Is Nolan the Prometheus of Hollywood?


"Oppenheimer" has a full three-hour runtime, making it Nolan's longest film in his career. Currently, the movie has grossed over $780 million worldwide, surpassing last year's Hollywood blockbuster "The Batman." Against the backdrop of the delayed release of "Dune 2," "Oppenheimer" also has the potential to receive more technical award nominations at next year's Oscars in the UK and the United States.

"Oppenheimer" is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," and it faithfully recreates many historical facts about J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the "father of the atomic bomb." It presents Oppenheimer's dual tragedy — his personal fate entangled with a societal tragedy — to the audience.

The Tragedy of Fate

Here, the "tragedy of fate" refers to Oppenheimer's tragic destiny as the "thief of fire." To save humanity from the depths of World War II, Oppenheimer had to create the atomic bomb, a weapon capable of destroying humanity. As a scientist, he couldn't control the use of his creation; he had to allow others to wield it. Thus, saving humanity became the beginning of the story, and the complete destruction of humanity might have been its eventual end. Throughout the development of the Manhattan Project and beyond, Oppenheimer faced immense moral dilemmas. He was proud of the scientific achievements he and his team had achieved, but he also carried tremendous guilt and self-blame for the catastrophic consequences it could unleash. He bore a tragic burden he couldn't escape because this tragedy belonged not only to him but to all of humanity.

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Abandoning the Timeline

Oppenheimer not only suffered inner turmoil, but also faced an extreme external environment during the "Red Scare" of the 20th century, which included irrational political persecution. Ultimately, he realized that despite his prominence in the American and the global scientific community, he has been just a small, expendable piece in a much larger political chessboard. Innocent science couldn't transcend borders, and failed politics and ideologies always loomed above the ideals of a better world. In this context, the book's title, "American Prometheus," is indeed a fitting metaphor: Zeus bound him, and an eagle continually ate his liver (where his emotions resided).

Structurally, "Oppenheimer" is less complex compared to Nolan's previous masterpiece, "Inception." The film consists of two narrative threads: one follows Robert Oppenheimer's (played by Cillian Murphy) personal life through flashbacks during a congressional hearing, while the other follows Lewis Strauss's (played by Robert Downey Jr.) personal experiences during another congressional hearing. These two narratives intertwine and ultimately culminate in Strauss's disturbing personal desires. One is depicted in color and the other in black and white, which adds an unexpected dimension to the storytelling. Strauss's narrative should technically begin toward the end of the timeline, but it remains colorless throughout the film. In contrast, Oppenheimer's narrative, although it begins before his return to the U.S., is portrayed in full color. This choice initially creates a sense of temporal disorientation. However, at a certain point, it becomes clear that the director is using black and white to emphasize the darkness in American politics and human nature. In Nolan's usual style, these two storylines are woven together in a non-linear fashion, which may seem initially confusing, but ultimately helps establish connections between characters and events.

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To date, Nolan has directed two historical films: "Dunkirk" and "Oppenheimer." Both films revolve around pivotal moments in modern world history, World War II, and share a common theme of respect for individual lives, condemnation of political persecution, advocacy for scientific freedom, and a belief that scientific achievements should not be abused for political purposes. However, "Dunkirk" focuses on a narrow time frame, while "Oppenheimer" spans several decades, from the lead-up to World War II to the early days of the Cold War. While watching "Oppenheimer," I was often reminded of films like "Flags of Our Fathers." In essence, Nolan tells a Clint Eastwood-like story: heroes and patriots who are later reviled and persecuted by their own country. However, Eastwood's later works typically focus on classical, straightforward, and morally pure characters, mostly devoid of strong political ideologies. In contrast, "Oppenheimer" links closely to American politics, portraying Oppenheimer's left-leaning sympathies, his reading of Karl Marx's theoretical works, and his complex relationship with the American Communist Party. Although he kept some distance from the American Communist Party, his subtleties were enough to subject him to FBI surveillance and investigation.

The So-Called “McCarthyism”

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Before discussing "Oppenheimer" in detail, it's essential to understand the historical context. Many reviews mention that the Oppenheimer case occurred in the backdrop of "McCarthyism," but this claim is not entirely accurate and can be misleading. While McCarthyism, in its narrow sense, did peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with its frenzied political persecution in various sectors of American society, the Oppenheimer case did not significantly involve Senator Joseph McCarthy. This is not because McCarthy didn't want to get involved, but rather because President Eisenhower and the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, did not want McCarthy's involvement.

Eisenhower's attitude toward McCarthy and his was somewhat contradictory. On one hand, he was not a far-right figure within his party, so he did not support McCarthy's extreme political persecution. Eisenhower was aware that McCarthy's actions were politically motivated and not entirely virtuous. On the other hand, for the sake of his presidential campaign, Eisenhower sometimes had to publicly tolerate or support McCarthy, making compromises. It was only when McCarthy attempted to target the military, Eisenhower's stronghold, that he decisively broke ties with him. This reflected the complex dynamics of American two-party politics at the time, and it explains why Eisenhower did not want McCarthy's involvement in the Oppenheimer issue. Eisenhower believed that the charges against Oppenheimer were insufficient to prove that he was a spy, and he also had little faith that McCarthy would ensure a fair trial for Oppenheimer, although he significantly underestimated the destructiveness of Lewis Strauss.

Eisenhower and Strauss, both key figures in the Oppenheimer case, were Republicans. As a right-leaning figure in terms of their political ideology, when Eisenhower received allegations against Oppenheimer, he immediately instructed Strauss to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance. This act was the direct cause of the investigation into Oppenheimer. Strauss, of course, had his own ulterior motives, and he had even presented a condition to Eisenhower earlier: if he wanted Strauss to become the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Oppenheimer had to be excluded from all national security matters. In this context, the two men found mutual ground, and they pursued their respective agendas. Strauss skillfully bypassed McCarthy and sought assistance from another key figure behind the scenes, the then-FBI Director John Edgar Hoover, to conduct illegal surveillance on Oppenheimer and his lawyers.

John Edgar Hoover had served as the FBI Director for nearly 40 years and had not only assisted McCarthy, but had directly participated in numerous anti-communist investigations since 1935. Some scholars argue that, in many events after 1935, Hoover and the FBI he managed were the real driving force behind the continuing "Red Scare." Regardless, the "Red Scare" was not a simple issue of "McCarthy vs. Hoover." It had its roots going back to 1917 or even earlier and, to some extent, had become a social consensus in Europe and America. Even President Truman, a Democrat, had limited options in the political and social climate of the time. In the film, Nolan simplifies the complex relationships between characters, largely removes partisan politics, and emphasizes the character of Lewis Strauss. This redistribution of causality affects the underlying theme of "American-ness."

A Messiah-like Figure In Hollywood

As a British filmmaker, Nolan might be somewhat unfamiliar with American politics, but his creative goals are clear. He sees history as contemporary, and his retelling of the Oppenheimer story is a response to the rise of far-right ideologies in the present, a critique of political persecution, a call for scientific freedom, and a reminder that scientific achievements should not be misused for political purposes. Nolan's straightforward patriotism aligns seamlessly with mainstream values, making his work accessible to a broader audience. Yet, his unique approach often injects a sense of distinctiveness into Hollywood cinema. This is why Nolan has never fallen into the category of second-tier director, maintaining his status as a Messianic figure in Hollywood.

From a technical perspective, Nolan's reputation as a cinematic "god" stems from two main reasons. First, he consistently challenges the classic linear storytelling of Hollywood films. From his debut feature film, Nolan has refused to conform to linear narratives. To film a biographical movie like "Oppenheimer" with a non-linear narrative structure is a distinct departure from Hollywood conventions and effectively breaks the audience's aesthetic fatigue. Second, Nolan's films are known for their visual and sensory spectacle. He places great emphasis on realism and immersive experiences. He uses IMAX cameras to capture real explosions for the Trinity nuclear test scene, shunning computer-generated effects. This approach creates a sense of realism and physicality that immerses the audience in the film's world. Nolan is also one of the few directors who continue to shoot and project their films on film stock. He believes in the immersive details captured by IMAX and 70mm film, which deliver a breathtaking sensory experience.


Interestingly, when we expect "Oppenheimer" to provide its most significant spectacle through the costly depiction of nuclear explosions, Nolan unexpectedly reduces the impact of this scene by using editing, perspective, and separating sound and visuals. This decision underscores Nolan's rebellious nature and reveals his true intention: the real spectacle in the film has always been the face of Oppenheimer and the unexpressed inner world beneath it. Presenting psychological states through close-ups, especially with the enhancement of IMAX and 70mm film, is undoubtedly impactful, but the sheer volume of faces becomes a double-edged sword. It can effectively convey character textures and emotional states, but also make it challenging to achieve the nuanced emotional flow expected in a biographical film. When even coherent empathy becomes challenging, the humanistic aspects that the film should reflect are difficult to discuss. Nevertheless, this isn't the first time Nolan has faced such issues. Whether it's his narrative or spectacle, they often serve their own interests and the desire for audience engagement, rather than serving the characters themselves. Historical biographies magnify the existing flaws in Nolan's films.

Ironically, the clearest characterization of Oppenheimer is not portrayed through his actions but is instead spoken by others. When Groves (played by Matt Damon) first meets Oppenheimer, he precisely describes the scientist's character, but thereafter, these adjectives mostly define Oppenheimer's character arc. To Nolan, Oppenheimer seems more like a morally flawed wordsmith, where every wrong choice seems to have ten thousand reasons behind it. While such a character can be somewhat endearing, he doesn't qualify as complex. Similarly, although Strauss plays an exceptionally significant role in the film and serves as a major narrator in one of the storylines, his character is quite one-dimensional. In the film's third act, the creators use a classic, often seen in animated films, a form of reversal to emphasize Strauss's vindictive nature, almost turning him into a Marvel supervillain. It's ironic that he genuinely resembles "Iron Man" in this context.

From this perspective, Nolan appears to share some similarities with Oppenheimer. He's like Hollywood's Prometheus, indeed bringing in the fiery box office, but in a destructive manner. Over his nearly 30-year career, Nolan has developed a unique two-way support system with his audience. The more cerebral his films become, the more the audience embraces them, often leaving the cinema with a sense of bewilderment. However, this isn't a problem because ardent fans reassemble time and space in their minds, sometimes watching his films multiple times to achieve a sense of achievement through DIY mental reconstruction. Over time, Nolan's films have become an addictive intellectual toy, securing his place in Hollywood's box office, especially in the years following the rise of streaming services and the COVID-19 pandemic. The film industry needs Nolan, fans need Nolan, and Nolan needs the enthusiasm of his audience to keep his creative fire burning.

Certainly, Hollywood has increasingly recognized the immense potential of Denis Villeneuve since his emergence with "Arrival," and it has started to invest more in him, resulting in epic films like "Blade Runner 2049" and the "Dune" trilogy. Still, given the anthropological and psychological relationship that Nolan has built with his audience, it's challenging for anyone to challenge his status in the short term.

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