“How are we going to do this? Are we going to do a traditional prestige picture?” It struck me that it’s almost impossible to make that kind of movie anymore. Like Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi. The great man’s story. Those are great movies, but the time for that kind of thing has pretty much ended.

—David Scarpa, screenwriter of Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott, from an interview in Creative Screenwriting

The year 2023 was a good one for movies, the best in several years at a minimum. All of Us StrangersAmerican FictionAnatomy of a FallMay DecemberPerfect DaysThe Boy and the Heron, and The Zone of Interest are all films that are going to stay with me for a long time and will merit re-watching. Numerous other high-profile films from last year took notable artistic risks and deserve serious attention, from mega-hits such as Barbie (which I discussed in the last issue) to commercial disasters such as Beau Is Afraid.

Notwithstanding Scarpa’s declaration, however, not a few high-profile films of 2023 tackled “great man” stories, his own obviously included. Napoleon was among the most audacious of these, daring to encompass the entire life of one of the most significant individuals in the last thousand years of history. It also fell the furthest short of its ambitions—but that was not an unusual failure among last year’s films. With one crucial exception, when filmmakers in 2023 contemplated greatness, they didn’t merely try to temper the audience’s enthusiasm by exposing its limits or its dark side. They left audiences fundamentally perplexed about why the story was being told at all.

It’s probably foolish to draw too many conclusions from a single year’s filmic output. But the casual certitude with which Scarpa made his comment—of course one couldn’t make a movie of a great man’s story these days; everyone knows that—in the context of writing a film about Napoleon of all people, suggested to me that there was something deeper at work than mere coincidence. Filmmakers clearly still relish the opportunity to tell stories on an epic scale, stories about real people, not cartoon superheroes. Have they forgotten how to draw real characters that can fill the frame?

In Scarpa’s interview, he notes that his and Scott’s original plan was for a smaller frame rather than a larger-than-life man.

They wanted to make a film focused on the relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Empress Josephine, and I could see the residue of that concept in the finished film. When Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon first sees Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby), he’s immediately love-struck. It’s an adolescent-feeling moment, and Bonaparte’s love for Josephine has a consistently juvenile quality (he even begs for sex at one point by flapping his gums in a mutely infantile manner). But that childlike quality is not limited to the love plot; this Napoleon seems juvenile throughout the film. I was put in mind of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a man who had been at war since boyhood, who fled to the battlefield to escape the emotionally treacherous world of politics, and who was easily brought to defeat by his mother’s tears. But Coriolanus was never loved by the people. Napoleon was. Yet Phoenix’s Napoleon only once or twice manifests even a hint of the charisma necessary to move a mass of men to risk their lives for his cause. This absence is generally a disaster for the story, but never more so than upon Bonaparte’s return from Elba, when his mere appearance is supposed to be enough for the soldiers charged with apprehending him to switch sides, enlist under Napoleon’s banner, and face terrifying odds in his last stand at Waterloo.

These personal oddities are not the worst problem with the film, though. Napoleon was a world-shaking figure, and as he cut his swathe through history he shattered the civilization around him in ways that are still echoing. Yet there is no sense in the film that there was anything particularly significant about Bonaparte as an individual—as depicted, his extraordinary rise is mostly masterminded by others, with opportunities falling into his lap, and even his military genius seems to consist mostly of recognizing the importance of artillery. Nor does the film suggest anything significant about what he stood for. We don’t learn that he established a new legal structure in Europe, or emancipated the Jews, or prompted the first stirrings of German nationalism, or even that his rise from Corsican commoner to the seat of empire struck a fatal blow to the feudal belief in the natural order of rank. If one leaves all this out, why tell his story at all?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with telling the story of the private life of a great man, showing how that private life more fully explains the public narrative we presumably know better, or even just serving as a counterpoint to the commonly accepted version. But the private Napoleon of this film doesn’t explain the public Napoleon, not even by means of the love story. While Josephine may say that he is nothing without her, there’s no evidence shown on screen that this is the case. All we see is that she is capable of getting him to believe it because of his own immaturity. He still divorces her for reasons of state, of course, because he needs an heir, but that is a motive rooted in the social system that Bonaparte himself did so much to dismantle, an irony in which the film is completely uninterested.

What we’re left with, then, is little more than incident and spectacle. As a result, the predominant feeling from the film is that history is just one thing after another with little point to it. The final tally of the dead from Napoleon’s campaigns that appears on screen in the final moments is a ham-handed attempt to signify the pointless waste of all his efforts, but without any sense of the significance of those efforts we don’t know whether he was a villain or a tragic failure. He comes off as neither, just an ultimately unimportant person. Even that could have been an interesting basis for a film—a portrait of Napoleon as Tolstoy saw him, riding on the waves of events over which he had little real control. But this irony is yet another possibility the film leaves lying in the gutter, waiting, like the French crown, for someone to retrieve it, dust it off, and put it on his own head.

Michael Mann’s Ferrari is far more focused than Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, largely limiting itself to a single emblematic year in the life of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), a race car driver as a young man and the founder of the eponymous firm. Yet it has many of the same problems establishing why the main character is worth our attention, and it similarly left me wondering why the director chose to make the film. The plot revolves around Ferrari’s struggle to keep his firm afloat financially. This requires winning a cross-country race called the Mille Miglia, for which he enlists a new driver, Alfonso de Portago (Gabriel Leone), to replace the company’s previous racing star who dies before our eyes while test-driving a new car. Enzo Ferrari also has to win the backing of his wife, Laura (played with wasted intensity by Penélope Cruz), to whom he gave a large percentage of the controlling shares years ago, and from whom he is largely estranged.

The obvious focal point of interest in a racing film is the racing itself, but Ferrari has very little of that, and almost none of what is shown gives one a feel for the thrill of the sport. The drivers, similarly, are barely sketched in as characters; they are there just as tools to be used by the owner of the company. Perhaps, then, it’s a film about a businessman and a business, yet it’s not clear why the business should matter to us either; if Ferrari changed the automotive landscape in any important way, we don’t learn how. There are plot machinations put into motion to secure the company’s financing, tricking Fiat into thinking Ferrari is going to make a deal with Ford, but the purpose of these is just to enable the owner to keep making and racing cars for the love of it.

So what is the reason for the film to exist? The sport is portrayed as a matter of vanity and pure competition for wealthy men who must harden themselves emotionally against the destruction they leave in their wake simply to stay in this deadly game, but who don’t face the prospect of death themselves. Most if not all racing pictures partake of a pervasive sense of doom, and I can understand a director wanting to make a film that didn’t glamorize it, that didn’t build up the drivers or the engineers into heroes the way, say, the exhilarating and elegiac Ford v Ferrari did only a few years ago. But without a sense that those involved in this dark exercise are striving for something glorious, the entire enterprise just seems childish, petty, and boring. That’s unlikely to sour audiences on racing, but it might sour them on movies.

Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is unlikely to sour audiences on movies; it revels so thoroughly in all aspects of the filmmaking art, from cinematography to costume, to hair and makeup and production design, to editing and sound, that it’s a kind of master class in technique. But all that beautiful technique is in service of an oddly told and uncompelling story. Maestro is a biopic about Leonard Bernstein. If people still remember Bernstein, it’s probably for one of three things: for having successfully bridged the worlds of classical and popular music, thereby helping to elevate the latter to the status of high art (I certainly think West Side Story deserves that accolade); for, relatedly, having been an extraordinarily successful popularizer of classical music, an important figure in the general mid-century drive toward mass appreciation of high art; and for the political radicalism he adopted later in his career, memorably lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his essay “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”

Yet none of the foregoing is clearly depicted in the film. We see the young Bernstein (played by Bradley Cooper, who also directed) get his first big break as a conductor; we hear that it’s a big deal that he could put American conducting on the map; we see him composing; we see a dance routine from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free, which he wrote the music for and which would evolve into the Broadway musical On the Town. But we don’t get any clarity about why these things might matter, other than to Bernstein himself as career goals. Even on that score, he’s plainly a disappointment; he laments later in life that he never really created much of a body of work because he was always flitting from one thing to another. That’s an interesting fact about someone who was significant: that he didn’t ever really believe he was. But for it to land we need to see that he was significant, and understand why. We never do. As for Bernstein’s political commitments, they are skipped over along with the entire decade in which they were most relevant, as the film vaults in a single match cut from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The reason for this strange omission becomes apparent when we reach the 1970s. The film jumps from Bernstein’s early prominence to his later years because it isn’t primarily interested in his historic importance as an artist. It’s primarily interested in his bisexuality or homosexuality: its lack of free expression is presumed to be the reason that he wasn’t as significant as he might have been, not because he was seriously discriminated against but because of internalized self-loathing. The vehicle for the film’s interest in that subject is Bernstein’s wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre (played like a character out of a 1940s film, which is great fun to watch, by Carey Mulligan). Before she married Bernstein, she was aware of his sexual interest in men (the Fancy Free dance number is used beautifully to bring that across), but she marries him anyway—for his charm? his promise? his connections? for all three? This is another thing we never learn—and only slowly comes to realize what she’s surrendered thereby. That’s a potentially interesting story, but to tell it the film would need to actually center on her, which Maestro cannot consistently do. So once again, I was left puzzling why I was watching a biopic about this man at all. At least Maestro is pretty to look at while one puzzles.

There was a film this year that tried doing precisely what I think Maestro ought to have done, but it fails even more thoroughly than Maestro does. Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla tells the story of the wife of Elvis Presley, a figure sufficiently well known that, like Napoleon but unlike Leonard Bernstein or Enzo Ferrari, one can presume the audience is at least generally aware of him. But even if greatness is not the subject, if you put it on screen you have to manifest it in some way, and this Priscilla relentlessly refuses to do. We not only never see this film’s Elvis sing, nor hear his music (the film was denied the rights); we never even get a hint of his charisma. Jacob Elordi, who plays Elvis, is extremely tall and handsome, but that’s all he is; he has no charm, indeed almost no personality. The film isn’t about him, of course (Baz Luhrmann made that biopic last year), but this absence still drains interest from the film, most importantly because Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) must fall in love with this nonentity, marry him, and stay with him for years. We have to care about that choice for the film to work, and the fact that there is nothing particularly compelling about Priscilla’s Elvis makes that exceedingly difficult.

But Priscilla isn’t really a love story. It’s a story about grooming. Priscilla is only fourteen when Elvis meets her, delivered to his doorstep by his friend Terry (Luke Humphrey), who has been trawling the area near the base (Elvis is stationed in Germany for his army service, as is Priscilla’s father) for likely prospects. She is overawed by Elvis’s fame and his condescension even to speak with her, and he in turn responds to something about her innocence. It could be interesting that his grooming takes the exceedingly peculiar form of not initiating her sexually for many years, the better to preserve the innocence that attracted him in the first place, but whatever hangup he has is something the film only cares about because it befuddles and frustrates Priscilla. Very slowly, she comes to rebel against the dissatisfactions of being kept as a kind of symbol rather than loved as a person. About two-thirds of the way through the film, she makes her first manipulative decision, agreeing to leave when Elvis asks for space so that he feels abandoned and calls her back. (It’s telling that her first sign of strength is to play on his weakness.) Finally, she actually leaves her gilded cage to make a life of her own.

Once again, this could have been an interesting story if Priscilla herself had manifested more personality and interiority and her coming-to-consciousness had charted a compelling journey. Instead Coppola lavishes endless attention on surfaces without revelation of what lies beneath. The larger problem, though, is that this is a story about the wife of Elvis Presley. He is a phenomenally famous person, and he was famous for a reason. The fact that this reason seems to have no bearing on his life, or on Priscilla’s attraction for him, and is not even present in the film, is nothing short of bizarre.

All of the foregoing films are, in some fashion, telling stories about greatness: world-historical greatness on a political and military level, the race for glory in a competitive sport with death and bankruptcy always around the corner, the drive to create great art and to touch a mass audience. I can certainly understand the desire to avoid simple-mindedly worshipping great people, or people who sought greatness. But these are not films that focus on the price exacted by that quest for greatness, or that are alive to the ironic role of contingency in history, or that emphasize how any great achievement rests on the shoulders of innumerable unknowns, or any of the many ways that one might complicate a “great man” narrative and make it more interesting than hagiography. No, what they have in common is an apparent disbelief in the quality of greatness itself. The quest is for a mirage—or they never seek greatness at all, only far pettier objects like success, victory, fame, and fortune.

That’s an incredibly depressing and self-defeating frame to bring to stories with greatness at their heart, and it makes for depressing and self-defeating films. But it’s a spirit that also fatally undermines stories that don’t obviously have anything to do with greatness, including the film critics have chosen more than any other as the best of the year: Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage Indian murders, a horrific chapter in Oklahoman and American history, recounted in and adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book. That book’s title is a bit longer than the film’s; its subtitle is “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” The arc of Grann’s book, in other words, bends if not toward justice then at least towards a recognition of the scope of injustice and an attempt not only to punish it but to create the organizational tools to respond to organized crime in the future.

The story is a gruesome one. When oil was discovered on their previously worthless land, the Osage practically overnight became the wealthiest people per capita in the country. This sudden wealth attracted a host of unscrupulous characters, from mountebanks and swindlers to, most terrifying, men who finagled to get themselves made the guardians of Osage women, often by marrying them, only to murder them to inherit their wealth. These and the ancillary murders committed to cover up the original orgy of crime are the subject of the film.

But the film finds a surprising way into that subject. The focus of attention isn’t the investigators who uncover the crimes, bit by bit revealing to the audience the true scope of the horror, until they are forced to confront the ghastly reality of even the most intimate relations. Nor is the focus on the victims, their fear and slowly dawning realization of whom they married, or the measures they may have taken to escape or fight back. No, the focus of attention is on the killers, and on one killer in particular: Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ernest is a young man just back from World War I who returns to Oklahoma to get a job from his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale is a successful local rancher who poses as a friend of the Osage, but who has designs on their wealth, designs in which Ernest comes to figure prominently. He convinces Ernest to marry an especially wealthy Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and then slowly poison her to death so he will inherit her headrights. Along the way, he also arranges the murder of other relatives of Mollie’s, so as to consolidate the family’s wealth in her hands before she dies, as well as the murders of other inconvenient individuals, and if Ernest isn’t the trigger man he is nearly always a key participant in these plots. Hale’s criminal conspiracy proceeds without trouble until the Bureau of Investigation gets involved and prosecutions begin to loom, but even then Hale is convinced that he can skirt justice, if only his skittish nephew can hold his tongue. But he can’t. Torn between his uncle and his love for his wife, he turns state’s evidence, then recants, then returns to the stand and testifies against his uncle.

It’s no surprise that Scorsese, when he set out to make his film, didn’t choose to tell the story from the perspective of either the investigators or the victims but from the perspective of a small-time thug. Such characters have been an interest of Scorsese’s for his entire career, from Mean Streets to The Irishman. The archetypal Scorsese protagonists are men like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy), Henry Hill (Goodfellas), and Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street), all fundamentally small men with grandiose fantasies, or at least big appetites. Those appetites—for money or women, fame or notoriety, power or status, most simply for the zest of life taken on their own terms—are what drew Scorsese to them and what draws the audience to them as well. Their claim to greatness is in their desire for greatness. Even the least appealing of these men, for example Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), had to have greatness thrust upon them; as Paul Schrader, one of the writers of the screenplay for that film, put it: “We have to give Jake a depth, a stature he does not possess, otherwise he’s not worth making a movie about.”

That’s precisely what is missing in Ernest Burkhart. He has no stature whatsoever, and this cripples the film. It isn’t the only problem, of course. The film’s pacing is achingly slow while the camerawork is frequently overly busy, as if to distract us from how little is happening. The extreme passivity of the Osage, their gullibility in the face of Hale’s obvious maliciousness and the transparently mercenary designs of the men who marry their women, would enrage me if I were one of their nation. Lily Gladstone, the most compelling presence on screen (though her performance is rather one-note because she is given so little arc as a character), nearly vanishes for much of the film, and has little chemistry with DiCaprio. Worse, there is no attempt to depict a plausible psychology of their relationship to explain why she would marry him and persevere in trusting him in the marriage long after it should have been obvious that she shouldn’t (she never seems to doubt him even after her sister is murdered on his orders, not until he testifies to that fact). And DiCaprio himself is badly miscast, among other reasons because he is far too old for the role.

But these are not the heart of the matter, which is that Ernest Burkhart is just not an interesting person. He has no spine, but servilely follows his uncle’s commands, frequently without even understanding what he is doing. He is easily cowed by the investigators into testifying, then easily bullied into recanting, then turned again; it isn’t even clear that he is motivated by fear so much as that he is simply too weak-willed to hold to any position. Most absurdly, we are asked to believe that he genuinely loves his wife on some level, even though he relentlessly murders her relatives and is slowly killing her. We never see any true sign of inner conflict or even an awareness of this contradiction. That could be an intriguing mystery, I suppose, for an actor determined to mine such a troubled vein. Instead, it’s just incomprehensible.

So why would Scorsese make such a film and portray this character in this way? What could possibly have attracted him to telling the story through someone like Ernest Burkhart? As I sat in the theater, I began to wonder if the reason was, in a way, ideological. If Ernest had been made more compelling in the manner of the typical Scorsese protagonist, Scorsese would have risked diverting the audience’s attention from the intercommunal dimension of the story, the fact that Burkhart’s and Hale’s crimes were part and parcel of a larger national crime. This problem would not have arisen if the story had been told from the Osage’s perspective, but Scorsese may have hesitated to do that for ideological reasons as well, feeling it was not his story to tell.

By telling the story as he does, though, Scorsese turns Ernest Burkhart into a kind of symbolic stand-in for a white American audience who may want to believe that it would have or has done right by people like the Osage—who may even believe they love them—but who are blind to their complicity in horrific crimes against them from which they themselves benefited. Perhaps that’s what Scorsese intended; perhaps he hoped he could open the audience’s eyes thereby. I think it’s rather more likely that, having given them nothing compelling to focus on, he will put them to sleep.

That leaves my one, crucial exception, the film that, as of this writing, oddsmakers consider to be more likely than all other contenders combined to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and a phenomenal commercial success for a serious film, with a worldwide box office total of nearly a billion dollars: Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, Oppenheimer.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (2023) (Universal Pictures)
Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures)

I have not generally been a Nolan champion. I’ve enjoyed many of his films, but they’ve rarely touched me. I typically find his emotional palate bland and unsophisticated, while his mode of storytelling, presenting stories out of sequence and playing with time, often strikes me as maddeningly complex simply for the sake of complexity. Often his films are little more than puzzles for the audience to unravel, beginning with his first feature, the clever and engaging mystery Memento, and reaching an apotheosis (or, in my view, a nadir) in the baffling time-travel thriller Tenet. But even in telling more straightforward narratives, such as Dunkirk (which I enjoyed very much), Nolan manipulates time, telling three parallel stories at different speeds so that they can build tension at the same pace yet end simultaneously. With Oppenheimer, for the first time, Nolan has used his favorite storytelling trick not merely to devise a puzzle or sustain tension, but in a way that is both sophisticated and essential to the story being told.

Oppenheimer is a biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the father of the atomic bomb, taking the audience from his days as a doctoral student through the end of his public life. The significance of Oppenheimer’s achievement would be hard to overstate—as General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) says at one point when he is trying to convince a scientist to join the Manhattan Project, it was “the most important f–king thing to ever happen in the history of the world!” And there is plenty of material in Oppenheimer’s life to tell either a hagiographic or a darker story about the man, without ever discounting his greatness. The hagiographic version would start with his incredible talent and insight as a physicist, show his extraordinary skill in managing both his team of scientists and the military bureaucracy to achieve success, and then move on to his doomed advocacy for international control of atomic weapons and his opposition to an arms race with the Soviet Union. A darker portrait would focus on his womanizing, his ego, and most of all his naïveté in the face of determined and successful efforts by the Soviet Union to penetrate the Manhattan Project through espionage.

Nolan has managed to put all of that in his film, giving us a nuanced and complex portrait of a man who changed history. Murphy’s performance is subtly powerful, his face consistently alive with intelligence and sensitivity and simultaneously with great vanity and self-regard. The enormous ensemble cast around him is uniformly exceptional; I couldn’t possibly list every performance that stuck with me, but I will say that everyone pops off the screen, each character a distinct individual with a personality and a perspective. Even underwritten roles, such as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), are incandescent. The cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema) and the production design (by Ruth De Jong) are gorgeous. And the editing (by Jennifer Lame), which the first time around gave me a bit of a headache (the film plays at times like a three-hour trailer for itself, scenes ending abruptly to throw the viewer into another, with no time to orient oneself or catch one’s breath), actually does an extraordinary job delivering the vast amount of information the audience needs to absorb without them ever feeling lost or bored. It reminded me of the musical Hamilton in its sheer information density.

All of that would be enough to make Oppenheimer a successful and worthwhile film. But it’s not what makes it great. What makes it great is its narrative strategy, which turns history into historiography, and a portrait of a great man into a meditation on the nature of greatness and on the nature of being in time and in history.

Oppenheimer’s story, like so many of Nolan’s stories, is told out of sequence, jumping around repeatedly, but running primarily on two tracks, called (somewhat confusingly) “fission” and “fusion.” The former, in color, follows Oppenheimer and is anchored in his perspective on events; the latter, in black and white, follows Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Who is Lewis Strauss? Well, he’s nobody who would be remembered were it not for J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was extraordinarily successful in a variety of walks of life: in business, in finance, in politics, in philanthropic and religious endeavors. And he played an important role in Oppenheimer’s career, first checking him at the Atomic Energy Commission and then (as the film tells it) secretly masterminding Oppenheimer’s loss of his security clearance, a betrayal for which he was amply repaid by fate when he lost his bid to become Commerce Secretary, thanks to opposition from scientists angry at his treatment of Oppenheimer.

Why on earth does Nolan lavish so much time on this ultimately insignificant man? The first time I saw the film, I thought it was just for the contrast set up thereby with Oppenheimer, and I thought that amounted to overkill. Strauss wasn’t Salieri from Amadeus or Aaron Burr from Hamilton; he was never Oppenheimer’s rival. He was, as portrayed in the film, a small, petty man who saw enemies around every corner and made them too, who yearned for success and status and had achieved it, and even possessed a measure of power, but who had no true conception of greatness, even as something to be envied. Why pair these two?

On the second viewing, I understood better what Nolan was up to. Strauss isn’t there to simply be a foil for the great man. He’s there to reveal something—something deep and unwelcome—about the nature of greatness itself. Strauss, after all, was not only a success in terms of the position he achieved but in terms of how he shaped history. He was a small player in the beginnings of the Cold War, and while he didn’t get to be Commerce Secretary, that only mattered to him, not to history. In terms of history, he was in the room where it happened, and he was on the winning side.

What about Oppenheimer? Watching the film again, it was clearer than the first time around that Oppenheimer was the right man at the right time, but that he was also a contingent piece of a much larger puzzle, one in which his role was primarily political from the beginning. As he himself realizes, he wasn’t chosen to run the Manhattan Project in spite of his known connections to Communist Party members (Oppenheimer never joined the party, and never even considered betraying his country, but he was approached by party members to do precisely that). He was chosen because of his known left-wing associations—because they made the project credible to other scientists whom the government needed but who might otherwise have been reluctant. Getting the bomb as quickly as possible was the priority during the war; only during the Cold War did priorities shift to rooting out Soviet spies. Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), a physicist working on the Manhattan Project but already dreaming of the hydrogen bomb that he would later invent, tells Oppenheimer at one point in Los Alamos that he has long since ceased to be a scientist and become a politician, but who is really good at politics in this film? Who is using whom? We learn the answer, visually, when Oppenheimer hands off the bomb to General Groves, the bomb rides away in its truck, and Oppenheimer is never consulted again, about anything.

Or do we? By the end of the film, we realize (as does Oppenheimer’s wife) that Oppenheimer has been playing quite a deft political game since his fall from favor, just to a very different end than a man like Strauss could comprehend. While it looks like Strauss is destroying Oppenheimer’s life by secretly arranging for him to lose his security clearance, in fact this is precisely what Oppenheimer wants. He doesn’t fight back, and he is even willing to humiliate his wife by publicly revealing his affair with the known Communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh, in a role even more severely underwritten than Kitty Oppenheimer’s), because he wants to be martyred. That way, history will remember him not as the father of a nuclear arms race that could end civilization but as the man who tried to prevent it and was defeated by unworthy antagonists.

That’s the arc of the movie we have been watching, of course, which is why I say the narrative strategy is so clever. It hides the fact that it knows this story was constructed by Oppenheimer himself for exactly this purpose until just before the end, just before it hits us with the full force of Oppenheimer’s awareness that he, great as he is, is powerless to direct what he has helped unleash. This knowledge came to him years before, in a moment we have already seen, when Oppenheimer meets the elderly Einstein and makes reference to an old worry of Teller’s that an atomic explosion might light the atmosphere on fire and destroy the world. It didn’t, of course, but the two physicists realize that, in a metaphoric way, perhaps it did, and they are responsible. We saw this scene first from Strauss’s perspective, but he misinterpreted it completely, thinking Oppenheimer and Einstein were gossiping about him, because he is the emblem of pettiness. But, when we finally see what they were really talking about, we realize that, in a sense, they were talking about Strauss because in his very pettiness he is an emblem of the political world that these geniuses are powerless to control.

That is an example of greatness in art. And it’s also a true meditation on the limits of greatness in history, without ever denying that greatness exists.