Oppenheimer – An epic thriller that chronicles the life and legacy of the father of the atomic bomb

“I want to take the audience into the mind and the experience of a person who sat at the absolute center of the largest shift in history,” says writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose Oppenheimer is an IMAX®-shot epic thriller that thrusts audiences into the pulse-pounding paradox of the enigmatic man who must risk destroying the world in order to save it.

The films of Christopher Nolan have pushed the limits of cinematic storytelling to tell epic stories about unlikely heroes and audacious schemes that examine the necessity, morality, and hubris of ambitious endeavor.

The brain-bending heist film Inception took audiences deep into the inner spaces of the dreaming mind, while his spectacular space odyssey Interstellar took them on a trippy journey into the outer limits and looping eddies of the universe. With Dunkirk, Nolan deployed multiple perspectives and time signatures to capture the harrowing experience of soldiers trying to survive the deadly and dehumanizing horrors of war, and with Tenet, he illuminated and manipulated the concepts of perspective and time to spin a metaphysical sci-fi thriller about the present under attack from the future. Each of his movies has been made with a delighted passion for the techniques of classic moviemaking while also expanding the boundaries of new tools, most notably IMAX® cameras, to reimagine the art of cinema itself.

Nolan’s films, including TenetDunkirkInterstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, have earned more than $5 billion at the global box office and have been awarded 11 Oscars and 36 nominations, including two Best Picture nominations. 

Now, he brings to screen his most ambitious and urgent movie yet, a sweeping, epic thriller that delves deep into the psyche of a singular American mind: the brilliant scientist behind the world-shattering invention that represented the total sum of human ingenuity, an invention that would remake civilization, even as its very existence threatened the future of mankind.

“Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived. He made the world we live in, for better or for worse. And his story must be seen to be believed.”

Inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer chronicles the life and legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. The film stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt as his wife, biologist and botanist Kitty Oppenheimer. Matt Damon portrays Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, and Robert Downey, Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. 

Nolan Wrote the ‘Oppenheimer’ Script in First Person

Nolan consciously broke traditional screenwriting rules by skillfully penning the script in the first-person, something that had a unique and positive effect on the story. Let’s explore the significance of this creative decision and how it added a unique layer of depth and emotional engagement to the story.

“I actually wrote in the first-person, which I’ve never done before. I don’t know if anyone’s ever done it before. But the point of it is, with the color sequences, which is the bulk of the film, everything is told from Oppenheimer’s point of view–you’re literally kind of looking through his eyes. There’s the idea of how we get in somebody’s head and see how they were visualizing this radical reinvention of physics. One of the things that cinema has struggled with historically is the representation of intelligence or genius. It very often fails to engage people.”

Nolan’s brilliance lay in recognizing that cinema often struggles to effectively portray intelligence or genius in its true essence, as quoted above. To overcome this challenge, he wove an emotional and psychological catharsis into the script alone, just black ink on the white page. By employing the first-person perspective, readers are not just observers; they become intimately connected with Oppenheimer’s innermost thoughts, motivations, and emotional turmoil.

Nolan’s innovative approach to “Oppenheimer” showcases the power of thinking outside the box. The narrative perspective offers readers an unforgettable and immersive experience that surpasses the limitations of the written word. Nolan’s ability to engage the audience on an emotional level from the very beginning of the screenplay elevates the story to an extraordinary level.

The Creation of Oppenheimer

The making of the atomic bomb was a triumph of human ingenuity that yielded learning that has seeded innovation in countless areas of science and technology. But it also commenced an arms race that has had seismic and destructive ramifications for the entire world, introducing a new existential fear into the lives of people everywhere that has not gone away.

The origin of Nolan’s desire to make Oppenheimer lay in the fear that troubled the scientists of the Manhattan Project as they sought the secrets of fission to make a fusion bomb, a fear that Oppenheimer dubbed “the terrible possibility.”

“In the lead-up to the Trinity test, Oppenheimer and his team were dealing with the very small possibility that when they pushed that button and triggered that first bomb, they would set fire to the atmosphere and destroy the entire planet,” Nolan says.

“There was no mathematical or theoretical basis on which they could completely rule out that possibility, however small. And yet, they pushed that button, anyway. It’s an extraordinary moment in human history. I wanted to take the audience into that room and be there for that conversation, and then be there when that button is pushed. It’s just the most incredible moment, if you think about it. The risk of it. The relationship between science, theory, intellect—the things that we can imagine—versus the practical nature of bringing these abstract ideas into the real world, dealing with them as concrete realities, and all their consequences.” (Evidence of Nolan’s fascination with “the terrible possibility” can be found in his previous film, Tenet, which referenced the story.)

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American Prometheus became a bible that informed and guided every aspect of the Oppenheimer production. During the screenwriting phase, it provided Nolan with rich stores of insight that helped him craft what interested him most, a critical portrait of Oppenheimer that not only dramatized formative and milestone events, but also explored his psychology and interrogated the consequences of his actions.

“Oppenheimer’s story is one of the great stories that there is,” Nolan says. “It’s full of paradoxes and ethical dilemmas, and that’s the kind of material I’m always interested in. While the movie tries to help the audience understand why people have done the things they’ve done, it’s at the same time asking should they have done the things they’ve done. And film, as a narrative medium, is uniquely suited to pulling an audience into a subjective experience, letting them judge things the way the characters judge them, while at the same time looking at these characters a little more objectively. At various points, we try to burrow into Oppenheimer’s psyche and take the audience on his emotional journey. That was the challenge of the film: To tell the story of a person who was involved in what was ultimately an extraordinary destructive sequence of events, but done for the right reasons, and tell it from his point of view.” 

The story of Oppenheimer’s post-Manhattan Project years offers outside perspective on his work and legacy while also examining the motives and personalities of key individuals who impacted his life. That narrative centers on Lewis Strauss, another key player in shaping America’s nuclear policy after World War II. In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated Strauss to serve as Secretary of Commerce.

Nolan says he typically doesn’t think too much about directorial or producorial concerns while writing scripts for fear of inhibiting his creativity. But with Oppenheimer, he felt he needed to describe, on page, for the sake of his collaborators and studio, his visual strategies for presenting a complex story that toggled continuously between subjective and objective experience, as well as two different trials happening in two different times.

Nolan decided that the scenes told through Oppenheimer’s perspective would be in color (he also wrote them in the first person, an unconventional choice for a screenplay), with occasional cutaways to evocative, surreal imagery that symbolically expressed his interior world. The scenes that center on Strauss would be in black and white. “It’s a strange thing to do,” says Nolan of the unconventional choice to write in the first person. “But it made it clear to anyone who read the script that we, the audience, are on this ride with Oppenheimer. We’re looking over his shoulder, we’re in his head, we’re going everywhere with him.”

Reading the script for the first time, producer Emma Thomas says she was blown away by what Nolan had conceived. “The script for Oppenheimer definitely feels like a Chris Nolan script in that he’s always been fascinated by subjectivity and objectivity, and it’s a story told from different perspectives,” Thomas says. “But on the page, he did something that I’d never seen before, which is that Oppenheimer’s parts of the story are told in the first person; it’s an incredibly effective and efficient way to describe the interior life of a character to those of us on the production, including Chris himself, who need to put it on screen. I think it’s one of the best scripts I’d ever read.” 

Nolan wrote the screenplay over the summer 2021. It was immediately greenlit by Universal Pictures, their first collaboration with Nolan. So began a creative mission that resembled something like the Manhattan Project itself, a group of extraordinary talents, led by a singular director, coming together in a remote section of the world (including the Los Alamos Laboratory itself) to produce a great work that would engage and test their considerable abilities.

The mission of building the world of Oppenheimer was entrusted to production designer Ruth De Jong, whose credits include Nope, Us and Manchester by the Sea. De Jong and Christopher Nolan spent weeks steeping themselves in research to develop an aesthetic that was authentic yet not slavishly beholden to reference. Nolan prefers a timeless look for his films, even one such as Oppenheimer, which is set in a distinct historical period. Nolan encouraged De Jong to not be fussy or precious about period details. He liked the idea of pushing the modernism, allowing the cars, phones or other pieces of technology to be of-the-moment. It was a choice fitting for a story about a man chasing the future, told through his perspective.

Oppenheimer marks the fourth collaboration for Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who served as director of photography for Interstellar, Tenet and Dunkirk.

“The most obvious thing to do would be to do them all with computer graphics,” says Nolan. “But I knew that that was not going to achieve the sort of tactile, ragged, real nature of what I wanted. … The goal was to have everything that appears in the film to be photographed. And have the computer used for what it’s best for, which is compositing, and putting ideas together; taking out things you don’t want; putting layers of things together.”

Nolan is a filmmaker who is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, creating new technology with IMAX to present the brilliant complexities of Robert J. Oppenheimer in a way that presents the visual tones to the audience while entertaining them. The filmmaker is one who cares about the details, spending most of his pre-production time creating accurate depictions of atomic bombs and black holes in a way that serves the audiences and pushes filmmaking technology, all while keeping his cast and crew safe.

“The style of photography that Hoyte and I adopted for this movie was to be very simple yet very powerful,” Nolan says. “No barrier between the world of the film and the audience, no obvious stylization other than the black-and-white sequences. But particularly with the color sequences, we wanted very unadorned, simple photography, as natural as possible, revealing lots of textures in the world. Whether it’s the costumes or the sets or locations, you’re looking for real world complexity and detail.”

Oppenheimer is filmed in a combination of IMAX® 65mm and 65mm large-format film photography including, for the first time ever, sections in IMAX® black and white analogue photography. 

Contrary to Internet rumor, Christopher Nolan did not detonate an actual atomic bomb in New Mexico for Oppenheimer, just so he could film the nuclear fire and mushroom cloud of the iconic Trinity test. Instead, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema worked with special effects supervisors Scott Fisher (a Nolan vet who won Oscars® for Interstellar and Tenet) and Andrew Jackson (who also won an Oscar for Tenet) to produce the film’s version of atomic explosion. Nolan gave them a limitation: Consistent with his aesthetic preference for practical effects, Nolan told them there could be no computer-generated imagery.

Some of the techniques that Nolan’s f/x team used to produce the spectacle of nuclear fission were also used to help create the scenes that portray Oppenheimer’s inner world. Again, Nolan placed a premium on practical effects and eschewed CGI.

“There’s one sense in which computer graphics is the obvious way to do it, but I didn’t feel we were going to get anything that would feel personal and unique to Oppenheimer’s character,” says Nolan. “We were able to generate this incredible library of idiosyncratic and personal and frightening and beautiful images to represent the thought process of somebody at the forefront of the paradigm shift from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics, who is looking into dull matter and seeing the extraordinary vibration of energy that’s within all things, and how it might be unleashed, and what it might bring.”