"Mr. President, I feel that I have blood on my hands."
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Synopsis: An exploration of J. Robert Oppenheimer's evolving feelings on atomic energy.
I had to go and see it again, a third time, a final time, surrender once again to its hypnotic rhythms of music and dialogue. It is a thing you do alone, not obsessively but passionately, like a warmer version of the museum patron described at the beginning of Delillo’s Point Omega.
1. About Everything
Other people will write about the film's topical relevance, how good the acting is, or the stupendous construction of that sequence. But none of those are why I had to go three times.
Oppenheimer begins and ends with a man, at two different points in his life, watching raindrops fall into water. In between those two moments it somehow manages, despite being almost exclusively a series of scenes of mostly men in suits talking, during a distinct time period, following an exact narrative… to be a film about everything. In its specificity it becomes universal.
What does it mean to live with ourselves, in this world?
Following a prologue hinting at the consequences to come, we begin with the subjective interior. The intoxicating rhythms of new possibilities, discovery, the excitement of innovation and youth in the 1920s. This leads to collaboration, competition; ideas, and degrees of allegiance to those ideas; to science, invention for its own sake, and the dangers and joys of such invention. To the horror of humans' capacity to commit evil when it's disguised as good. Love, friendship, ethics, theory– all are realized as the irresolvable, contradictory worlds they are. Victory. Hubris. Guilt. Regret. Self-flagellation as a gesture of recognition, a yearning for closure. The soul's unquenchable thirst for resolution, within oneself, between oneself and the world.
I am deeply attracted to stories of guilt and regret because these emotions are almost always genuine. They weigh us down impossibly, and the suffering they cause within has the potential to make us realize our best selves like nothing else. A person without regret has not had to take stock of themselves. Who in our country’s history could feel more guilt, and yet be living in a time and political place when it could be less freely expressed, than J. Robert Oppenheimer?
Nolan understands that the moral quandaries facing his protagonist are altogether more dramatically compelling than the Trinity explosion itself. What other director would dare make a film wherein the atomic bomb explosion is not the climax of the narrative? Oppenheimer is three hours of people reflecting on past and future deeds, awash in a mood that is somehow both melancholic and propulsive without compromise to either; it admits the complexity of existence, and the soul’s capacity to change its views over time. Not every film allows its characters to live long enough to suffer the consequences of their actions.
Nolan constructs the film around two confirmation hearings of two very different men– one a conniving career politician hoping for a Cabinet position; the other a scientist with newly pacifist views hoping for security clearance. The two hearings are linked in ways that only become clear much later, and both have the same outcome, revealing just how diametrically contrasted the two applicants are. One seeks to destroy what he believes the other has, and wishes desperately to have himself; his aims are selfish. The other man wishes to correct a collision course he created. His aims are more than selfless; they represent those of a mind which has begun to think on a larger, longer scale.
A line midway through reminds us that “genius is no guarantee of wisdom.” I think that in between the opening and closing moments, the man watching the raindrops has finally, somberly, tragically, transcended the former and acquired the latter. It has happened against his will. But he is better for it. I cannot express how compelling it is to watch this journey, how thought-provoking.
Like last year's masterful TÁR, Oppenheimer withholds an opinion on its subject. We instead learn something about ourselves by considering what we conclude, and how it changes with each viewing. The film becomes a mirror, makes us question ourselves and our values, our beliefs and direction in this life. Art can hardly achieve more. For this and for its intricate, somber grandeur, for the intellectual and philosophical demands it makes on its audience, and for its unsurpassable execution, this is the best and most significant American studio picture since Schindler's List. I am aware of the ridiculousness such pronouncements, but after three viewings I still can't help myself. Forgive me! Large-scale films for adults have been anomalies for a while now, and that makes Oppenheimer is a rare bird indeed, one worth cherishing.
2. On Film and Form
Do you know what it is to look upon an original?
We do it in museums all the time, at galleries and plays and concerts. But in cinema, you are almost always looking at a digital projection, at a film that was shot digitally, or a film that was, even if photographed on film, transferred to digital to be color-corrected. And as you know, everything digital is in fact a collection of ones and zeroes. Digital can never capture light, or color; it can only translate it. A digital image can only be reproduced, never produced. It is always and ever a facsimile.
Film emulsion, on the other hand, captures the actual photons of a moment, sealing them forever, as they transform the chemical composition of the silver halide crystals they land on; as you've heard me say elsewhere, film is in this manner closer to sculpture than digital photography. Only film contains the physicality of a moment. There is no need to translate reality into colored squares.
There’s also the fact that, after twenty years of digital experimentation, there can be no argument that film simply yields a better image. Although a digital picture plane can contain millions of pixels, its range of color is limited to the thousands. Film conversely has millions of colors. Only film can successfully capture the infinitude of color that flesh tones contain, or clouds; only cross-processed stock can even generate the colors I like to use, the greens and cyans which exist well outside the dSLR color gamut.
For these reasons and others, many filmmakers* continue to shoot exclusively on film– Alice Rohrwacher, Sofia Coppola, and Mia Hansen-Løve being a few examples of directors for whom the format is never in question.
But at this point, the only new work that is consistently analogue from start to finish, with no digital intermediate, no ones and zeroes whatsoever, are the films of Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino. These are the only remaining directors who as a matter of course not only shoot analogue, but do film-out edits** and color-time their pictures photochemically.***
Nolan goes furthest in many ways, both artistically and technically: though all three are single-camera**** directors, eschewing the technique (epitomized by Ridley Scott, who’s done so since 2007) of overshooting a scene with many digital cameras and “figuring it out later,” only Nolan’s films have no deleted scenes. He shoots exactly what he writes. The intricate scripts are worked out to the last detail, and somehow he knows it will work.***** As a writer-director myself I’m flabbergasted by this. How does he do it?
Also, Nolan consistently shoots on large-format****** film, not just 35mm. For a visual breakdown, check out the nifty chart here. Note the difference between the 70mm formats and regular digital projection. But IMAX 70mm isn’t just the highest resolution of any movie format ever invented (its digital equivalent would be an impossible 18k); it also has an unparalleled tonal (color, hue) range. This matters more than resolution in the impact of an image. Large-format film also differs from 35mm in being a uniquely grain-free visual space; the filmstrip is simply too big for you to see the grain we all know from 35. There’s nothing quite like it.
Why does any of this matter?
It isn’t only in technicalities that film has the edge. On the one hand, director Lea Mysius says, film “has this aesthetic and tactile component, that the colors are deeper and more contrasty and stronger, and so on and so forth.” But, she adds, “What matters most to me is the poetic component of it. 35mm is so intrinsically loaded with poetry, and there’s mystery in 35. I think it’s because it is a material thing… Philosopher Gaston Bachelard [talks] about how we can have imagination flower out of materiality. And I see film that way. What I mean is that light puts an impression on film, and thanks to this chemical reaction that we can see, all of a sudden, we find that magical and beautiful sensation... 35mm work penetrates because it has an impression on us, the way that light has an impression on film. This is something that, in digital, you don’t have. It’s a lot more straightforward and flat.”
I call it the magic of the tactile. We are organic, not synthetic creatures, and we respond to that which is also organic. The handmade quality of film, the discipline it requires to create, the one-off nature of its physicality, its imperfections, the romance of the flickering filmstrip in the dark… you cannot surpass the real.******* And, because film was the only image capture medium for over a century, we are deeply accustomed its interpretation of light. It is the visual basis for our global cultural memory. Maybe this is why most great-looking digital films, especially historical pictures, attempt to emulate film stock.
Only thirty prints of Oppenheimer were made at its full, IMAX 70mm 1.43:1 ratio. That version of the film weighs 600 pounds and is eleven miles long. Just 113 prints of the “smaller” but still stupendous 70mm 5-perf 2.39:1 ratio were made worldwide (again, refer to the chart above to get an idea of how different this is from digital projection), as well as about 80 35mm prints, one of which played in Seattle’s Uptown Theatre. I saw a digital scan of the full IMAX 1.43:1 positive and was suitably blown away by all it had to offer, but it was the magic of seeing one of those 113 70mm prints unspool at Seattle’s Pacific Place, once at the beginning of the film’s theatrical run and again near the end, that I want to dwell on here.
See it on film if you can. If you can't, you're still seeing something that originated on that beautiful medium, that was color-corrected photochemically, and that, incredibly for our times, doesn't feature CGI. Speaking of which:
3. A Few Notes on Style
i. Immersion in reality
You can read elsewhere about how the explosion was created using practical effects, how those visualizations of particles were achieved, and more, but I’m interested in what avoiding computer graphics achieves on a philosophical level.
Remember the sensation of watching "old" (I’m thinking pre-1990) films, when you could inherently "Trust the Image?" We can’t do that anymore. Now that anything is possible via CGI, nothing is surprising. Consider the third act of any superhero picture. You’re looking at masses of pixels bombarding each other, and you know it. The viewer’s investment (or at least mine) declines. The image has stopped being what it’s always been– a documentation of something that was in front of a camera lens, whether a person, landscape, miniature model, or painting.
Special effects, in industry parlance, are effects achieved on set. Visual effects are created afterwards with a computer. We watch what we know are special effects in Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey with a greater sense of awe than any modern space movie, because we know we’re looking at something real. We can sense it. This is why horror films almost never use CGI– because no matter how good it is, you can detect its fakeness, and it ceases to be scary. We are organic creatures, and we respond to the same. The synthetic can only go so far.
Oppenheimer returns us to that environment of being able to trust the image. Everything you’re seeing is real, and quite frankly: you can tell. Friends have shared that the experience of watching this one feels different– the artifice of knowing you’re watching actors somehow falls away, and the sensation of observing real characters begins to take over. I have to believe this is because we’re able to trust the image in this film, and also for another reason: Nolan doesn’t subscribe to the usual rules of character development. We don’t learn about backstories and motivations. From his main down to the smallest supporting characters, we instead watch people behave in the present. “I’ve always actually favored the medieval, Middle English approach to characterization to the more modern, psychological, novelistic approach to characterization in film,” Nolan says, “because in film, character defined through action has always been the strongest, because it’s visual, and it’s narrative-based.”
Viewer immersion is further achieved by the decision to have no composite characters (astonishing for a historical piece), and to use real names for all individuals depicted. We don’t get text onscreen labeling who’s who. Jargon isn’t explained; yes, things fly over our heads. But isn't that what you'd hope for in a realistic film about theoretical physics? What's more exciting than a picture that demands your full attention, that doesn’t pander and re-explain plot points every twenty minutes, to make sure the kiddos can keep up? We rise to the challenge, becoming better viewers. We pick up what we can and move forward. You’ll get it on the next pass.
ii. Sound and feeling
There's a corollary to be found in Nolan's approach to sound, which contemporary cinema doesn't often experiment with. Friends tell me the sound mix is either their favorite or least favorite aspect of the picture. Nolan will sometimes use dialogue as sound– you don’t know what they’re saying exactly. But, like the aforementioned jargon, I'm not sure we need to. You figure it out from their tone, their expression. It’s about the texture of the moment, and Ludwig Göransson’s overpowering and deeply beautiful score does more to immerse us emotionally than any line of dialogue could. As Clémence Poésy’s scientist says in Tenet, when she utters a line that (un)intentionally serves as a dictum for how to read all Nolan’s films: “Don’t try to understand. Feel it.”
I'm aware this is an acquired taste, but I must admit a fondness for art that tries things, and I aspire to evaluate films not on how closely they hew to expected norms, but rather on how they accord with their maker’s intentions. What is the director trying to do? What does this choice accomplish? Ambitious failures excite me more than mediocre successes. The scene of the victory speech given to the Los Alamos staff seated in the auditorium will be taught in film schools. Witness the separation of meaning between sound and image, how the visuals finally give way to the overpowering divide of birthing conscience, a heart breaking before our eyes.
I don’t know if everyone has an emotional response to dynamic camerawork or lighting, or film form generally, but I do. As a photographer I would attempt to increase my skills by shooting obviously ugly things (piles of garbage, mostly) in beautiful ways, learning how to search for the light, to work with it as a scene partner in capturing a moment. Oppenheimer feels similar– an achingly beautiful and sumptuously photographed series of scenes of… scientists and politicians talking for three hours, often in wildly unglamorous institutional spaces.
iii. On the editing
This has to be Nolan’s fastest-paced picture, despite being primarily dialogue. The dense tightness of the editing recalls Stone’s JFK and Scorsese at his best. Notice how we think we see Oppenheimer throwing a glass in the corner three times while listening to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but we actually see him complete that action only once. Observe the shots of Oppenheimer’s attorney Lloyd Garrison silently expressing his enthusiasm as Emily Blunt’s Kitty more than holds her own against Roger Robb; they’re such brief shots, but seeing Garrison's face gives the moment further heft, a greater sense of triumph. The couple crying under the rafters in the auditorium scene is onscreen for barely longer than a second, but once you see them, you feel something that lasts longer. I was unprepared for the subjectivity of the editing, especially in act one; the elliptical cutaways evoke a sort of tapestry of psychological interiors, conveying through flash cuts the mind's ability to transcend time and space, to draw disparate connections linked by mood. The use of silence, especially when least expected; the visions and fantasies, potent in their understatement.
Or the intercutting of the Colonel Pash sequence, how that information is relayed to the audience across multiple spans of time within minutes. The intricate layering and revisiting (“...but more useful than a sandwich!”) of a moment, sometimes many scenes later. The labyrinthine script may allude to an event before we see it happen (the Chevalier incident), or present slices of a moment that is only revealed later (the possible assassination of a key character, or, of course, the ending). It doesn’t simply use the security clearance confirmation hearing as a framing device, but leaves it for long sections as the past overwhelms the present (as in the development and testing of the bomb itself), or allows future events to intrude (the final montage involving awards receptions) and slip-slide together with the past. As the black-and-white scenes are filmed on true black-and-white stock,******** not color that’s converted afterwards, the decision to film on which stock was decided beforehand, which represents a degree of foresight I find mind-boggling (especially in scenes that feature both stocks/perspectives, as the AEC meeting where the flowers on the table get moved– itself a clever device to visually confirm we've seen this meeting before).
I had to watch it unspool a final time. For me it was something about living once more in those midcentury rooms, the bare walls and beaming natural light, the light that caresses fabric and faces into the quicksand halls of memory. Communing with technique and reflection. If you require your films to tell you how to think about their characters, or if you need characters you can identify with, rather than merely observe, this may be a frustrating experience. But cinema is built for more than prescriptive storytelling.
Give it a try!
Notes and Further Reading
The Hollywood Reporter. “This Can’t Be Safe. It’s Got to Have Bite”: Christopher Nolan and Cast Unleash ‘Oppenheimer.' Feature interviewing director and cast about the working process.
Vulture. "An Action Movie About Scientists Talking." In-depth piece by Bilge Ibiri, interviewing Nolan et al on numerous aspects of the film.
The AP. "Christopher Nolan breaks down the best ways to watch a movie, ahead of his ‘Oppenheimer’ release." On where to sit, why B&W, difference between 65 and 70, and why not every scene is shot on IMAX.
Polygon. "So what happens to Oppenheimer’s 11-mile-long IMAX prints after it leaves theaters?"
*Others include Joanna Hogg, Marie Kreutzer, Catarina Vasconcelos, Hlynur Pálmason, Wes Anderson, Sean Baker, Noah Baumbach, Damien Chazelle, Robert Eggers, Luca Guagdanino, Pablo Larrain, Mélanie Laurent, Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, Lea Mysius, László Nemes, the Safdies, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Joachim Trier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Edgar Wright and of all people, Judd Apatow; as well as directors who often use 35mm, if not all the time, like Lili Horváth, Kelly Reichhardt, and Greta Gerwig. Franchise pictures that shoot on film also help keep Kodak in business, such as F9, No Time to Die, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars.
**How is analogue film edited nowadays? Here’s Fred Raskin on his working process with Quentin Tarantino: “The negative was developed and printed so that we could screen dailies on 35mm. It was also scanned at 4K. Those 4K scans were down-converted to Avid DNX 115 HD files. That’s what I’d edit with in the Avid. Once production ended Quentin would spend his whole workday in the cutting room with me. When we completed a scene, my Avid assistant would take the cut from me and would generate lists that would go to the film team, who would then conform the film print to match the Avid edit. In that way, we were able to screen the scenes projected on film. Just seeing it that way added to the authenticity of the material.”
Here’s Andy Jurgensen on the workflow for PTA’s Licorice Pizza: “We’re still cutting digitally obviously, but during the shoot, we’re watching film dailies, so we do have to prep that. Then, once we get to a certain point, we do conform workprint. And when we lock, we make lists and cut negative for the photochemical version of the movie… Usually, we get the film first even before we’re getting it digitally because that’s just the way that everything gets processed with the scanning. The pipeline is so unique. So, the first time we’re seeing it is on print. We can just judge so many things when watching it big on film. Not only the performance, but the lighting, and the lenses and focus.” William Fletcher is a film assistant who works on all three directors’ films.
***Nolan on color-timing (and much more in this essential DGA interview): “I've never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I've just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven't seen that reason yet.”
On working without a second unit (from the same interview): “Let me put it this way: If I don’t need to be directing the shots that go in the movie, why do I need to be there at all? The screen is the same size for every shot. The little shot of, say, a watch on someone’s wrist, will occupy the same screen size as the shot of a thousand people running down the street. Everything is equally weighted and needs to be considered with equal care, I really do believe that. I don’t understand the criteria for parceling things off. Many action films embrace a second unit taking on all of the action. For me, that’s odd because then why did you want to do an action film? Having said that, there are fantastic filmmakers who use second and third units successfully. So it all comes back to the question of defining what a director does. Each of us works in different ways. It’s really helped me keep more of my personality in these big films. There’s a danger with big-action fare that the presence of the filmmaker is watered down, it can become very neutral, so I’ve tried to keep my point of view in every aspect of these films.”
****On shooting with a single camera: “I use multi-camera for stunts; for all the dramatic action, I use single-camera. Shooting single-camera means I've already seen every frame as it’s gone through the gate because my attention isn't divided to multi-cameras. So I see it all and I watch dailies every night. If you’re always shooting multi-camera, you shoot an enormous amount of footage, and then you have to go in and start from scratch, which is tricky time-wise.”
Again, click for the full DGA interview, which covers Nolan’s preference for avoiding overshooting, the value of watching dailies to memorize footage, letting actors act, working quickly, visual constants in his films, guild membership vis-a-vis director's cuts, opinions on 3-D, CGI– and why he wears a suit to work!
*****Editor Jennifer Lame and her team on cutting the picture. Lots of details, including a further reason Nolan avoids overshooting: the IMAX magazines (film reels) are only three minutes long! Tom Foligno discusses Nolan’s single-camera approach about halfway through.
******More explanations on the different format types in the list here. In still photography, 70mm would be on the smaller end of 'medium format' (which goes up to 4" x 5”), as 'large format' in the stills world is an 8" x 10” negative. But in motion picture, 70mm is large-format. Moving images traditionally have lower resolutions than still images.
*******DP Hoyte van Hoytema, in a detailed interview with Kodak: "Although I shoot a lot of commercials using digital cameras, I still believe film is more engaging to watch and is much closer to the human visual experience," remarks van Hoytema. “[E]ven though the larger surface area of the emulsion means the grain is finer – especially in IMAX – they still had enough texture for me. There's still nothing that beats the resolution, depth, color and roundness of the analog image, nor in the feeling overall that film conveys.”
********Kodak had never manufactured black and white IMAX 70mm before, but they did so here at Nolan's request. You're seeing true black and white film at a size, tonal range and resolution never before seen. Says Hoytema: “[I]t was uncertain as to whether they would or could achieve it in time for this production. But they stepped up to the plate and supplied a freshly manufactured prototype DOUBLE-X 5222 65mm filmstock, delivered in cans with handwritten labels on the outside. However, as that filmstock was unfamiliar to everyone, had never been run though IMAX or System 65 cameras, and required the reconfiguration of a 65mm film processor at the lab, making the DOUBLE-X 5222 a feasible proposition involved a great deal of collaboration with Kodak, IMAX, Panavision and Fotokem. It became quite a complex engineering process– encompassing things like the thickness of the backing for the film emulsion, and making new gates and pressure plates in the cameras so as to avoid scratches.”
Says Nolan: “Of course, there were several methods I could have used to create a B&W image, but you never get the same feeling as when using real B&W analog film. And shooting B&W also took me right back to my student days at the Polish National Film, Television & Theatre School in Łódź, where understanding the greyscale, using your spot and incident light meters, and making your own personal judgement were critical in making the final image."
For my photographer friends! On aperture and focal length choices, also from the above article:
Hoytema: “Through the years we have discovered that the sweet spots with IMAX are 50mm and 80mm. Anything beyond those focal lengths and you start to diminish the immersive quality of the image. If you go too long the image appears compressed and more graphic, as if you're looking at a sort of flat screen. Anything too wide becomes more like a fishbowl, where the edges start to fall off too fast. So, the 50mm has become our wide lens, the 80mm our tighter lens. On close-ups they give you the right proximity and wideness, and everything around starts to function like the peripheral vision of your eyes. But when shooting our close-ups, we didn't want the camera to be six feet away from our subject. We wanted to be much tighter, so that you really feel the perspective and the intimacy. Also, I knew we would be filming in low-light situations and would need to shoot at T1.4 rather than a T4."