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Edit School #4: Dissecting 'Oppenheimer'

Updated: Mar 4


Dissecting oppenheimer cover image

Over the last few articles in this series, we've seen how Christopher Nolan interweaves multiple timelines, experiments with different perspectives, and even uses non-linear narratives in his films. Now we come to one where Nolan audaciously uses all three techniques of storytelling, in what can be considered one of his greatest films ever, Oppenheimer.


Oppenheimer is a story about one of the most important figures in human history, a brilliant scientist but also a complex and conflicted human being, who was haunted by the ethical implications of his work and struggled to reconcile his scientific curiosity with his conscience. And let's be honest - Nolan is a master at exploring complex themes in his films. He's not afraid to tackle difficult subjects like morality, ethics, and the nature of reality. In Nolan's own words -

"Oppenheimer’s story is all impossible questions - impossible ethical dilemmas, paradoxes. There are no easy answers in his story. There are just difficult questions, and that’s what makes the story so compelling. It felt essential that there be questions at the end that you leave rattling in people’s brains, and prompting discussion.”

So, how does Nolan make a film that combines elements of courtroom tension, romantic entanglements, scientific breakthroughs in the lab, and the charisma of lectures, all while resembling the quintessential monster movie? By breaking down his storytelling technique on the editing table, let's see how he draws parallels with an atomic-era Frankenstein, who eventually realizes how his creation further induces an inexhaustible thirst for devastation.


How Nolan Uses his Obsession with Time in Oppenheimer


Oppenheimer, in my opinion, is structured to resemble a mosaic, and is brilliantly edited by Jennifer Lame to give that vibe. It skilfully weaves together different chapters in Oppenheimer's life – his rise, struggles, downfall, and the aftermath. While one might expect this fractured timeline to create confusion, given Christopher Nolan's previous works like Memento (which we had an extensive look at in Edit Table #1), it surprisingly simplifies Oppenheimer. The strong focus on connections reduces events to their roles in a larger moral narrative, making the intertwining of timelines far simpler to follow.


Overall, with a 180-minute runtime, you might expect the film to progress like a slow, ticking time bomb. However, due to the continuous shifts between timelines and color/black-and-white sequences, it ends up racing ahead, almost with a sense of urgency. Let's look at both facets in slightly more detail to understand how Nolan managed to keep the pace up throughout the film, and give us a window into Oppenheimer's complex mind.


  • Changing Timelines (Non-Linearity)

As talked about, the narrative seamlessly traverses different time periods. The three primary timelines include Oppenheimer's early days, his time of research on the atom bomb, and the eventual court case in his latter years. This weaving of historical moments serves a dual purpose - not only does it establish narrative connections, but it also mirrors the scientific intricacies at the core of the film. For example, the intercutting of emotional beats with images of quivering wavelengths and massive detonations at the beginning of the film alludes to the genesis of the idea that will become the atom bomb, as well as showcases the erratic instability of Oppenheimer's paradoxical mind. The underlying concept is that by crafting the right narrative formula, one can trigger a significant chain reaction in the audience, much like how an atom bomb actually functions.


oppenheimer sequence

As you can see from the sequence of scenes in the film, the timeline continues to break and get more chaotic towards the mid-point of the film, almost as if it is at the height of its fission, before slowing down towards the end and culminating into fewer timelines much like fusion. In the process, the film's structure highlights how events in one narrative thread can reverberate and yield rippling consequences years down the line.


  • Color Vs Black-and-White (Perspectives)

The other story device Nolan uses to move the plot forward is of varying perspectives, a first-person subjective perspective through the eyes of Oppenheimer himself (the color sequences) and an objective perspective presented through the lens of Louis Strauss, Robert Downey Jr.'s character (the black-and-white sequences). Don't get confused into thinking that the subjective/objective take is based on the reliability of information being presented, with the black-and-white sequences being true to what's written in the history books. Instead, think of it from the angle of the title cards established for either perspective, 'Fission' for the Oppenheimer sections and 'Fusion' for the Strauss sections.


fusion fission image change

Nolan uses these opposing nuclear processes to illustrate not just how Oppenheimer and Strauss pushed for different approaches to build the bomb but also embody their contrasting world-views. Oppenheimer, a man of many contradictions – a communist who shuns the party, a brilliant theorist struggling with lab computations, a womanizer yearning to be indispensable to the women in his life – insists that these paradoxes can coexist. His belief in the harmony of contradictions stems from his lifelong fascination with quantum theory, a science of apparent paradoxes. Consequently, Oppenheimer perceives his morality as subjective, allowing him to act in ways that challenge his idealism, yet coexist within his mind. This compartmentalization in how he lives his life is easy to see because of the film's fragmented editing of the color sequences in particular, to emulate fission.


The black-and-white sequences, on the other hand, have a lot less chaos around them, and are more aligned with Strauss' objective way of thinking, even though all his actions are marred by his subjective opinion of Oppenheimer. These sequences jump across timelines much lesser and have a far straighter approach in its flow, almost as if scenes and motifs are combining, to give a sense of fusion.


And while, the above two perspectives are the primary driving forces of the story, Nolan does acknowledge Kitty Oppenheimer's perspective on multiple occasions as well. As the film progresses, and Oppenheimer's psyche starts to blur the lines between his inner thoughts and external reality, we see how the memories of his affair with Jean Tatlok unfold in the interrogation room in the following beautifully edited scene.


shot breakdown

Despite all the ongoing drama, Nolan doesn't shy away from cutting to Kitty's painful point-of-view of her husband, with Tatlok glaring back at her in the subsequent shot of the scene, as if to twist the knife of her husband's betrayal in front of the whole world.


Breaking Down Oppenheimer on Premiere Pro


So, here's what Oppenheimer's flow would look like if it were arranged in actual chronological order. This view gives us a very macro understanding of how the double helix coil plays out and why Nolan chose to re-sequence the scenes as per all the above discussed themes and motifs. For example, had the film been presented chronologically, then the entire bit of the story featuring Lewis Strauss would've been only in Act Three. In such an edit, the Einstein scene would've been the end of Act Two (instead of the Trinity Test, which would then be the center point of the film).


breaking down in premier pro

Thankfully, the edit isn't like the above drab and boring chronological flow. Instead, it is meticulously woven together to give the audience a mind-numbing experience. Take the Einstein scene itself as an example. It is edited in such a way that it is starts the film off from Strauss' perspective and ends from Oppenheimer's perspective, leaving the audience with the same horrors that he battled with throughout the second half of the film. This type of editing structure totally made it feel like the film went a full circle (almost like how Citizen Kane does it with the whole 'Rosebud' MacGuffin).


perspective change in different shots

Apart from the Einstein scene, both perspectives entangle with each other on a couple of other occasions, one of which is the Atomic Energy Commission's meet after the Soviet Union's first successful atomic bomb test. This scene is also very important as we see Oppenheimer's apprehension of a nuclear arms race for the first time. We can see how important this moment is as we come across it twice, smack in the middle of the film.


perspective change and color tone change


To Conclude


Like all of Nolan's previous works, Oppenheimer is a testament to his ability to transform traditional narrative structures and create an immersive cinematic experience like no other. This unconventional approach challenges viewers to actively engage with the narrative, just as the protagonist grapples with his choices and their repercussions. The film's insistence on correlating events into a larger moral narrative adds an intellectual depth that encourages viewers to ponder the connections between science, morality, and the human capacity for both creation and destruction. Much like Oppenheimer's atomic ambitions, Nolan's film creation is a force to be reckoned with, leaving an indelible mark on the world of cinema, inviting viewers to contemplate the complex interplay of history, morality, and the human condition.



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