Some thoughts on the screenplay for Oppenheimer

Spoilers ahoy!
The screenplay of Oppenheimer is presented in two parts, labeled “Fission” and “Fusion,” for no particular reason except that that they sound cool and have a vague connection to the subject at hand. The first part of the screenplay is about how Oppenheimer builds the first atomic bomb. The second part of the screenplay is about how Oppenheimer gets his security clearance taken away from him.
The two parts of the screenplay are presented concurrently: we get a little bit of Oppenheimer building the atomic bomb, then a little of Oppenheimer getting his security clearance taken away from him, then a little more of Oppenheimer building the atomic bomb, then a little more of him getting his security clearance being taken away from him.
Why are the two parts presented concurrently? Because the part about Oppenheimer building of the atomic bomb is really interesting, and the part about Oppenheimer getting his security clearance taken away from him is crushingly, flamboyantly boring, a litany of scenes of men in boardrooms arguing.
If the part about Oppenheimer getting his security clearance taken away from him is so boring, why is it in the movie? I have a theory: because, otherwise, the protagonist faces no conflict.
One of the things that took me aback while watching Oppenheimer is how self-congratulatory it is, right from the start. Oppenheimer is a young man, making his way in the world of physics, and yet, everyone he meets has already heard of him, already knows his work, has already formed an opinion of him. In the world of Oppenheimer, everyone knows your name. There are no disinterested parties. Some people think Oppenheimer is a genius, some people think Oppenheimer is a fool, some people are jealous of him, some people adore him, some people want to have sex with him, some people want him to build an atomic bomb, but EVERYONE knows who he is. He is the center of the universe. Everything revolves around him.
In his quest to build the atomic bomb, he faces no pushback whatsoever. The army gives him everything he wants. They build a town for him. They gather all the best physicists from around the US to work under him. They build the town near property he owns so that he can feel at home. Everyone works super hard to make sure his dream becomes a reality. He has no enemies of consequence. Even Hitler, who is, theoretically, building his own atomic bomb, fizzles out as an antagonist before the story is halfway done. Oppenheimer is a golden child whom everyone recognizes as a genius who is going to change the world.
And then I remembered, Christopher Nolan wrote the screenplay in the first person.
Why? Because the movie is really about himself. Which also accounts for the self-congratulatory nature of the script.
A director, especially of Nolan’s fame and prestige, really is a commander of worlds. Certainly everyone that Nolan meets already knows who he is and has formed an opinion of him. Certainly the world’s most beautiful women throw themselves at him. Certainly, if he wishes, an entire town will be built for a movie he wants to make, and, in the case of Oppenheimer, was. Think of that: a movie about a man who gets a town built for his crazy project, and the movie also has a town built for the director’s crazy project. The writer’s intention couldn’t be clearer.
But back to the second part of the screenplay, about how Oppenheimer gets his security clearance taken away from him. To add yet another wrinkle, the writer structures this part of the screenplay as a mystery. Why? I don’t know. It was not a mystery when those events took place. If I had to guess, I’d say that Nolan felt that there wouldn’t be enough dramatic interest in a whole lot of scenes of men in board rooms arguing, so he decided to make it a big mystery: WHO is the nefarious creep who hates Oppenheimer so much that he is working to take away his precious security clearance? WHO COULD IT BE?
Could it be, perhaps, THE BIGGEST NAME IN THE CAST?
I don’t know what prompted Nolan to make the identity of Oppenheimer’s nemesis a mystery, I’m guessing some studio executive torpedoed a project of his somewhere along the line and this is Nolan’s revenge, but it makes the entire back half of the movie a chore to sit through. Not that the smug, self-congratulatory, biopic-by-the-numbers, cliché-ridden first half was any better.
The movie is about how Nolan feels about himself: the terrible, terrible burden of being an internationally-famous, well-regarded, highly-paid filmmaker who gets to make whatever movie he wants with an unlimited budget and the finest actors on the planet playing even the tiniest of roles. What a horrible situation to find oneself in! Poor Christopher Nolan!
If the first part of the screenplay is about making a movie, the second part must be about critical reception. For myself, I’ve always recognized Nolan as a clever director who’s capable of giving dumb ideas a remarkably high-toned sheen: movies for middle-brow moviegoers to watch to feel like highbrows. His one unquestioned triumph, The Dark Knight, is a perfect example. He elevates the source material into a whole other realm with sophisticated writing and direction, aided by an indelible central performance. He then followed that movie with Inception, a movie without a metaphor, about a non-existent device that requires fully half the screenplay to explain the rules of, and then The Dark Knight Rises, which takes all the good will generated by The Dark Knight and squanders it with a Batman movie that Batman isn’t in for most of the runtime.
Most importantly, for Nolan anyway, is that Oppenheimer is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a movie about how no one appreciates the terrible burden of genius that will, I’m sure, sweep the Oscars.