shows him trying to poison his professor—injecting an apple on his desk with potassium cyanide. The movie, which in many cases relies on primary source material including transcripts of the security hearing, is thin on documentation for this piece of the story, but both Bird and Nolan insist it happened—and that it’s backed up by reports from Oppenheimer’s contemporaries.
“Oppenheimer told his closest friends at the time that it was a poison apple,” says Bird.
“It is a true story,” says Nolan. “His parents were called over and he had to go to therapy for years.” Still, he acknowledges, he did take some liberties with facts in writing and shooting other parts of the film. “Everything else I really tried to approach as fiction because I feel we're not making a documentary. You can’t hide behind authenticity; you have to make an interpretation—that's the job."
For a movie that ranges as widely as Oppenheimer does—playing out in Los Alamos, Washington, Cambridge, and California, and populated by scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and students—there is a snugness to the overall production. It is very much the tale of an era, but it is also the tale of one man. That’s particularly evident when moviegoers compare Oppenheimer to Nolan’s other films: the complex puzzle box of Inception, the thunderous Dunkirk, and especially Interstellar, which plays out on a grand, cosmic scale.
“I would say this is one of the more intimate projects I’ve worked on with Chris,” says cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who has collaborated on four of Nolan’s films including Oppenheimer. “The cinematography is very much about people’s faces. The faces become landscapes.”
Hoytema and Nolan compartmentalize things even further, shooting some of the film—Strauss’ story in particular—in black and white and most of the rest in color. “Strauss’ storyline and Oppenheimer’s storyline are very divided,” says van Hoytema. “We felt we needed a very clear distinction.”
That balance of intimacy and magnitude feels right for Oppenheimer, which tells a story with the highest possible stakes. The film began shooting in February 2022, the month Russia invaded Ukraine, bringing to mind not just the peril of modern-day war and battlefield nukes, but the Cold War era, with Moscow and Washington both in command of an arsenal of city-killing ballistic missiles and only the threat of mutually assured destruction—the idea that letting one of them fly means they’d all fly—keeping them in their silos. Oppenheimer’s little Hiroshima bomb had an explosive power of 15 kilotons—or 15 thousand tons of TNT. A single, modern-day U.S. Trident II missile can carry up to 12 nuclear warheads, packing 475 kilotons of punch each. With the invasion of Ukraine, Nolan says, all of the talk in the movie about competing with the Russians “took on a very different flavor. In some ways,” he adds, “this is the most nihilistic film I’ve ever made.”
That mortal legacy of the work done at Los Alamos was very much on the mind of Oppenheimer himself. One of the film’s more fraught scenes unfolds on Oct. 25, 1945, just over two and a half months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked. Oppenheimer had sought an audience with President Harry Truman, and on that day, the man who built the bombs and the man who dropped the bombs met for the first time, in the Oval Office. As the film depicts it and as accounts confirm, a guilt-wracked Oppenheimer was candid with Truman (played by Gary Oldman), confessing, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”
History recalls just what happened next differently—with Bird and Sherwin reporting that Truman himself gave conflicting accounts, sometimes saying that he replied, “Never mind, it’ll come out in the wash,” and other times that he handed a handkerchief to Oppenheimer and said, “Well here, would you like to wipe your hands?” In the film, Truman merely brandishes the handkerchief, looking at Oppenheimer with a mocking pout. The meeting ends and as Oppenheimer leaves, Truman can be heard describing him as a “crybaby” to an aide. The crybaby part is true, though it was a term Truman used to describe Oppenheimer in a memo to Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
“We made a pretty good stab at expressing it with certainty,” Nolan says.
There is much that Oppenheimer expresses—about science, violence, murder, morality; about the very fate of all eight billion of us. During the promotional tour for the movie, Nolan appeared on a panel that included Thomas Mason, the modern-day director of the Los Angeles National Laboratory, along with author and theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. Nolan recalls one of the attendees opining that “the deployment of nuclear weapons has helped ensure world peace for 80 years so far.” At that, Rovelli portentously echoed, “So far.”
“The absurdity of relying on these systems or this precarious balance,” Nolan says. “It’s frightening to contemplate.”
Where Nolan goes from here is not clear; he’s mum about what his next project will be—but there are clues. Six months after the release of Oppenheimer, he announced that his 2020 science fiction thriller, Tenet, whose theatrical release was hamstrung by the pandemic, would be re-released in IMAX format. He said in a statement that that “was the way it was intended to be seen, on the largest IMAX and large format screens.”
Yet Nolan has a taste for cinematic small-ball too. Asked to cite his favorite recent films, he doesn’t hesitate to name Past Lives and Aftersun. The latter is a tender coming-of-age drama, the former a gentle relationship tale that plays out over 24 years. Aftersun, he says, “was just a beautiful film.” Past Lives was “subtle in a beautiful sort of way.”
So would he do subtle? Probably not. “I’m drawn to working at a large scale because I know how fragile the opportunity to marshal those resources is,” Nolan says. “I know that there are so many filmmakers out there in the world who would give their eye teeth to have the resources I put together, and I feel I have the responsibility to use them in the most productive and interesting way.”
By any measure, Oppenheimer ticks the productive and interesting boxes, and Nolan ticks the box as a director who had both a story to tell and a mission to achieve—to reopen the debate about nuclear weapons and the existential threat they pose in the modern world. Oppenheimer the man, Nolan says, showed “willful blindness” to the mortal and historical ramifications of the work he did at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer the movie looks at them clearly—and chillingly.
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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at email@example.com