The Big Picture
- Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has become a massive success, grossing $942 million worldwide, emphasizing the film’s significance.
- Nolan refuses to categorize Oppenheimer as a biopic, dismissing the genre as “useless” and overly reductionist.
- Instead, Nolan sees the film as a combination of a heist film and a courtroom drama, utilizing the conventions of these genres for effective storytelling.
Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer has been an undeniable smash hit of historic proportions, grossing $942 million worldwide to date — fitting for a movie about such a gargantuan subject, the creation of the first atomic weapon. But don’t dare describe the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer as a biopic, or else you’ll suffer the director’s wrath. Yes, the film may be about the life of one man, as much as anything else, but for Nolan, that subgenre is “useless”, as he explained.
Nolan, in a recent gathering at City University of New York, was accompanied by his producer and wife, Emma Thomas, as well as author Kai Bird, whose book “American Prometheus” inspired the creation of Oppenheimer. During this event, Nolan firmly dismissed the idea of a traditional “biopic” when asked why the film didn’t spend any time exploring the title character’s formative years as a child.
“There is a tendency in biography post-Freud to attribute characteristics of the person you’re dealing with to their genetics from their parents. It’s a very reductive view of a human being,” Nolan answered. “If you’re writing a book that’s 500 pages or 1,000 pages, there’s a way to balance that with their individuality and experiences. When you compress and strip down to the necessary simplicity of a screenplay, it’s incredibly reductive.”
What Genre is ‘Oppenheimer’?
Instead, Nolan prefers to think of the film as more of a heist. It’s a race against time to finish the bomb, procuring the materials and trying to one-up the enemy. As for the scenes taking place in various different hearings later in the story? Simple. They’re from a courtroom drama. For Nolan, he explored the conventions of those particular genres to see how they could best entertain his audience.
“This is where the concept of a biopic fails you completely as a genre. It’s not a useful genre. I love working in useful genres. In this film…it’s the heist film as it applies to the Manhattan Project and the courtroom drama as it applies to the security hearings. It’s very useful to look at the conventions of those genres and how they can pull the audience and how they can give me communication with the audience.”
Concluding his point, Nolan directed fans to films based on real people but challenged them to see them in a different light. While they may focus on a singular character, that isn’t the story they wish to tell. For Nolan, the term is too simplistic and is a label used for a film that isn’t achieving the goal it sets out to accomplish.
“Biopic is something that applies to a film that is not quite registering in a dramatic fashion. You don’t talk about Laurence of Arabia as a biopic. You don’t talk about Citizen Kane as a biopic. It’s an adventure film. It’s a film about somebody’s life. It’s not a useful genre the same way drama is not a useful genre. It doesn’t give you anything to hold onto.”
Oppenheimer will be available on digital platforms starting Nov. 21.