Born in 1904, died in 1967, Julius Robert Oppenheimer, from a wealthy Jewish family, fellow traveler of the American Communist Party, subject to depression, genius physicist, pioneer of quantum mechanics, was appointed in 1943 scientific director of the Manhattan Project, developed in great secrecy at Los Alamos (New Mexico), as part of the arms race against the Nazi regime.

Oppenheimer is, as such, considered the “father” of the atomic bomb, but he changed his point of view after the war regarding the merits of the thermonuclear weapon (H-bomb), while campaigning for international control of this type of weaponry.

Disavowed in this regard by President Harry Truman, he was soon overtaken by the paranoid frenzy of the witch hunt. Finally recognized as a loyal citizen, he was nevertheless found guilty of serious failings and ousted from the advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Fragile strangeness

Here, roughly sketched, is the Robert Oppenheimer that Christopher Nolan chooses to highlight in this biopic, devoid of a beginning (nothing about childhood) or an end (nothing about his future after disavowal). The question that occupies the filmmaker, insofar as the fairly elliptical structure of the film allows us to discern it, is in fact entirely contained there: are scientists accountable, before their own conscience as before the judgment of men, to the what use do politicians make of their inventions? You have three hours…

This is the time that Nolan takes to respond, brilliantly as usual, but with this taste for conceptuality and emphasis which means that his films rarely escape the dangers of mannerism. As such, Oppenheimer has his place in the gallery of Nolanian heroes. Holder of a superior force, weakened by an unspeakable secret, uncertain of himself in a world of irreducible complexity and opaque violence, not exempt from duplicity, seeking light and good through dark ways that are opposed: Batman is not very far away, of which Nolan was the director of a memorable trilogy.

We will not know, when we leave the film, who exactly Robert Oppenheimer was, to whom Irish actor Cillian Murphy lends his fragile strangeness. Which isn’t so bad. A complex man, both idealistic and opportunistic, full of contradictions and weaknesses, torn between remorse for his terrible invention and the conviction of having saved lives by stopping the war.

More than these political or moral questions, however, we feel that it is the operator of history in progress who, in the scientist that is Oppenheimer, fascinates the artist that is Nolan.