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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Louis Chilton

Are Christopher Nolan’s films right-wing? Oppenheimer finally suggests otherwise

Melinda Sue Gordon

Nobody knows what you believe. Do you?” So asks scientist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), in a scene from Christopher Nolan’s nuclear epic Oppenheimer. The question is posed to J Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the so-called “father of the atomic bomb”, whose disavowed communist past clung to his reputation like stepped-on gum. But the question might just as well have been addressed to Nolan himself.

It’s easy to imagine the 52-year-old writer-director – perhaps the pre-eminent blockbuster filmmaker of our time – empathising with his latest film’s set-upon protagonist. Like Oppenheimer, Nolan is a man whose politics have often proved messy and inscrutable (on screen at least). That he has tended to keep his personal leanings to himself has only swung open the door for speculation; commentators from across the political spectrum have imposed all manner of personal readings onto his work. Ask some people and they’ll argue he’s a raging Tory. Others: a liberal pacifist. Many of his films seem to eschew politics entirely – it is hard to argue exactly what agenda a film like Inception is pursuing, fixated as it is on the psychology of the human subconscious. With Oppenheimer, though, this aversion to politics is put under a microscope, cleaved open like an atom. Nolan has finally grown up.

Before we can discuss Oppenheimer, it is important first to understand the political precedent within Nolan’s oeuvre. Several of his films – including Victorian magician drama The Prestige and back-to-front amnesiac puzzler Memento – are, like Inception, largely uninterested in politicking. They are works of fizzy spectacle brushed with metaphysical intrigue. Insomnia, Nolan’s 2002 procedural starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, dipped its toe a little more ambitiously into the waters of social commentary, though Pacino’s jaded, error-strewn police detective was more handy cliché than socio-political critique. (Insomnia was also a remake, and the only one of Nolan’s films he did not have a writing credit for.)

The Dark Knight (2008) has sometimes been characterised as a right-wing parable, a paean to the need for authoritarian law enforcement. This was, very consciously, a Batman adaptation for the “post-9/11” era: the Joker (Heath Ledger), once a campy circus ringmaster, is reimagined as a 21st-century terrorist. Christian Bale’s pteropine vigilante is seen bludgeoning the Joker to extract information; another scene sees him drop a mobster from a rooftop. As the film careens towards its climax, Batman uses mass surveillance technology to locate his nemesis – technology that directly evokes the NSA’s counterterrorist measures in the wake of the Twin Towers attacks. These allusions didn’t hamper the film’s broad appeal, but they didn’t go completely unnoticed. The Wall Street Journal published a widely shared piece that interpreted Nolan’s Batman as a fawning allegory for George Bush; the National Review ranked The Dark Knight among the best “conservative films”.

Reports of Nolan’s conservatism were, however, overblown. It is worth noting that the superhero genre has always had fascistic underpinnings – an idea explored definitively in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. To some extent, The Dark Knight simply brought to the surface ideas that have existed, unscrutinised, throughout Batman’s history. But also, to read The Dark Knight as authoritarian is reductive in other ways. In the film, the use of torture to obtain information proves ineffective. Batman’s mass surveillance infrastructure is destroyed at his own behest by the film’s end. Another part of the film’s climax focuses on the compassionate restraint of a convicted felon, who risks his own death by refusing to blow up a barge full of innocents – the moral lines are not drawn simply along criminality.

And yet, the Nolan conservatism argument persisted. The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s 2012 superhero follow-up, was all over the shop politically. It takes pains to deconstruct the fascist vigilante myth of its predecessor while also skewering populist political movements through the character of the brutish revolutionary Bane (Tom Hardy). Many critics read Nolan’s Bane as a critique of the then topical (left-wing) Occupy Wall Street movement: the masked supervillain is able to take over Gotham by capitalising on economic grievances against the city’s wealthy elite. This may be a stretch – and Nolan himself has denied that the films are “political” – but the popularity of this reading testifies to a fundamental muddiness in the film’s messaging.

Less muddy was Nolan’s 2017 war thriller Dunkirk. Set on the shores, seas and skies of northern France during the evacuation of Dunkirk, the film succeeds at capturing the frenzied blur of battle, but cannot escape an inbuilt jingoism, a simpering adherence to the spirit-of-Britain, pluck-against-the-odds, tally-ho-and-God-save-the-Queen fantasy that squats on our country’s malformed psyche. Unsurprisingly, we Brits ate it up. And then there was Tenet, a film that lurches back in the other direction, offering a pointed (if overly confusing) comment on the intersection of war and capitalism.

Cameraman: Christopher Nolan on the set of ‘Oppenheimer'
— (Melinda Sue Gordon)

Which brings us to Oppenheimer. No one is going to mistake Nolan’s three-hour rollercoaster of a biopic for political treatise. The film is not interested in debating the merits of communism, though Oppenheimer’s communist affiliations are pivotal to the narrative: much of the film’s runtime is dedicated to the proto-McCarthyist attacks on Oppenheimer’s reputation after the war. Oppenheimer takes pains to show that its protagonist isn’t bound by Marxist doctrine, but by the natural pathways of individualist thought. The character’s communist leanings are framed principally through the lens of his globalist scientific background. In this way, Nolan could be accused of sidestepping politics yet again. But this does not quite do the film justice.

Oppenheimer can be broadly considered sympathetic to left-wing causes. The communist characters and union organisers are portrayed relatively warmly, whereas the anti-communist military men and government officials are largely made out to be pernicious antagonists. (Casey Affleck’s character, the viperish intelligence officer Boris Pash, is a prime example.) Unlike Nolan’s previous films, Oppenheimer is unafraid to discuss politics frankly and adultly – even if Nolan never holds his cards all that far from his chest.

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It may be that political point-scoring is just too prosaic to really get Nolan’s juices flowing. Oppenheimer is essentially about something so monumental, so enormous and distressing – the bomb, and all its mushroom-clouded consequences – that everything else, from party politics to rivalries to love affairs, must take a backseat. The politics Oppenheimer is most interested in are the politics of war, the politics of persecution – and it handles these with an unexpected and intelligent nuance.

At the very least, the film ought to dispel speculation that Nolan is some kind of covert right-wing propagandist. You may leave Oppenheimer unsure exactly where he stands on communism, sure. In the film, no one is ever able to quite pin down Oppenheimer’s politics either (except when it came to the bomb). For him, there was usually a bigger issue at play; he saw the world on an atomic scale. Perhaps Christopher Nolan feels much the same way.

‘Oppenheimer’ is out in cinemas now

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