July 21st, 2023
STARRING: CILLIAN MURPHY, EMILY BLUNT, MATT DAMON, ROBERT DOWNEY JR., FLORENCE PUGH
DIRECTOR: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
There is a moment when watching a movie where the narrative on the screen and the mind of the viewer locks into place. It could take twenty minutes, it could take an hour, or it could never come at all. In Christopher Nolan’s sweeping biopic on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that connection is instant. The story of this man, his life, his brilliant mind, and the haunting responsibility of creating the atomic bomb grips you from frame one. Like the waves from a blast, Nolan moves at a blazing speed, displaying the constant struggle of a man, surrounded by members of the scientific community, and a world on the cusp of its own destruction. Oppenheimer is relentless and powerful. This is the crowning achievement of Christopher Nolan’s career and shakes the ground of the cinematic landscape.
Throughout all of Nolan’s work, I have often seen similarities and connections with that of Ridley Scott’s films. The two have made their share of great science fiction but have also made a series of films that feel intertwined by themes and scale. It makes that bond even stronger when Oppenheimer opens with a quote about Prometheus, the human that stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity, as the screenplay is adapted from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Scott’s 2012 science fiction film- titled Prometheus– is an Alien hybrid but is also about scientists messing with something they don’t know its true power. That is a constant theme of Oppenheimer, a story about a man who is smart enough to take science to a point, but when he passes the Rubicon, going beyond theory to where the results are out of his hands, and the realization that the power he wields will destroy lives.
The cast is equally on the same page as those themes that Nolan is telling. Cillian Murphy carries the lead performance with grief and stress, oscillating between a man elated by his work and a tortured genius. The narrative structure balances between flashbacks, picking up from Oppenheimer’s stint as a professor at California Berkeley, his early interests in communist causes, his leadership at the Los Alamos Laboratory, and the United States Government’s demonization of his work. He is anchored by a murderer’s row of great performances, with Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, Matt Damon as Sergeant Leslie Groves, Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer’s mistress Jean Tatlock, Josh Hartnett as colleague Earnest Lawrence, and Robert Downey Jr. delivering stellar work as the politically motivated Lewis Strauss. It’s with this long collective list of great actors where Oppenheimer feels related to Oliver Stone’s JFK, but also in dialogue, which is always pushing, twisting the tension, building up, and never distracting our focus. The three hours will leave audiences exhausted not for its runtime but for how intense the material becomes.
Like many of Nolan’s other films, such as Dunkirk, Interstellar, and Tenet, it subtly becomes about time. Through the powerful sound design of Randy Torres and the score of Ludwig Goransson, there is a constant ticking in the background. It is a reminder of the race between the U.S. and the Germans to build the bomb first, the unrelenting pressure that was placed on Oppenheimer, and creating a great sense of paranoia at the moment. That ticking reverberates, blending in with gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema, switching between vibrant color and crisp black & white, and using every inch of his IMAX frame. He does this not just to capture the settings but to interject orange glowing mushroom clouds to swirl in our eyes, similar to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, with the creation and destruction of humanity. All of this works because we are drawn in, hypnotized by the rhythm of it all, culminating in bomb testing, and an opening of Pandora’s box that cannot be stopped.
This is without going into more details, but for some audience goers the subject matter will be too dense, but Nolan rightfully trusts us to engage. The director also makes the correct decision to not show the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is a biopic on Oppenheimer and the death and destruction that President Truman unleashed is a different movie. What Nolan does instead is walk us into the rooms with the men who wrestle with their moral conflict. We see Americans fighting with Americans, finger-pointing, and claims of treason. But the focus never pulls away from Oppenheimer. His presence looms large and his shadow even bigger.
Oppenheimer is spectacular. It is a culmination of Christopher Nolan’s style, his fascination with science, the magnificent use of his 70MM celluloid, and his first flawless film. The story at hand is inherently an American one, of human ingenuity because we can, of flawed egos and bully politics, and above all about a man who wrestled with the path to his position in history. Oppenheimer is on a different level and undeniably one of the best movies of 2023.
OPPENHEIMER IS PLAYING IN THEATERS FRIDAY JULY 21ST, 2023.
Written by: Leo Brady