“Oppenheimer” is a captivating biographical drama, packing the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the moral dilemmas behind creating the most destructive weapon known to mankind into three soul-stirring hours.
It has been years since I’ve seen lines this long at the cinemas. It is impossible to ignore the so-called “Barbenheimer” phenomenon as many fans of the art have decided to watch both “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” after each other. The two films essentially cover almost all target groups, and it was quite spectacular to see how many people, from 10-year-old girls dressed in all-pink to men in their 70s who could probably remember the tense atmosphere of the nuclear arms race in the 1950s bought a ticket. But anyway, back to the film.
Director and writer Cristopher Nolan had a daunting task ahead of him. After all, how do you make a 3-hour long, dialogue-heavy biographical film about physicists both critically acclaimed and a blockbuster at the box office in today’s world where our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter? Well, he managed to pull it off and did so in a spectacular fashion. His ability to weave intriguing narratives with an ease is nothing short of remarkable.
“Oppenheimer” is based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”, penned by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird. It tells us the life and moral dilemmas of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” in a non-linear fashion which has become the trademark of Nolan’s. We get a glimpse of “Oppie’s” (Cilian Murphy) early life as an aspiring scientist, meeting famed physicists from Bohr to Heisenberg (who later on headed the German A-bomb efforts), his achievements in bringing quantum physics to the USA, his affair with the troubled, eccentric communist sympathizer Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and complicated marriage with Kitty Harrison (Emily Blunt).
The main part of the story focuses on how Oppenheimer becomes the “Destroyer of Worlds”, heading the American nuclear efforts at Los Alamos. Here we can see the interactions of brilliant minds slowly come to fruition, despite the differences in personalities. But the question remains: Have they hastened the end of the war only to unleash a power which is certain to doom the entire world in the future?
The narrative delves deep into Oppenheimer’s complex psyche, as the scientist has to face that having doubts about the nuclear arms race and being caught up in the “red scare” might have dire consequences for his reputation and career, especially as Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the head of the Atomic Energy Commission has a grudge to settle with him. His suffering is highlighted in the scenes where he has to fight an uphill battle to keep his security clearance, where his life, even his marriage, gets picked apart at a hostile hearing. However, Strauss also pays the price for his actions at a Senate confirmation hearing (shot in black-and-white) a few years later, as Oppenheimer’s presence still lingers on, even if he is not physically present.
Just like in the case of the Manhattan Project, making “Oppenheimer” was also a team effort. Cillian Murphy, in the titular role, delivers a performance that is subtly powerful, embodying the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer with a quiet intensity that is as captivating as it is compelling. His portrayal is very human, with just enough character flaws to make the scientist relatable. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Strauss, oozing questionable political charisma and insecurities is a testament to his versatility as an actor. The way he realizes that maybe Oppenheimer never actually did him wrong, and the fake smile after his downfall are particularly strong moments from his acting.
The supporting cast is also full of colorful characters. Edward Teller (Benny Saldie) is definitely a highlight, with his erratic behavior and obsession with the “Super”, a codename for a H-bomb he proposes well before the A-bomb is operational. Matt Damon as Oppenheimer’s military handler Leslie Groves was also a solid choice, even with the mustache, and the dialogues between him and Murphy are some of the best ones in the film, with a few ones even making the audience chuckle.
While Nolan is not particularly known for his brilliant handling of female roles, Oppenheimer’s aforementioned two love interests definitely add to the story. Pugh does well in playing the seductive, strange Tatlock, and the nude scenes between her and Murphy are as tasteful as they are effective. The role of Kitty Harrison is not an easy one, but Blunt plays the title character’s wife with aplomb and real depth as we can see her dealing with her own, very real problems of running and rearing children while her husband is entangled in dilemmas that would change the face of the world. Her facial expressions and body language are on point, especially in the “handshake snub” scene towards the movie’s end.
Naturally, the 3-hour long film has an incredible number of scientists with Dylan Arnold as Frank Oppenheimer, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence and Hungarian actor Máté Haumann as Leó Szilárd all putting in solid performances. The film also keeps some of its best short cameos until the end, with Rami Malek as David Hill making a dramatic appearance at Strauss’ hearing, and Gary Oldman stepping into the shoes of President Harry Truman, who is riding just a bit too high after winning the war.
The cinematography in “Oppenheimer” is nothing short of breathtaking. The film’s visuals are a testament to the power of practical effects, with the Trinity nuclear test sequence standing out as a particular highlight. Filmed without the use of CGI, the filmmakers put together a special set with the help of gasoline, propane, aluminum powder, and magnesium. The scene itself is nothing short of haunting, and perhaps impossible to describe without spoiling it. The more “quiet” shots, for example the occasions where Oppenheimer meets up with Einstein to talk are also beautifully done, with the nature and surroundings reflecting the mood of the characters. It is also worth mentioning that Nolan cast his own daughter, Flora, as a nameless woman whose face melts in a nuclear explosion.
Here is how the director explained his decision in a recent interview with The Telegraph: “But the point is that if you create the ultimate destructive power, it will also destroy those who are near and dear to you. I suppose this was my way of expressing that in what, to me, were the strongest possible terms.”
“Oppenheimer” is a movie that stands tall among Christopher Nolan‘s impressive filmography. A deeply engaging historical drama intertwined with complex character studies and profound philosophical themes, the movie challenges its audience intellectually and emotionally. The impeccable direction, coupled with exceptional performances and technical brilliance, cements Oppenheimer as one of the best movies of the last few years and it will surely leave a lasting impression on viewers long after the credits roll.
Cover credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures
“Oppenheimer” is a movie that stands tall among Christopher Nolan's impressive filmography. A deeply engaging historical drama intertwined with complex character studies and profound philosophical themes, the movie challenges its audience intellectually and emotionally. The impeccable direction, coupled with exceptional performances and technical brilliance, cements Oppenheimer as one of the best movies of the last few years and it will surely leave a lasting impression on viewers long after the credits roll.