Moving Pictures
Aug 15, 2023, 06:29AM

Stuck in the Middle with Christopher Nolan

If Oppenheimer is political, it’s about the man’s political indecision, how he never takes a side, and the ways that wracks him with regret.

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I thought I finished saying my piece on Christopher Nolan, but since the release of Oppenheimer the question of his politics keeps coming back up. Many have been surprised by how direct the film has been when portraying its communist characters, letting them speak as much as people as ideologues. It's rare for Hollywood to portray fellow travelers with such easy humanity (Reds is the most recent example that comes to mind), and people seem particularly surprised it's coming from Nolan, whose previous films have made many wonder if he’s a reactionary or even outright fascist. The truth is, he’s not much of anything. As I discussed with David Graeber’s analysis, his films aren’t political so much as they’re psychological, and their political masks are only such insofar as their paradigms could be applied to the physical world rather than the mental one embodied by his pictures. It’s part of why, if the films have politics, they’re so conflicting, confusing, and inconsistent.

As far as his films are concerned, Nolan’s politics are spongey. His liberal centrism and broad interest in order vs. chaos makes it easier for collaborators to have an effect on the political shape of his narratives. Most point towards his Dark Knight trilogy as evidence of a fascistic tendency, but there’s an obvious common denominator who’s probably influencing this more than anything: David S. Goyer, who also wrote Zack Snyder’s most mythologically right-wing movies, Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. And then there’s his younger brother Jonathan Nolan who has served as co-writer on the Dark Knight and the abysmally weird Interstellar. But when you have Nolan working by himself, you get the films that best reveal his worldview, which isn’t all that much.

Inception and Tenet are memories of genre movies wrapped around a high concept. They’re dreams in that they present the feeling of remembering a dream, where details may not align but there’s a textural honesty to everything so you’re convinced it must be real to a certain extent. It’s an aesthetic inclination that makes Nolan’s films so tonally odd, but again, they don’t particularly have anything to say about the real world beyond how the human mind tries to work its way through regret, or in Tenet’s reversal, anticipation. It’s no surprise that Nolan’s most emotionally complex film before Oppenheimer is The Prestige, which, based on a novel, has all that complexity already baked in for Nolan to simply pick up and film.

The reason that Oppenheimer seems such a political departure from Nolan’s previous works is that the source material is. Part of what makes Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus such a sensational biography is the left-wing politics that’re imbued into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life. He was part of a generation of scientists coming up post-relativity, a new world of quantum mechanics and nuclear possibilities. Oppenheimer fancied himself as part of a revolution, the “capital R” Revolution that encompassed everything from arts, politics, social life, and, of course, science. To be a fellow traveler in politics was the same as to postulate about black holes at Berkeley.

A problem with how film is talked about in contemporary discourse is people often mistake portrayal as commentary. Nolan’s films, in their search for a type of realism, portrays quite a lot without ever commenting. There are people in Oppenheimer who talk about communism, about how they’re communist, but the film isn’t interested in the functional politics of their ideology. This is fitting for the point Nolan’s trying to make about the man. If Oppenheimer is political, it’s about the man’s political indecision, how he never takes a side, and the ways that wracks him with regret. It makes it more personal for the centrist Nolan, someone who struggles to square his narratives with aesthetics, and more often than not lets his stories be thought out by others before he figures out if he agrees with them or not.


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