In the months leading up to the next film by the extraordinary filmmaker Christopher Nolan titled Oppenheimer, most of the promotion surrounded the moment that changed the world. It’s the moment that ensured the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, but it was also a launching pad. I’m paraphrasing a bit but the moment to some wasn’t the end of WW2, but the beginning of the Cold War said one brilliant scientist to the next. That moment is the creation of the Atomic bomb and subsequent bombings of not one but 2 Japanese cities that killed thousands of innocent lives and would alter the course of history as we know it.
For in the context of the film both written and directed by Nolan, as is his usual M.O, the ending of the war is insignificant in the grand scope of the narrative. More about the man, Robert J. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) than the bomb itself, however, its creation and testing right before the Potsdam Conference is the subject that takes up most of the films first half. Nolan takes most of his inspiration for his version from the novel American Prometheus written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and fully encapsulates Oppenheimer’s adult life. Within that comes a frenzy of political accusations, questions of humanity and accountability and a thrilling ride of both objective and subjective reality.
Another M.O of Nolan’s is fully engrossing the viewer in his vision. With frequent collaborator cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the pairing capture Oppenheimer in full IMAX and the film deserves to be seen in the large format. Nolan is one of the auteur directors and Oppenheimer is his symphony, the best representation of his style. 180 minutes of meticulous shots that express a wide range of emotion all funneled through Cillian Murphy’s performance. Out of the lengthy and expansive cast list, Cillian Murphy is the gravitational pull for everyone around him.
The film follows Robert J. Oppenheimer beginning as a student, studying abroad under several physicists and earning a Ph. D. at the University of Göttingen. Oppenheimer travels back home to teach Physics at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. Told in same structure as The Social Network, Oppenheimer’s life is put under a microscope with every little move he makes, whether it’s his involvement with the Communist Party and relationship with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) or his political influence pre and post bomb.
What makes Oppenheimer special is how the events are depicted. Nolan himself proclaimed that the scenes in black and white are objective, meaning, they actually happened whereas the scenes in full color are subjective and open to interpretation. Early on, Oppenheimer is introduced to Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). Their meeting is in black and white meaning it happened and then the two come across Albert Einstein(Tom Conti). Oppenheimer and Einstein share words and Strauss walks up to the two to join the conversation. To not go into too much detail, Strauss sees this as one of the acts that turns to humiliation at the hands of Oppenheimer. The other comes in a hearing, again in black and white where Oppenheimer openly mocks Strauss to the court.
As the fractured, almost unreliable narrative progresses, Nolan engrosses us in the experience of character deconstruction. Much of the credit is due to editor Jennifer Lame cutting to the next scene when a certain expression is given, or a line of dialogue is delivered creating ambiguity withing the objective scenes. Knowing whats real and what is left up to the imagination is the tension builder that causes so much of the films anxiety outside of the Trinity test.
Leading up to the moment of the test and its execution is all anyone could anticipate. Shot with no CGI, Nolan optimizes every frame with the spectacle of an old Hollywood epic. Obviously, there are special effects throughout, but they’re used rarely only to supplement what the practical effects couldn’t achieve. An example is detonating an actual bomb. During the creation of the bomb, the focus for Oppenheimer shifts to the toll of releasing a weapon of mass destruction on humanity. Cillian Murphy places all of the real Oppenheimer’s burdens on his back and conveys that fear through the expressiveness of his eyes.
So much of Murphy’s performance is done through his eyes. What he’s experiencing on screen is exactly what the viewer feels in that moment. That existential dread and fear of the real possibility of having this type of weapon can do to a person. The beginning of an arms race with nuclear devises is more burden than anyone should carry especially the proclaimed “father of the atomic bomb”. Outside of Murphy’s award worthy performance, the entire ensemble devote their talent to a technical marvel. Robert Downey Jr’s quiet ferocity or Matt Damon’s urgency as Leslie Groves or Emily Blunt’s warmness as Kitty Oppenheimer. The list goes on and as each talented actor that pops up throughout, your subconscious goes “I had no idea they were also in this”.
For 180 minutes Oppenheimer is devastating, haunting, tense, brilliant and beautiful. The runtime is rarely felt in the first half but once the second half begins there are several spots where an ending would make sense, but the film keeps moving along. It’s Nolan at his best, delivering a poignant experience that cannot be ignored.
Oppenheimer is a work of art; every frame is its own painting of dark blacks and vibrant colors. After the misstep of Tenet that was rushed into theaters during the pandemic, Oppenheimer is the best representation of Nolan as a true visionary of our time. Speaking of frequent collaborators, returning to offer a face melting score is Ludwig Göransson – creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of beauty and horror. Oppenheimer for as tragic as it is, is an important film for our understanding of the weight these world ending devices carry.
Screenplay By: Christopher Nolan
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Music By: Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh
Edited By: Jennifer Lame
Release Date: July 21, 2023
Running Time: 3 Hours
Rotten Tomatoes Score:
Based On: American Prometheus by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin