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NBC Insider Oppenheimer

Christoper Nolan Says Oppenheimer's Story Is “Most Dramatic” He’s Ever Come Across - “Fictional or Real”

Dream heisters, clone-happy magicians, and inverted secret agents don't stand a chance against the father of the atomic bomb.

By Josh Weiss

Dream heisters, clone-happy magicians, and time traveling secret agents don't compare to the father of the atomic bomb. For writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most interesting character he's ever captured on film.

The theoretical physicist (as played by Inception's Cillian Murphy) takes center stage in Oppenheimer, a three-hour historical epic following the tragic figure at the center of the top-secret program to construct the first atomic bomb during World War II.

For a time, Doctor Oppenheimer was celebrated as a national hero: his photograph famously appeared on the front page of TIME Magazine in November 1948 and he led the group of scientific advisors to the fledging Atomic Energy Commission

RELATED: Christopher Nolan Wants Oppenheimer To Leave Audiences With “Tremendously Troubling Questions”

Most unfortunately, his public opposition to atomic and thermonuclear proliferation in the early days of the Cold War saw him stripped of government security clearance; an injustice that wasn't rectified until more than half a century after his death.

"His entire life involves some of the most dramatic elements I’ve ever encountered in anybody’s story — fictional or real," Nolan remarked at a post-screening discussion attended in by NBC Insider and SYFY WIRE this past weekend. "For me, everything was about wanting to dive into his head; really try and live his experience with him ... We’re trying to keep people in his point-of-view and, in that way, achieve understanding rather than judgement."

When moderator Chuck Todd (host of MSNBC's Meet the Press) asked if he would describe the film as a "docudrama," Nolan refuted the term, opting for "narrative dramatic filmmaking" instead. "The thing about cinema, the thing about a dramatic film as opposed to a documentary is it’s about engagement and it’s about trying to give the audience an experience," he continued.

The filmmaker added that he "never would have taken on the project" if it wasn't for the exhaustive and Pulitzer Prize-winning biography — American Prometheus — written by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin. Imbued with plenty of "confidence" by the 700-page tome, Nolan forged ahead with a screenplay told almost strictly from Oppenheimer's perspective.

RELATED: Christopher Nolan Explains How Atomic Blast in Oppenheimer Differs from The One in Dark Knight Rises

"To me, it’s really about staying in his head," he reiterated. "There’s also a recurring motif… I don’t deal too much in spoilers for people who haven’t seen the film, but there’s a lot to do with what he won’t look at. There’s a lot to do with him closing his eyes."

Oppenheimer biographer calls physicist "a tortured soul"

Cillian Murphy (as J. Robert Oppenheimer) and writer, director, and producer Christopher Nolan on the set of OPPENHEIMER.

Bird, who also took part in the discussion, characterized the titular scientist as "a tortured soul," who rarely felt true happiness throughout his life.

Aside from blazing new ground in the world of quantum physics and overseeing the design of the most terrifying weapon the world has ever known, Oppenheimer also enjoyed riding horses in the New Mexico desert (he fell in love with the state in the early '20s and eventually suggested it as ground zero for the Los Alamos laboratory once he took over as Manhattan Project lead) and sailing in the Caribbean. In fact, he went into a kind of self-exile in St. John after he was blacklisted in 1954.

"He took his family on a sailing trip and then he fell in love with St. John and bought a piece of property down there right on the beach and built a very spartan cabin," Bird explained. "He was happy there...but he's a tortured soul."

Oppenheimer arrives on the big screen this Friday — July 21. Click here for tickets!

Want more blockbuster thrills in the meantime? Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Da Vinci Code, The Hunger Games, Fast Five, Jurassic World, Knock at the Cabin, Cocaine Bear, Renfield, and more are now streaming on Peacock!

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