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For Christopher Nolan, cinema is an “audiovisual experience.” To know what he means, one needs to watch Oppenheimer. Nolan anticipates Oppenheimer’s critics who fault what they see as an underdeveloped plot: “It’s a very popular fallacy . . . that all that matters is the scale of the story being told.” The emphasis on plot and characters, he asserts, is at odds with the history of cinema. And he’s right.

The interplay of sound and image has been the heart of cinema since its inception. No one was disappointed that Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon lacked substantive character development or that Chaplin’s Gold Rush spent too much time on the gags and too little on the plot. Chaplin and Méliès are great filmmakers because they crafted memorable and striking visual experiences.

What impresses us most about Hitchcock is not the pop-psychologization of Norman Bates but the pulsating knife set to the staccato, atonal violins, the shower rings pulled off one by one, the blood swirling down the drain. What we most remember about Kubrick is not “what he meant” by the monolith but the image of a bone tossed into the clouds, the satellite floating among the stars to Strauss’s Blue Danube. The perfecting of plot and character might be more appropriate for the stage and the page. Only Shakespeare could give us Macbeth. But only Kurosawa could give us Throne of Blood. Great filmmakers do what can only be done in film.

In this regard, while Nolan is not yet a Kubrick or Kurosawa, he is in the same league. The unfolding of his latest tapestry, though three hours long, is never tiresome. He has meticulously sewed every visual and aural detail into place, relying on them not just to tell a story or develop a character but to move beyond them into visual poetry. Oppenheimer contains several scenes that fully exploit the nature of cinema: They must be seen in a theater to be appreciated. Some critics have faulted the film for its near-constant soundtrack, but they don’t mention the sudden intensity of silence in the moments before the world’s first atomic bomb explosion in the New Mexican expanse. When the explosion does happen, we feel it in our chests. To experience it in IMAX, as Nolan intends, would be optimal; on a phone would be criminal.

Of particular importance to the visual experience of Oppenheimer is Cillian Murphy’s face. Klaus Kinski once said that “the only interesting landscape on earth is that of the human face.” And Nolan has found one of the most interesting human faces in Murphy’s. It is featured in many wide-angle close ups, which would be wearisome if they did not communicate so much of what other films communicate with lines upon lines of dialogue. Murphy’s face at the beginning of the film is not the same face at the end. The whole arc of his character is contained in that transformation. Beyond the facial expressions, Murphy crafts his character out of every movement and syllable. His performance makes the poorly cast Matt Damon seem like nothing more than a competent line reader.

Murphy’s physical transformation helps the viewer piece together the plot as it jumps chronologically to develop two separate but interwoven threads. The first thread recounts Oppenheimer’s rise to prominence as a physicist and his direction of the Manhattan Project. The second thread follows the personal and political consequences of his success. In this thread, Robert Downey Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, whose pursuit of political power clashes with Oppenheimer’s attempt to mitigate the damage caused by his scientific success. The two threads are necessary to account for the political paradox of not just the a-bomb but of all technology. Inventors lack the political power to determine the use of their inventions, and the wielders of power lack the scientific knowledge to develop what they use.

Nolan’s attention to the audiovisual experience of his film powerfully captures this particular story of the atom bomb’s development and consequences. The close-ups of Murphy are juxtaposed with a satellite-view of earth devoured by flames, as Oppenheimer and his team realize that one potential consequence of the atomic bomb’s explosion might be an unstoppable nuclear chain reaction. The visuals are emphasized aurally: The quiet breathing of Oppenheimer contrasts with the booming convulsions of nuclear holocaust. We experience the silent contemplation of one man leading to the extinction of all men. God may have the whole world in his hands, but he has given man the capacity to destroy it. 

Too concerned with immersing viewers in weighty themes, the film does not pander to woke sensibilities. Oppenheimer unapologetically tells a story about men and their particular accomplishments and moral dilemmas. The two women who get the most screen time are Oppenheimer’s lover and his wife, but one gets the impression that they live in the margins of the film because they lived in the margins of Oppenheimer’s life. As an actress who scoffs at the modern “strong female lead” trope, Emily Blunt perfectly fills her role. From the margins, the neurotic and loyal Kitty Oppenheimer pulls her husband from his obsessive madness into domestic realities and punctures his inflated self-importance.

With the near unlimited access and variety of streaming media, going to a theater may seem antiquated. Moreover, given the uninspired dreck released week after week, theater-going may even classify as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Christopher Nolan, though, reminds us that cinema—not just consumable movies, but cinema as an art to be experienced in a particular way—is not entirely lost to nostalgia. There are still reasons to leave the house.  

S. A. Dance is a teacher and writer in Northern California. 

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Image by charlieanders2 licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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