Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer ranks as one of the director’s most profound and weighty films, with a message that’s hard to shake.
PLOT: During a pivotal time in World War II, Professor Robert Oppenheimer is chosen by the army to head up the Manhattan Project, the focus being creating the first nuclear weapon the Earth has ever seen. Gathering scientists from all over the world, Oppenheimer’s obsession with finishing the bomb before the Nazis has an overwhelming impact on his personal life, in ways both immediately obvious and impossible to predict.
REVIEW: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a startling, mesmerizing experience, not one easy to explain or sum up. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Nolan movie if it were, but the film sees the writer-director at the height of his powers as filmmaker and storyteller – not to mention nimble time-jumper. Perhaps the most important film of the director’s career thus far, Oppenheimer is an old fashioned Hollywood biopic/historical epic in the way it’s filled with great actors giving their very all in showy roles while an undeniably crucial chapter in our history is told with no expenses spared. Everything about the film appears to have been thought through to the very limit, from casting, to production design, to the (historically accurate) dialogue spoken by the characters. Nolan rarely misses a beat; in fact, he packs the movie to the brim with so much that at three hours it feels like he went with the truncated cut of the movie; it could have been even longer. To his credit, the movie never sags or bores; Nolan and his editor Jennifer Lame make sure our attention is always completely drawn to what’s happening on screen.
It’s a look at the life of one of history’s most polarizing figures. J. Robert Oppenheimer, of course, spearheaded the making of Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs used against Japan in 1945 that killed thousands upon thousands, most of them innocent civilians. The film chronicles the life of Oppenheimer leading up to this event, and the long period after when he was under considerable scrutiny from both the public and his own government (the latter of which suspected him to be a card-carrying member of the Communist party). Naturally, Nolan isn’t content to tell this tale in a linear fashion, bouncing around Oppenheimer’s life pre-and-post 1945 in an effort to paint a complicated portrait of a man who was so consumed by his own genius that he can’t foresee the mammoth consequences being such a genius might bring.
You know the classic Ian Malcolm line in Jurassic Park about scientists being so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should? It’s hard not to think of that during Oppenheimer while watching the character as he frantically goes about orchestrating the creation of the ultimate world-destroyer; he’s latched onto the idea of building the perfect weapon, the morality of the project is mostly theoretical. To be fair, it was the Nazis that he and seemingly everyone else had in mind when creating the bomb, but after their defeat it was an easy pivot to the Japanese in the waning days of their end of the war. When it is used, that’s when the light goes on. How the realization of what he’s done changes the man as he’s immediately thrust toward his next monumental assignment – creating the hydrogen bomb – is just a part of this incredibly detailed and complex character study.
The performances are uniformly strong, even if you could say a few verge on the theatrical. As Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy’s natural intensity and wide, magnetic eyes are a perfect match for the conflicted persona of this somber and thoughtful man. It’s far from the showiest performance in the movie but that’s necessary, since Oppenheimer is often depicted as a self-impressed introvert whose emotions are just moments away from bursting through his cool exterior.
Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. have all the fun as a blustery army general and one of Oppenheimer’s bitter longtime colleagues, respectively. It would not be surprising to see Best Supporting Actor nominations for one or both of them (Downey Jr.’s final scenes in the film in particular are quite impressive). Emily Blunt does her damnedest to ensure Kitty Oppenheimer isn’t just a standard movie wife with a hard-drinking, glowering interpretation of the woman who somehow stood by Oppenheimer despite his many failings. She has a handful of show-stopping scenes that actors live for.
And there are so many good actors in supporting roles: Benny Safdie is a revelation as a hard-headed member of Oppenheimer’s team; David Krumholtz is excellent as one of Robert’s oldest and most cynical friends; Dane Dehaan is reliably creepy as a vaguely sinister military man who proves pivotal to Oppenheimer’s downfall; Macon Blair is terrific as the scientist’s hard-working lawyer. Not unlike Oliver Stone’s JFK – a movie that absolutely comes to mind several times during this one – it would seem as though every other role has been filled with a recognizable face; maybe an A-lister, maybe a familiar character actor, and yet it’s never a distraction. Even when it became pretty clear after a few seconds who was playing President Truman (I hadn’t known beforehand), the focus is on the picture, not the cameo.
If the movie has a noticeable fault its that it might be packed with too much information. This is a problem that could be fixed with repeated viewings, but based on one, there are times when a flurry of characters are mentioning names, details, places that we only have a slight understanding of, and it’s easy to get a little lost. Subplots and characters both minor and major jockey for position throughout and we almost need one of those graphs used to describe Nolan’s more complicated timelines to fully grasp who’s being talked about in conjunction with what. While you might think the movie is just about the making of the A-bomb based on the trailers, there are so many other important sections of Oppenheimer’s life that are touched upon, not least the which is his battle to prove he’s a loyal American and not a Communist who might be a spy for the Russians. Yet all those strands ultimately tie together, and when you step back and look at the whole, you have to acknowledge the many different parts were necessary.
Technically, the movie is nearly flawless. The sound design is extremely impressive – there are some legitimate jump scares in the movie as Nolan blasts us with sudden jolts – and Ludwig Goransson’s seemingly omnipresent score is as intense as anything Hans Zimmer has composed for the director (frankly it might be too intense at times). And of course, Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography often steals the show, although not in ways you might expect. Nolan’s concerned with faces, reactions, as much as he is with pretty pictures, frequently showing us his characters in extreme close-up. A picture says a thousand words, and with this cast he’s always got a handsome canvas to work with.
And the movie ends on a note of darkness that is already impossible to shake. It would be easy to say Oppenheimer is an anti-war film, but I think it’s more direct to call it an anti-ending-civilization-as-we-know-it film. No doubt Nolan wanted to shine a light on this difficult man’s life, but it’s clear he also has a statement, a simple one: what Oppenheimer set in motion can’t be undone, and if we’re not careful, wise, or lucky, this could all end in the blink of an eye. In that regard, it’s not just a really good film, it’s a pretty important one too.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/oppenheimer-review/