Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer, three hours long and based on Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer-winning biography American Prometheus, charts the two main strands of Oppenheimer’s life: the scientific work that made his career and the leftist sympathies that, thanks to the country’s postwar anti-Communist crusade, were to prove his undoing. We meet Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) as a student making the grand tour of European science capitals, in the nineteen-twenties—Cambridge, Göttingen, Leiden—before returning to the United States and taking up joint appointments at Caltech and Berkeley. At Berkeley, he becomes a union organizer and donates to the anti-Fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War. (The money is conveyed via a Communist-affiliated group.) He hangs out with Communist Party members, including his brother Frank (Dylan Arnold), also a physicist, and Frank’s wife, Jackie (Emma Dumont). Although not himself a Party member, he is spied on by the F.B.I. He meets a Communist medical student named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and they begin an ill-fated relationship.
In 1942, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who is in charge of the Army’s effort to develop a nuclear bomb, taps Oppenheimer to oversee the program. Political suspicion clouds Oppenheimer’s name, but Groves vouches for him. Now Oppenheimer’s scientific life and his political one collide. He proves himself a master not only of the scientific aspects of his assignment but also of its administrative and political dimensions. But, once the Red Scare takes hold, his eminence, his proximity to known Communists, and his postwar efforts to prevent a nuclear-arms race make him an easy target. (He was stripped of his security clearance in 1954.)
The movie is structured as a sort of mosaic. Deftly edited by Jennifer Lame, it intercuts the various periods of Oppenheimer’s life—rise, struggle, fall, aftermath—continually connecting the early leftism and later pacifism with the tribulations during the McCarthy era. It’s natural to figure that such a fractured chronology would have a destabilizing effect—Nolan directed “Memento,” after all—but, in fact, the temporal scheme makes “Oppenheimer” less complex rather than more. The insistence on correlation means that events get reduced to their function within a larger morality tale. Nolan cuts his scenes to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and details that don’t fit—contradictions, subtleties, even little random peculiarities—get left out, and, with them, the feeling of experience, whether the protagonist’s or the viewer’s. What remains is a movie to be solved rather than lived.