“The Most Important Thing That’s Ever Happened”: Unpacking the Mythology of Oppenheimer

“How do you try to save the world when there are folks who just wanna watch it burn?” asked Michael Caine in The Dark Knight.  That question from The Dark Knight captures the contradictions of Christopher Nolan’s latest complicated protagonist – J. Robert Oppenheimer. He helped invent the atomic bomb to end WWII but caused unbelievable destruction.  He wants it both ways and so does Nolan.

Nolan loves characters whose elaborate plans backfire. To be sure the bomb was a success but Oppenheimer’s W is a L for everyone. Nolan’s films all feature brooding geniuses – think Batman or DiCaprio character in Inception – whose ambitious schemes unravel. Memento, Inception, Interstellar – the stories get more complex but the gist is the same. His cerebral heroes never achieve their convoluted goals without major screw-ups.

In Oppenheimer, Nolan still proves he cannot write for female characters. Emily Blunt mostly plays the forlorn wife with almost nothing to work with.  You’d never know she was a brilliant woman in her own right. But it’s no surprise he made a film about Oppenheimer – a conflicted genius who caused catastrophic harm, despite good intentions. That’s a signature Nolan theme.

Nolan created some visually stunning scenes and thoughtful complexity. His films can be too serious, but he tries to say something deeper but it’s hard to say sometimes how deep it is. The visuals and the song is so rich it’s easy to fill up on imagery.

I don’t want to nitpick or overanalyze. Nolan crafted an intellectually provocative story about a complicated historical figure. It may lack emotional resonance at times, but let’s appreciate his ambitious vision. Oppenheimer is a singular film about a complex subject.

Still, Nolan is more like his main characters than he admits: He sees himself as a unique, brainy artist, but he often bites off more than he can chew. His complex stories fall apart under their own convolutions, and his characters lack depth and humanity. But he does dare to try and sometimes succeeds, at crafting something intellectually interesting, if emotionally empty.  That’s Nolan’s convoluted genius

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