Review: Oppenheimer and the importance of denouement – I wasn’t originally going to write a review for Oppenheimer, which we went to see last Monday, but that’s not because we didn’t enjoy it. In fact, we enjoyed it a lot. But, as regular readers will know, I only write reviews of films if there is something else beside the film that I want to talk about. Last time, for example, with Mission Impossible 7, it was media representations of AI. This time, although both HJ and I enjoyed the film and discussed it enthusiastically afterward, I couldn’t think of any specific topic that warranted a deeper dive. I did write a brief review of the film for some friends of mine online, though, and this developed into a very interesting conversation on the structure of the film. Over the course of this conversation I realized that I did have something to say after all. So in today’s review I am going to talk a little about why I enjoyed the film and then move on to discuss a specific structural element—namely, the denouement.
I will start out by saying that I went into Oppenheimer with fairly high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I knew next to nothing of the details of Oppenheimer’s life (and only a little more about the Manhattan Project), so I can’t judge the historical accuracy of the film. It was based on a book, and I imagine that the book and the film might have taken liberties where necessary for the sake of the story, but this is fine with me because it was a great story and a very well-crafted film. Christopher Nolan can get a little far out over his skis with his filmmaking at times, but here I think he was on target. There was the usual Nolanesque temporal messing around with the narrative, but the time shifts were indicated by a switch between color and black-and-white, which made it even easier to follow (Nolan cheekily made the much later time frame the black-and-white one, but Nolan’s gonna Nolan).
The cast were all stellar, and I would be hard-pressed to identify a weak link. Cillian Murphy as the man himself was pitch perfect, and Emily Blunt matched him beat-for-beat as his wife Kitty. You always knew that Matt Damon was going to deliver a solid performance, too. Acting aside, being the nerd that I am I got a kick out of seeing some influential scientific figures brought to life on the big screen. We all know Albert Einstein, of course, and we’re familiar with images of him, but seeing Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, and many others as “real” people was very cool. One of my very few quibbles with the film does come in the character department, though, specifically in the form of Jean Tatlock, a member of the US Communist Party with whom Oppenheimer had an affair. My quibble is not with Florence Pugh, who plays Tatlock, but with the fact that her character gets short shrift. Their first meeting has them exchange a little small talk and then immediately end up in bed. I imagine that something must have happened in between those two scenes, but it is basically a smash cut straight into the sex scene. In a film this long, I hesitate to suggest that their relationship should have been given more attention—I suppose you’ve got to cut something—but I don’t think the outcome of their relationship had quite as much emotional impact due to what felt like a lack of development.
In the greater scheme of things, though, this is a relatively minor gripe; I enjoyed pretty much every element of this film. The music and sound design, for example, were also excellent and served to punch up the emotion of the story. (This is something I remember being done very well in Dunkirk, too.) I won’t get into the details as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that half of the impact of the film was in the auditory aspects.
In a film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, though, you’re probably thinking one thing: Was the Trinity test (if you’ll pardon the pun) explosive? In a word: Yes. It was awesome, it was terrifying, it was everything you could want from such a scene. I’ve been to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the time I spent in Hiroshima in particular impressed on me the horror of the atomic bomb. I remember visiting the Peace Memorial Museum; very near the start of the exhibit there is a model of the city sprawling out over a large table in the center of the room, and directly above the city is suspended a single, small red ball, representing the bomb a split-second after detonation. I don’t know why, but that image was seared into my mind—along with other horrifying images from the museum. And when I saw the Trinity test brought to life in the film, all those images came back to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up a bit.
I guess I should also mention that we saw the film in IMAX. Do I think it should be seen in IMAX? We know that Nolan likes the format, but did this film really need it? I think the answer to that question is, for the most part, no. There are some beautiful New Mexican vistas, sure, but most of the film is character moments that probably don’t benefit too much from IMAX. That being said... seeing the Trinity test in IMAX was indeed incredible. Is it worth it for that scene alone? I don’t know. It might be.
The final thing I want to discuss is the structure of the film. I remember seeing a review at some point that mentioned the Trinity test occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and that the film dragged on far too long after this. I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment. As I mentioned above, the film is very long—a full 180 minutes!—but I honestly never got the impression that it was dragging on. Nothing in the entire third of the film felt like fluff; it was a completely necessary denouement that made the experience of the film all the more emotionally satisfying.
I mentioned this in an online forum I frequent with a small group of friends (it’s a private forum, so no link—also, everyone in there is in the witness protection program, so no names, either), and this led to an interesting discussion about the role of the denouement in narratives. One of my friends mentioned a college writing class where his professor talked about the decline of the denouement in modern books and film, using Romeo and Juliet as an example of a traditional climax and denouement. Basically, the climax of that story comes at the beginning of Act III—that is, at roughly the halfway point of the story—when an enraged Romeo kills Tybalt to avenge Mercutio. Everything after this is the denouement.
It might be useful at this point to clarify what exactly I mean by “climax” and “denouement.” You’ve probably seen the standard plot diagram that looks like a mountain: From left to right, the upward slope is the rising action, the peak is the climax, and the downward slope on the other side is the falling action, also known as the “denouement.” Traditionally, the climax would come sometime around or after the midpoint of the narrative, and the denouement would occupy at least the last third of the story. “The last third of the story?! Just for the denouement?!” I hear you thinking (yes, I can hear you think). If that seems like an unreasonable amount of time to unravel things, you have—like so many others—been conditioned to expect an abbreviated or even non-existent denouement.
In order to properly understand the denouement, though, we need to understand the concept of the climax. The problem here, is that “climax” means different things in different contexts. Dictionary.com presents this contrast quite well, I think. The first definition reads: “the highest or most intense point in the development or resolution of something; culmination.” This sounds like it fits with the plot diagram I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but that single word tacked on at the end there—culmination--does a lot of heavy lifting. While “to culminate” can mean (again referencing Dictionary.com) “to reach the highest point, summit, or highest development,” it can also mean “to end or arrive at a final stage.” The peak is thus associated more with the end than with the middle—because we assume that everything that happens after the peak is of less importance and not as worthy of mention.
The second definition of “climax,” though, which specifically refers to dramatic or literary works, is “a decisive moment that is of maximum intensity or is a major turning point in a plot.” And that, I think, is a much more accurate way of thinking about the climax: as a major turning point in the narrative. So, from now on, I am going to use the term “turning point” instead of “climax.” (This means you can also stop thinking about that other kind of climax—I told you I can hear you think.)
The “turning point” may be the most emotionally intense part of the narrative, but it doesn’t have to be and often isn’t. Let’s go back to Romeo and Juliet for a moment—is Romeo’s fight with Tybalt the emotional climax of the play? Not hardly. The most emotionally intense moment actually comes at the end of the play, in the last scene of the last act. If you’re a little rusty on your Shakespeare (spoiler alter?), this is when the two lovers kill themselves. The fight between Romeo and Tybalt is not without emotion, but it certainly doesn’t rank near the top in terms of emotional scenes. It is however, what the conflict between the houses has been building up to and the point at which the wheels of inevitability are set in motion. From here on out, we are dealing with the consequences of this event—the denouement.
As you might have guessed, “denouement” comes from the French, specifically dénouement, which means an “untying” or “unknotting.” Imagine that the threads of the plot have been tied and tangled together into one massive knot; the denouement is (or should be) the careful act of unraveling the consequences. It is somewhat ironic that we often speak of endings in English as “tying up loose ends.” This can indeed be done quite quickly—and thus usually sloppily—but the teasing out of a complex knot is always going to take time (unless you subscribe to the Alexander the Great’s philosophy of knot untying).
Let us look at a more modern example. I remember when we first got the DVD box set for the final film of the Lord of the Rings. In the appendices (aka “special features”), Elijah Wood spoke about meeting Jack Nicholson and discovering that he never saw the actual end of the film because it had “too many endings.” It’s fairly obvious that Nicholson is not a Tolkien fan, because Tolkien fans will know that the “endings” in Return of the King were in fact quite abbreviated. Perhaps the most important part of the denouement of the trilogy—the Scouring of the Shire—was excised completely. The justification for this was that you couldn’t suddenly start in on another story now that the film was “over,” which I suppose makes some measure of sense for a modern film audience that isn’t entirely comprised of rabid Tolkien nerds like yours truly. Still, it is unusual among films for having a long(ish) denouement.
In both the film and the book, the turning point of the story comes when Frodo stands at the Crack of Doom and decides not to do what he has traveled all that way to do, only to be “saved” by Gollum’s insatiable lust for the Ring. The film has 76 scenes in total, and the turning point comes in the 70th scene, or roughly 96% of the way through. In the book, though, the turning point occurs at the end up the 13th chapter (out of 19), or a mere 70% of the way through. It’s pretty obvious that, no matter how long those “many endings” may have seemed in the cinema, they were nothing compared to the denouement of the book. Incidentally, I would argue that here as well the turning point is not the most emotional moment of the film. For me, that would probably be when Sam carries Frodo up the mountain. The parting at the Grey Havens is also incredibly emotional. In fact, I would argue that there are a large number of scenes throughout the trilogy that are more emotional than the actual turning point.
Let us finally return to Oppenheimer. Here, the Trinity test is definitely the turning point of the narrative. Everything before this has been leading up to this moment—will they actually succeed in building an atomic bomb? Once they do succeed, and that success is played out for us in that awesome and awful scene, everything that follows is a matter of dealing with the (ahem) fallout. The turning point is emotional, or at least it was for me, but there were plenty of other scenes in the film with far more emotional impact, and many of them were in the denouement. There were still twists and turns in the plot, and unexpected outcomes, but Nolan had tied a very complex knot, so it’s not surprising that unraveling it might not be straightforward.
Oppenheimer is a rare exception when it comes to the denouement. Most films these days have a very abbreviated denouement if they have one at all. Usually it is just one or two scenes directly after the turning point. I don’t think that superhero films are necessarily to blame for this, nor are they the only culprits, but they do seem to be some of the worst culprits, and they sure do provide some good examples of the problem. Think of Avengers: Endgame, a film that I kind of hated. The turning point of this film doesn’t come until the moment that Tony Stark gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fingers. Up until that point, everything is rising action. Nothing is settled, and we don’t know if our heroes are going to succeed or fail. There is a denouement after this, of course, an unraveling of things, but it is relatively short, considering the length of the film (and Infinity War, which is basically the first part of one continuous story). Most of it is showing people being reunited or finishing off unfinished business, but as this is a superhero film there is of course also going to be the moment that sets up something else (such as an old Steve Rogers handing over his shield to Sam Wilson).
And that, I think, is part of why we can’t have proper denouements anymore—because we so rarely have self-contained stories. When I was talking about this with my friends in the witness protection program, one of them said he thought Star Wars had started all of this. Another friend noted that Star Wars itself was based on the old cliffhanger serials that George Lucas loved as a kid in the 50s. So this isn’t anything new. But serialization does mean that you can’t have a proper denouement until the story finally comes to an end. Even LOTR, which I cited as a rare example of something approaching a decent denouement, ends more or less on cliffhangers for the first two films. But what happens if the story never ends? I mean, let’s face it: The studios are never going to pull the plugs on their respective “cinematic universes.” And when the time comes for them to die, they will die unheralded, without proper endings, because to have a proper ending would be to eliminate all chance of making more money. As long as there is one more measly dollar to be wrung from the IP, they will keep it on life support. If they somehow do decide to give their universes proper endings, it will be long after everyone has stopped caring.
Not all films are part of a cinematic universe, of course. There are still films that are made as stand-alone, one-off stories. Even these films, though, tend to have abbreviated denouements. I think there might just be something about film as a modern medium that does not lend itself to an extended denouement in the way that a play or a novel does. That is quite the generalization, though, and if I were more of a film buff I’m sure I could examine a whole slew of films and find a number that have proper denouements. That’s a bit more than I want to tackle right now, so I’ll just wrap this up by saying that the proper denouement was one of the many things I really appreciated about Oppenheimer, and I’d like to see more films embrace that. I don’t have high hopes for that becoming a regular thing, but it is good to know that there are directors out there who are willing to go out on narrative limbs and hearken back to more traditional structures.