Oppenheimer, in telling the story of the inventor of the atomic bomb, spans different decades, political climates, and foes, from the Nazis to the Japanese to the Soviet Union, yet it opens with rain drops indelibly splashing on a puddle. We don’t know its size, only that Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is gazing down on it. Into it. We might see the gap in scale between puddles as minuscule, but to Oppenheimer, it’s unfathomable, infinite. He sees how a single drop lingers in any body of water, be it a puddle, or an ocean, as a miracle, and this miracle haunts. It lingers.
That gap is what relates these opening water droplets to the creation of the atomic bomb. The film’s timeline jumps as frantically as the intended use of this awful weapon. First, it must be made to stop the Nazis. Then, it must be made to stop the Japanese. Then, a new bomb must be made to stop the Soviets.
Some people, as Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) puts it, hoped the bomb would end all war. Instead, it would, as Niels Bohr puts it minutes later, give us the power to destroy ourselves. This isn’t restricted to a bunch of different governments all using multiple bombs on each other. There’s a chance a single use, even the initial Trinity test, could ignite the atmosphere and kill everyone. The remoteness of this chance, its closeness to 0, is not comforting, but unforgivable. It’s a nauseating, wretched thing. It can haunt. It’s like tar on your heart, and this nauseating, wretched thing lingers.
The juxtaposition of color lingers too. I expected the juxtaposition to follow the same pattern as writer-director Christopher Nolan’s own Memento, where one timeline was in color, the other black and white, but this isn’t the case with Oppenheimer. “I wanted to mix color and black and white,” explained in an interview. “I wanted to tell the story from Oppenheimer’s point of view…but I also wanted to contrast that with a more objective view, which is Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Lewis Strauss, it’s more his point of view, and that stuff needed to be black and white.”
Strauss is an interesting character to associate with black and white. Strauss’ story focuses primarily on his nomination for Secretary of Commerce in the late ’50s, and the accompanying hearing. Strauss views this nomination as the crowning achievement of his life, and so, the black and white, sometimes, compliments a uniquely nostalgic feeling. The first shot of Strauss, a close-up of him being interviewed, feels as though it could be from a documentary.
The black and white doesn’t always feel this way, though. Sometimes it’s harsh, almost garish, such as during a heated discussion over the H-bomb. Featuring an assortment of very important men sitting at a table, this event is primarily from Strauss’s perspective. When editor Jennifer Lame cuts to another man at the table, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema frames this man to establish their relation to Strauss. We spend a good deal of time at this table, a good deal of time looking at how they relate to Strauss, a good deal of time in black and white, and we feel intense whiplash when we cut to a close up of Oppenheimer, at that very table, in that very discussion, in glorious color. When this shift in color occurs, so does the shift in cinematic language. Strauss is no longer the center of attention, but lost in Oppenheimer’s noise of important men with important things to say. Still, our experience of the table in black and white remains, meaning Strauss remains, and even when he leaves, he will linger.
The film doesn’t condense different historical figures into a smaller group of people for the sake of narrative brevity. Even if someone has two minutes of screentime, those two minutes can linger, and thus the new face established by those two minutes matters. These faces respond to, create, and are silenced by different events, like waves from droplets. Luis Alvarez (Alex Wolff) breaks the news of the splitting of the atom to Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer disproves this with theory, while Alvarez affirms it with action. Here, Oppenheimer is delighted to be upstaged, because he’s delighted to discover. Alvarez is present when Oppenheimer is upstaged not by the marvels of science, but by the horror of war. The juxtaposition of Alvarez’s enthusiasm over the miracle of science makes his somber gaze when Hitler invades Poland all the more distressing.
It’s the horror of war that motivates his scientific discovery. He is subservient to the suits in Washington. He’s subservient to the man who crosses Kyoto off the list of cities they might target because he and his wife honeymooned there. The gap between the end of the world and this oaf’s honeymoon is like the gap between a puddle and a slightly bigger puddle. Purportedly minuscule, and totally incomprehensible. This oaf’s insistence on going forward with the Trinity test re-contextualizes the efforts of Oppenheimer and his team. Previously, a shot of the bomb being assembled was accompanied by a kind of otherworldly music, designed to heighten the sense of scientific discovery. After this oaf tells them to move forward, the shot, and the implications of its progression, are now accompanied by ominous music. The sense of discovery is gone in lieu of its sobering use.
When the actual Trinity test goes off, there is a menacing, breathtaking silence. Despite the silence, we know the “boom” will hit us, and this knowledge lingers, but until then, we’re caught up in its sobering beauty. You can hear a pin drop during that silence. When the eventual boom arrives, you won’t hear anything else.
On Oppenheimer’s ending, Nolan made a surprising comparison to his sci-fi heist film, Inception, saying, “it’s funny, I think there is an interesting relationship between the endings of Inception and Oppenheimer to be explored.” This might seem odd, but when you experience the ending, you’ll understand it. Beneath the noise of the dream stuff in Inception is a simpler one that we can apply to both films. The question is: is it true?
In the context of Inception, the question is cathartic, even a fun mind game that you can discuss with friends. In the context of Oppenheimer, it’s horrible. There’s a sound in composer Ludwig Gorranson’s piece, “Atmospheric Ignition” that captures the feeling perfectly. It’s almost like a metallic water drop, landing on a metal surface, and echoing into the vast world around it.
It’s harsh, it’s cold, and it will linger.