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If You Love Oppenheimer, You Need to Revisit Memento
Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film is a microcosm of the ambition he'd develop in later projects.
After a truly impressive box office run and immense critical acclaim, Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer is finally available to watch at home this month, giving fans everywhere the chance to relive what might be the director's most ambitious project so far. Oppenheimer is indeed a masterpiece, packed with unforgettable moments and brilliant performances, but of course, it's far from the director's only ambitious work.
And no, I'm not just talking about his blockbusters. Nolan's been making massive movies ever since Batman Begins put him in the global spotlight, to be sure, but his ambitions and narrative preoccupations were present even before he started working with massive budgets and the kind of fanbase that grants him hugely anticipated releases each and every time. In fact, if you want a film that matches Oppenheimer in terms of a very particular kind of storytelling ambition, you have to go all the way back to Nolan's second feature, his breakthrough film that catapulted him into public consciousness: Memento.
The connections between Memento and Oppenheimer
The 2000 neo-noir film, now streaming on Peacock for your viewing pleasure, actually has quite a bit in common with Oppenheimer, and I don't just mean because some sequences are in color and others are in black and white. Like so many of Nolan's best-known works, including The Dark Knight Trilogy and The Prestige, Memento and Oppenheimer are both about singularly driven men tormented by the moral implications of their choices and the path they walk. The latter film is bigger, of course, and the consequences grander, but if we look back at Memento, we can see much of the same thematic framework already at play.
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Memento follows a man named Leonard (Guy Pearce), who suffers from anterograde amnesia that means he can't form new memories. What Leonard also knows, though, is that he has to find the attacker who gravely injured him and killed his wife (Jorja Fox), no matter how many neurological tricks he has to pull on himself to get there. So, he tattoos his body, takes photo, and makes constant notes about things he needs to remember and clues he needs to follow, in order to finally get the revenge he craves and, maybe, be at peace.
It's a story steeped in the trappings of film noir, right down to the black and white sequences that show us Leonard's chronological journey toward revenge (the color sequences, interspersed with the black and white, run backwards to show us how he got to his seemingly final violent conclusion), which means that it's very different from Oppenheimer in many ways. But look a bit closer, and you'll start to see more intriguing similarities beyond the use of black and white to convey a certain period of time and frame of reference.
Like Oppenheimer, Memento is about a man who's driven to achieve a singular goal, who often puts himself in morally compromising situations in order to achieve that goal. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), like Leonard, is pushing himself to his limits, doing the best he possibly can to accomplish something huge that might finally fulfill his seemingly bottomless desire for knowledge and understanding. And, like Oppenheimer, Memento explores the consequences of those actions by revealing to us exactly what Leonard's really going through at the end. Not only that, but both films reckon with those consequences in ways that preserve the flawed, complex nature of their protagonists. There are no easy answers, no clean breaks. Both of them simply have to live with what they've done.
But even more striking that those similarities is the way both films play with the nature of memory and embellishment. By showing us Oppenheimer's public shaming later in life while continually cutting back through his personal and professional triumphs, Nolan gives us a fragmented view of his personal history, just as Memento gives us Leonard's mission in two distinct timelines. In the process, both films show us how our memories are capable of lying to us, how we might be forcing our minds to place us on the right side of an issue, and how we must reckon with reality, even if true objective realism doesn't quite exist. It's a striking connection between the two films, and one worth revisiting, especially now that you can watch both from the comfort of your home.