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Christopher Nolan: ‘Biopic’ Is ‘Not a Useful Genre’ and ‘Fails You Completely’

When Christopher Nolan‘s “Oppenheimer” crossed the $910 million mark at the worldwide box office, it surpassed “Bohemian Rhapsody” to become the highest-grossing biopic in history (unadjusted for inflation). To date, the “Oppenheimer” box office tally stands at $942 million. But for Nolan, his biographical drama about theoretical physicist and father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer was never designed as a “biopic.” That’s not a genre Nolan’s brain operates in.

Nolan recently joined his producer and wife Emma Thomas and author Kai Bird, whose book “American Prometheus” served as the basis for “Oppenheimer,” for a City University of New York event in which he rejected the concept of the “biopic.” Bird asked Nolan why “Oppenheimer” doesn’t dabble in its title character’s childhood.

“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.”

“This is where the concept of a biopic fails you completely as a genre,” Nolan continued. “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.”

Nolan added, “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” stars Cillian Murphy in the title role opposite Matt Damon as Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves Jr., Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and Emily Blunt as Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer. The supporting cast also includes Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Michael Angarano, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek and more.

“Oppenheimer” will be available on digital platforms starting Nov. 21. Watch Nolan’s full appearance at the CUNY event in the video below.

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