Oppenheimer: Morality of a Martyr
Star Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Demon, Robert Downey Jr, Rami Malek, Florence Pugh, and Kenneth Branagh.
Music Composed by Ludwig Goransson
Edited by Jennifer Lame
Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema
Directed by Christopher Nolan
A Martyr is a symbol and not a position in power. A person becomes a martyr, only when their actions leave a mark on the world and not when they struggle for power and authority.
Christopher Nolan has always been a very observant filmmaker. His observations are mainly reflections of the society that we live and breathe. Yet, he brings a question of morality in situations that no normal human being can imagine themselves in. If you are looking with a moral compass at a person like Cooper from Interstellar , an emotional person would say, he should’ve stayed. A very pragmatic person would say, he should’ve never returned like a time-traveler as humans don’t de-age ever. When you take Cobb from Inception  even though he does the right thing for the greater good his inceptive idea infects his own wife and emotionally damages him. On a moral compass, his victory feels ill-achieved and completely unethical. While the means remain questionable, the achievement appears to supersede any kind of morality questions. Both of them are good humans, they value emotions, they value worldly aspirations yet they cannot be fully loved or hated. They end up being at best “understood”. Nolan made us root for them, by letting us travel with them into the adventures they took upon. You might not even completely understand the complexity behind their actions, but you end up appreciating the determination of Cooper and the resilience of Cobb. Both want to get back to their families and survive the impossible storm. But now, Nolan touched upon a martyr.
J. Robert Oppenheimer might have unleashed ripples of chain reactions upon mankind by helping them know how to split an atom and use it for destruction. At the same time, when you break open an atom to its axions, you can try and understand the complexity of this Universe and its components. What looks like “Dust” has a great capability to home life and facilitate its own destruction as well. Yes, Dust on earth is nothing but silicon dioxide. But to our “telescopic eyes” the large gas clouds swirling around gigantic black holes, the stars, and many earths with probable life and ecosystems, making galaxies also appear as “Dust”. To be more precise, I am dealing with a “metaphorical sense” of Dust, not literal. He is not a Martyr for Japan, India, or the entire world but for the USA. This is where Nolan comes in and interjects our thought process to help us understand why would we or should or must we qualify Oppenheimer as a martyr almost as much as we consider the findings of Einstein as immortal and path-breaking. Oppenheimer showed us what we can achieve with destructive behavior and ambitious baby steps when we don’t really understand or have the capability to fathom consequences. Yes, the Japanese would forgive him or the scientists involved in Manhattan Project for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But they have one of the biggest nuclear reactor plants supporting their power requirements. And almost averted a huge nuclear radiation waste problem. So, should they hate Oppenheimer for making the bomb, and should they thank him for allowing the world to look at a new nuclear power source and try to control it, as much as possible?
Martyrs need not just be soldiers at the war front. They can be “US”, a very regular person.
Nolan unlike anyone preceding him, has an eye for ambition. His characters don’t become “heroes” because they start off with small goals. Each and every one of his characters has a huge goal or task on hand that keeps driving them almost mad. Yes, it is hard to bear the weight of ambition as it starts to consume you and torment you to that level, where you no longer know if you still exist or have already succumbed to your own ambition. Every Nolan hero pays something to ambition. Almost like Nolan is stating to us viewers what kind of a Demon, ambition can become. He is telling us that if we misstep at any moment and congregate all our energies believing that everything we do is right, our actions could drop from the heights of success to the abyss of self-loathing. Still, his heroes crawl out of that abyss and become human. Only, their act at that moment makes them heroic, after that they are back to being humans. Cooper is a hero until he docks and chooses to sacrifice himself. His sacrifice is rewarded by making his daughter, a celebrated scientist. And it also gave him a chance to find life, beyond that moment and beyond the emotional baggage of the promise. As he fulfilled the promise, he became human again. Cobb becomes a father after becoming a “hero” who stopped any selfish ambition to prosper.
When it comes to Oppenheimer, he has been driven by his observations and intellect. Any person who loves to observe and co-relate it with higher ideas and dense material, tends to analyse and understand every idea. They are not bothered about which idea to be honored and which idea to not be followed. There is no discrimination and labels between the identities. You can be “Socialist”, “Democratic”, “Fascist”, “Atheist”, “Communist”, “Believer”, “Denier” and whatever you want to be. It is your passion to support it and it is to understand the drive behind that passion, that fascinates a person like Oppenheimer. When you fail to see beyond the labels, beyond the identities, and the “inhumane” LOCs, you are just a self-centered, egoistic, megalomaniac blinded by ambition who can never really understand the broader strokes that nature offers. Oppenheimer never had to prove his ability to prosper in a scientific environment but he had to prove his integrity and patriotism. Well, the ripples of doubt you sow in someone’s mind will only blind them but never let them see for whom you are.
Martyrs find their ideas always alive and their acts being honored for generations.
Like an atom ready to explode, Oppenheimer starts his journey of Martyrdom with full potential energy. He finds the fuel of inspiration for his vehicle of aspiration. He injects it with big ideas and collaborates with numerous other bright minds and finally unleashes the energy held within him. While the world wanted his act and brilliance did not appreciate his knowledge and wisdom. Albert Einstein did not live his life only to give us an equation, “E=mc2” and his theory about gravity not being just an attraction force. Nobody wants to really know what happened after he gave his theory and how many really appreciated his wisdom aftermath. Oppenheimer having had to face the weight of his achievement, could be viewed as Karma haunting him back for causing an unstable person to push themselves to the edge. Or it might just be a sign of him learning to bear with the guilt and prophesizing to the world about the dangers it should never tap into. Nolan views it in both ways. By the end of the film, we all end up questioning our Morality too, what if I got hold of those weapons? While Oppenheimer struggled with his morality, people tried to question his integrity and patriotism. While Einstein asked him to re-evaluate the theory and equations, Oppenheimer wanted to chase the dream, the ambition. In a way, Nolan made us Einstein(s) and ask Oppenheimer, if he is doing right? Later, when he accepts his fate and admits to being the “Destroyer of Worlds”, we feel his pain while walking back home like Einstein. Again, metaphorically. In a more pragmatic way, we can say that Oppenheimer’s ambition drove him to heights of martyrdom and immediately, pulled him down into an abyss by putting the weight of his achievement on his meager shoulder. Well, nobody can be “Krishna” of Mahabharata, to stare into the eye of Karma and accept its wrath.
As a film, Oppenheimer is nothing less of an achievement. No one, absolutely, no one is miscast. When you see a young scientist Hill [Rami Malek] being mistreated or harshly knocked off by Oppenheimer, you feel that is unimportant. But when Hill, exposes Lewis Strauss [Robert Downey Jr.], you just levitate him to the point of a hero. At the same time, you hate Teller like Kitty [Emily Blunt], for being consumed by “his ambition” and siding with conspirators. In such a condensed film, Nolan still found moments for a viewer to cherish. While the entire film is based on “Nuclear Bomb”, it is the atoms of Oppenheimer that blast and radiate knowledge energy and also succumb to the destruction. The cinematic brilliance lies in major moments like “Atomic explosion” and in a minor moments like “Reading Bhagavadgita during a sensual encounter”. The contrast makes it almost a ‘human’ in its existence like the titular character. Nolan’s biopic has become a ‘human’ in itself and not just become a story. We all become Albert Einstein in the final moment fearing the morality behind the achievement and destruction forces going into the wrong hands who don’t care about the repercussions.
A Martyr always hides his fears and put his soul on the line to do the right thing.
The Cinematic Brilliance:
In a Christopher Nolan movie, if someone is finding flaws with technical support, then we are just not present at the moment. He always said, “Feel it, you can understand later!” Yes, his larger-than-life ideas are always condensed into dense material with the help of great technical values and this one is no exception. Score by Ludwig peels into the character of the film not guiding us how to feel but enhancing what we feel. There is a difference between playing “sympathetic music” at a melodramatic moment and leaving us in silence when the actual moment happens. Thrice, Ludwig, and Nolan choose to not let the music tell us what to feel – At Pugh character’s suicide, At the moment Oppenheimer finally let’s his inner voice be heard in front of the board, and At “The Moment”. Why do great filmmakers say silences are more important than the score? Just watch the impact they leave on us. Hoytema captures Close-ups of Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer on IMAX film. Many use IMAX to show the depth and grandeur of their vision. Nolan and Hoytema decided to help us look into the soul of Oppenheimer when he is crumbling inside.
Cinematic Language dictates that Close-ups should be used to convey unconventional depth. The depth of a person, not just a beautiful or handsome face. Cillian Murphy in those close-ups just lifts the frames and feels them with great emotion. In a dialogue-heavy film, these close-ups haunt you. Those silences speak volumes. And that is NOLAN. Jennifer Lame cuts pierce into each character. Nolan has a way of giving you specific information at the moment you need to know it. He cannot deviate from facts known and said. So, he chose to reveal them at the right time. The usage of Black & White for the sequences that talk about the descendance of a person, and the personal animosity that success brings towards you, make it the most revealing experience. Rather than bringing us out, it intricates even more interest. There are many shots to remember but the one that haunts me would be, Oppenheimer not being able to laugh while everyone is celebrating, it will live with me. The sound design needs to be specially mentioned. You can hear a small conversation while the ambiance is loud and it has been designed that way. Nolan forcing himself to give us a more realistic experience, just gets me. IMAX experience is more immersive as those close-ups, those intricate details, and those silences get broadened and more personal in the largest format. While the Fission culminated into greatness and massive destruction, Fusion infuses more fear into our body and then leaves with a hope to be the judge of destructive ambitions that can be driven into constructive aspirations with better unity. Even in Universe, Fusion gives us light and heat to survive while fission destructs. Nolan gave us a human story to not just watch as a film and forget but infuse Fusion of best judgement and leave out of fission of hate and jealousy.
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