How Christopher Nolan Got Us To Care About The Man Who Destroyed The World
by Aliki Bitsakakis
“As human beings, it is the humanity of the film’s stories that interests us the most.” (Christopher Nolan, Sharp Magazine, 2023). Christopher Nolan knows the image he gives off: Hollywood director makes nearly a billion dollars with historical biopic. He may score massive budgets, he may be the frontrunner in the race for Best Director, he may have stars lining up to be in his movies. But a big budget doesn’t make a great film. Nolan cited Aftersun and Past Lives as his favorite recent films, both of which, on the surface, could not be more different from his own. Those are human stories. They elicit emotion and reveal deep truths that we can all connect to. That is also why Nolan’s movies are so successful, and why he is one of, if not the, greatest filmmakers of this generation. He uses big budgets, explosions of genre, practical effects pushed to the absolute limit, to grab our attention, entertain us, wow us at the sheer magnitude of his projects. And within all of that, he has placed an emotional core in his stories that stays with audiences long after the movie has ended. Nolan’s films inspire us to sit down at our computers and create because you don’t need all the money in the world to tell a human story. You need to look around you, feel what’s inside of you, and give in to the impulse to write a story that means something to you.
Oppenheimer is a historical biopic about the man who created the atomic bomb that ended the Second World War and set off the atomic age, whose impact we are still living in. We see the entirety of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story, as he goes from a brilliant student to leading a team of the greatest minds at Los Alamos as they create a super weapon. On the surface, the average viewer has nothing in common with Oppenheimer. He was friends with Einstein, he was the leader of all the other greatest minds, he was so intelligent that everyone around him was constantly either chuckling or scoffing, and, of course, he set off the nuclear age. I’m not a scientist, not even close. So what was it about this representation of Oppenheimer that I connected with? This movie was about quantum physics, but it wasn’t. Not really. Deep down, it was about guilt. We’ve all felt it. Maybe not on such a grand scale. But we’ve all done something wrong, something we have not realized the true consequences of until it was already done. We all have regrets. And that’s what made Oppenheimer human. With all the Oscar noise I think we’re all glossing over what a feat that is, that Nolan humanized the man who destroyed the world. As the writer and director of this project, adapting the screenplay from the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, he decided which parts of Oppenheimer’s life we would see. He decided on those Cillian Murphy close-ups and insights to his brilliant mind. He put together one of the greatest cinematic scenes of all time, when the bomb went off in the desert. The perspective of this film is everything, as we are situated in Oppenheimer’s mind, forcing us to see things from his angle.
Everything that happens in this film is dictated by the point of view. Nolan even wrote half the script in first person (that’s the coloured shots of the film, the black and white written in the traditional script POV of third person) to really situate the audience in a seat of empathy with the scientist. This tactic is often used in books, with a first person narration. Nabokov exposed how easy it is to fall into the mind of the narrator and empathize with them, as he wrote Lolita from the POV of a pedophile, to test his audience and challenge us to find a way to separate ourselves from the person telling us the story. Similarly, Nolan put us in Oppenheimer’s mind (to the best of film’s ability – books still have the upper hand in terms of easily placing us in the narrator’s mind). So, everything we saw during the colored portion of the film, was from Oppenheimer’s perspective, in order for us to empathize with him. He showed us what’s important to him. Jean clearly had more effect on how Oppenheimer thought than his wife Kitty. There have been criticisms about the unnecessary nudity of Jean, and that point has been used to spin an anti-feminist narrative against Nolan. But, Oppenheimer is also nude in that scene. If he were fully clothed and Jean was nude, there would have been more of an argument. But this was just two people being intimate with each other. Now you can ask, well, why did we need a sex scene at all? Because Nolan was visually showing us how Oppenheimer thinks about Jean, compared to his wife. He can be much more vulnerable with Jean, as shown through his own nudity. And her political views had a much deeper impact on him, as we can see he faces those consequences for years to come. Her death destroyed him, and in that moment, we were able to sympathize with him because we have also felt loss. These scenes weren’t about seeing Florence Pugh naked. They were about adding a human element to this man who throughout history is very rarely seen as a human being with thoughts and flaws. Real people have relationships. And even the most evil people in the world have moments where they’re vulnerable. I’ll admit, Emily Blunt could have used more screen time. It was only at the end of the film, when she testified and refused to shake Teller’s hand, that I understood the firecracker personality that has been behind Oppenheimer this whole time and obviously, influencing his decisions as well. If only, causing him to suppress his guilt and continue on in his career. But in terms of the representation of women, the two female leads were there to explain the man behind the bomb.
Each of Nolan’s films use an emotional core to cut through the action and smack the audience in the face. An emotional core is like a theme or controlling idea, but simpler. It could just be one or two words. The emotional core of Oppenheimer is guilt. The emotional core of one of Nolan’s recent favourite films, Aftersun, is memory, regret, finding a way to reconcile with a parent after they’re gone. This is why his films are so memorable. Few people can recite the scientific jargon of Interstellar. Yet we all remember the scene of Matthew Maconoghey crying as he watches videos of his daughter growing up before his eyes. And it’s that moment that makes us care. It makes us realize that this story is bigger than this one line of action (or is it a circle of action ooooh). It’s about life. Our relationship to our family. It’s about the regret we hold over lost time. Inception is about dreams within dreams. The story that plays out shows a heist that takes place in the subconscious. But the emotional core of Inception is about accessing the love that has been stolen from you. Cobb keeps Mal alive in the dream world because she left him too soon. It’s sad and difficult to understand but the gut feeling you have while watching the two of them together is that they were in love, and Cobb is having a really hard time letting that go and accepting reality. The emotional core of Inception is shown in two places, doubling its strength, as Robert is also searching for that love that has been barred from him. Even though he’s sort of the villain of this story, and the object of this heist, he is struggling to accept his father’s death as he still needs to know that his father loved and cherished him. Explain to me how the dream within a dream situation actually works, or tell me how you felt when Robert opened the safe and extracted the windmill. As in Interstellar and Inception, Oppenheimer also has those a-ha moments, where we clue in to the emotional core. Oppenheimer is unique in this sense, as that moment comes at the very end, when his conversation with Einstein is revealed. Oppenheimer recognizes that he has set off the atomic age, and that he will forever hold that responsibility on his shoulders.
My favourite Chris Nolan epic is Tenet, which is also his most polarizing film. Some complaints that I’ve heard was that it was too confusing and the protagonist didn’t have a personality. I’ll let you in on a little secret: he wasn’t supposed to have a personality. Nolan loves taking a genre, tricking us all into thinking we know what to expect, and then turning the genre on its head, making a statement about the pitfalls of the genre itself. Tenet is Nolan’s Bond film. But, it’s realistic. The spy is a stoic killer, not a charismatic British man who gets all the ladies. The protagonist is all business, he’s cold, there isn’t much going on with him, because he is the decoy protagonist. Come on, it’s a little too convenient that on IMDb John David Washington’s character is literally named “Protagonist.” Being one step ahead of us, Nolan wrote Elizabeth Debicki’s character Kat as the true protagonist. He made the “Protagonist” impossible to connect with, causing the viewer to search elsewhere to place their empathy. Tenet is about Kat finding her freedom. Early on, she recalls seeing a woman jump off her husband’s boat. Like Kat, the audience envies this woman and her carefree attitude. As we see more of Sator’s abusive behaviour towards Kat, we hope that she can find a similar freedom. The story goes on, Kat joins forces with the protagonist to prevent her husband from ending the world. In the end, Kat kills her husband, releasing herself from his grasp. And then, she jumps off the boat. Due to the time travel nature of this world, Kat from the past is coming up to the boat and sees present Kat jump off. She was the woman she saw all along. And we’re right there with her, knowing that this jump means one thing: freedom. It’s a freedom that was always in her. And it’s a freedom that she has created for herself. She is the ultimate Bond girl because Bond doesn’t actually save her; she saves herself. We aren’t all married to evil billionaires. But we all have moments where we feel trapped, where we wish we could be free and live our lives the way we want to. It’s Kat’s story that sticks with the audience, and inspires us to live in her footsteps. In Oppenheimer, there’s no mistaking who the protagonist is. Rather than teaching us who is worthy of our attention, Nolan’s newest film allows us to sink into this character over three hours. By the end of the film, you understand him. You may not agree with him. You may have judgments to make. But you understand him. And, within this war drama, we realize that understanding is crucial to human life, and that most of this world’s strife comes from a point of misunderstanding.
Now, how did Nolan do it? How do we understand that this movie is about this man’s ethical dilemma? How is that empathy achieved? Here are some examples. When the bomb went off, it was silent not just for scientific reasons that were already set up, but because being silent allowed us, like Oppenheimer, to marvel at what he had created. Even though his guilt is apparent in how he tries to prevent the bomb from ever being used, he is clearly proud of his work. The sequence of explosions held the audience by the throat. I don’t think anyone in the theatre was breathing. Bright colours, slow movements, it was truly a spectacle. And then the sound comes crashing in and your heart explodes. Filmmakers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to convey emotion to their audiences. In this scene, Nolan used vibrant imagery and deafening sound to put us in Oppenheimer’s shoes and make us feel the tension between pride and terror and our power as human beings.
Then there’s the celebration after the bomb goes off and ends the war. This scene feels off right from the beginning. Being a couple generations removed from this moment, modern audiences can be a little more critical at the blatant celebration of the loss of life. That uneasy feeling seeps into Oppenheimer as well, as sound melts away from the scene (reminding us of seeing the bomb actually go off) and is replaced with a single wailing voice. Oppenheimer then sees the cheering faces for what they are: ugly. And then, in the rare show of violence in this film, Oppenheimer sees the skin peeling away from those in front of them, mimicking the real life experience of those who were under the atomic bomb when it dropped. This is a terribly disturbing scene. Aside from this scene, we see no violence, no war, no fighting, no pain. It is a stark contrast to last year’s Academy-celebrated war film, All Quiet on the Western Front, which was difficult to watch because the violence was right in front of us, we were not granted the opportunity to look away. In Oppenheimer, the goal was not to make us feel like the soldiers or their families or even the politicians. We were intended to feel like one man. And this man is clearly haunted by his work, even though he never saw its destruction firsthand. And we felt that, seeing even within a celebration the gruesome consequences that he can never rid himself of.
Christopher Nolan has deserved accolades for the past 25 years. Each of his films, no matter how big or small (everyone go watch “Doodlebug” on YouTube), have one thing in common, the reason that audiences have loved him all this time: an emotional core that we can all relate to, and that sticks with us long after watching. His films aren’t just action movies, superhero movies, time travel, spy, sci-fi, historical dramas; they are reflections of humanity. To end with a quote from Robert Downey Jr.’s Golden Globe acceptance speech: “A sweeping story about the ethical dilemma of nuclear weapons grosses one billion dollars. Does that track? No. Unless…Universal went all in on Christopher Nolan to direct Cillian Murphy with Emma Thomas producing, with Emily and Florence and this cast and crew and helped them render a goddamn masterpiece. See, that’s not such a leap.” It’s always been about the people behind the project. It’s always been about the mind of Christopher Nolan. Also, let’s celebrate Emma Thomas for being the most badass producer with the least attention coming to her. Studios have put stock into this revolutionary filmmaker, thank God. But I hope Nolan’s profound success can be an ongoing lesson to all of us. For the executive producers, you need to support creative visionaries and grant them the resources needed to do this little thing called filmmaking. And to all the aspiring filmmakers out there, you don’t have to wait for those big budgets. Storytelling is about humanity. It’s about empathy. And you can write and shoot something with nothing in your pocket, as long as it reflects the truth you see in the world.