This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Starring Cillian Murphy in his best performance to date, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an explosive character study unlike any other.
For a film clocking in at almost exactly three hours, it’s initially troubling when Oppenheimer opens with some of Christopher Nolan’s most confounding storytelling devices since his last film, Tenet. Janky pacing, elaborate yet robotic dialogue, seemingly whimsical lens filters with no immediate rhyme or reason, and a frenetic attention to detail that has you wondering if we really needed the sound of liquid hitting a cup to be amped up this many decibels and for what purpose besides 70mm IMAX aesthetic derring-do? Yet there’s probably no other way for a modern film to somewhat accurately reflect the bombastic inner turmoil of brilliance hampered by morality. And by the film’s end, you’ll doubt Oppenheimer could’ve been this good as anything else but what it is.
Cillian Murphy doesn’t just play J. Robert Oppenheimer, the real-life “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” he fully inhabits the man for all he’s worth, which is quite a lot. Murphy has had years of fun over the last decade on screens big and small, capitalizing on his inherently compelling charm mixed with snide cynicism. But here he is no scarecrow or privileged brat. Well, maybe he’s a little of both. As some in the film describe him, he’s a womanizing Communist sympathizer whose adept hand at bringing quantum physics to America has earned him enough prestige to skate by as the director of Los Alamos, an extension of the Manhattan Project aimed at developing an atomic bomb during WWII before the Nazis get there first.
“…this is the most important thing to happen in the history of the world.”
At one point during Oppenheimer, you might wonder if even you’re in this movie as well. The ensemble cast is as expansive as the runtime, boasting Matt Damon as the general who spars with Oppenheimer over the logistics of the project. Florence Pugh is his Communist paramour aiming to reignite an affair outside the gaze of Emily Blunt as his wife. The film often flashes backward and forward in time, usually recounting the aftermath of Los Alamos with Robert Downey Jr. as a scheming politician trying to make sense of Oppenheimer’s legacy alongside his aide, Alden Ehrenreich.
The scientists brought into the project include many familiar faces — Benny Safdie, Olivia Thirlby, Josh Peck, and Jack Quaid, to name a few — with Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, and Jason Clarke taking up even more space throughout. It’s a wonder a biographical movie with so many dynamic actors flowing in and out of frame can still be so thoroughly devoted to the exact nature of a single, yet momentous man. Though this is where Oppenheimer loses touch with its own genius.
“This is a matter of life and death.”
The ambiguity of Oppenheimer’s actions both before, during, and after Los Alamos is likely its most compelling appeal as a story, in this case adapted from his actual 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Because this is a visual medium, however, his inherent mystique gives way to a jarring moral clarity that contradicts the stance the man tried to martyr himself for in the wake of the Cold War. That is, the silent war between unrelenting American patriotism and a commitment to the protection of free speech and dissent. While the film can be cathartic in its heroic grandstanding toward the latter, it loses some of its ability to preach its important message more effectively.
But at the very least, Nolan — who both wrote and directed the film — saves his best tricks for the second half. In his fourth collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who most recently worked on last year’s Nope, Nolan eschews most of his worst tendencies in Tenet and evolves the playful techniques he experimented with in Dunkirk. Namely a spinning of time and place using cinematic language, such as various black-and-white shades to tell more about perspective, mood, and morality itself than the exact time and place. During the development of the bomb, the world is colorful. It’s varied, vibrant, and full of potential. Later on it is cold, calculating, and merciless, with the exception of certain deposition scenes using color to showcase Oppenheimer’s resolve in the face of new threats.
“I can perform this miracle.”
Not everything flows gracefully, however, particularly the erratic shifting of aspect ratio, which IMAX viewers will probably find the most glaring. But these imperfections are easy to forgive when Nolan punctuates his second act, for example, with an unforgettable “victory speech” that uses the mere presence of sound and suggestion (aided by Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score) to put us squarely in the shoes of a man in absolute crisis.
Despite its exhaustive length, Oppenheimer moves so quickly and with so much confidence, it manages to just barely avoid being too tiresome to appreciate. To the point where it’s actually easy to yearn for maybe just a little more attention to the science of what they’re doing, shown more practically and with tactile impact. The film does this in spurts, to be fair, but by the time the bomb itself becomes the reality we already know, almost all of the logistical obstacles have disappeared while the film focused us on all the emotional drama and future-politicking. Still, Oppenheimer is a return to form that Nolan desperately needed, and perhaps we needed as well. Because it proves that blockbusters can still be the bomb, without being nothing but box office bombs.
Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21. Watch the trailer here.
OPPENHEIMER - 8.5/10