A film review by Craig J. Koban August 5, 2023

RANK: #2


2023, R, 181 mins

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer  /  Emily Blunt as Katherine 'Kitty' Oppenheimer  /  Matt Damon as Gen. Leslie Groves Jr.  /  Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss  /  Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock  /  Benny Safdie as Edward Teller  /  Michael Angarano as Robert Serber  /  Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence  /  Rami Malek as David Hill  /  Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr  /  Dane DeHaan as Kenneth Nichols  /  Dylan Arnold as Frank Oppenheimer  /  David Krumholtz as Isidor Isaac Rabi  /  Alden Ehrenreich as Senate Aide  /  Matthew Modine as Vannevar Bush  /  Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman  /  Alex Wolff as Luis Walter Alvarez  /  Casey Affleck as Boris Pash  /  Jack Quaid as Richard Feynman  /  Emma Dumont as Jackie Oppenheimer  /  Matthias Schweighöfer as Werner Heisenberg  /  David Dastmalchian as William L. Borden  /  Christopher Denham as Klaus Fuchs  /  Josh Peck as Kenneth Bainbridge  /  Tony Goldwyn as Gordon Gray  /  Olivia Thirlby as Lilli Hornig  /  James Remar as Henry Stimson

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the book AMERICAN PROMETHEUS by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin



Very few films use close-ups as powerfully as Christopher Nolan's OPPENHEIMER.  

There's one shot in particular that seems to linger on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) for what seems like an unsettling eternity as it slowly dollies in.  We see a man who's simultaneously ravaged by unending guilt and despair for the future of humanity.  He's helpless.  He knows that his overseeing of the construction of the world's first atomic bomb will not have a peaceful ending.  It will lead to the world experiencing fundamental and dangerously unstable change.  Nothing would be the same after his team's breakthrough...and there would be nothing that he - or anyone else - could do to stop the seismic tide of what's to come.  

Played in a career high performance of quiet intensity by the great Cillian Murphy (who has worked with Nolan six times now), the American theoretical physicist and - yes - the "father of the atomic bomb" is shown in OPPENHEIMER as not so much a enigmatic historical figure that contributed to arguably the most destructive invention in the history of mankind, but rather as a deeply flawed man that was anything but perfect during his time on the Manhattan Project.  Nolan - who wrote the film's remarkably dense screenplay - shows Oppenheimer as a deeply complex figure that deserves equal parts criticism and, in many respects, sympathy.  

In a thoroughly democratic manner, Nolan and Murphy craft a portrait of Oppenheimer that's neither a raging and hostile indictment of his actions, nor is it a one-note jingoistic piece of hero worshipping that revels in the power of American ingenuity during World War II.  Oppenheimer - throughout the course of this three hour historical epic - begins as a prideful man of science that's bound and determined to have his team beat the Nazis to the development of the world's first atomic bomb and seems equal to the cause of supporting the America war effect.  But then, when he sees first hand the unspeakably horrific power that he has helped usher into the world, he's forever doomed with paralyzing feelings of dread.   OPPENHEIMER is less about celebrating the triumph of the Manhattan Project, the inception and execution of the bomb itself, and its subsequent usage in Japan to help end World War II than it is about Oppenheimer struggling with what he has wrought. 

Thankfully, OPPENHEIMER is not a birth-to-death biopic of its subject.  In a creatively audacious manner (and akin to his playbook), Nolan re-constructs Oppenheimer's life pre-WW II and his work on The Manhattan Project through a non-chronologically ordered narrative that seesaws back and forth through the years (and often from black and white to color photography).  Utilizing this approach is crucial, I think, because it keeps audiences off balance and forces them to pay attention to this rich historical tapestry that is unfolding before them in ways that a more linear script perhaps would not.  That, and it creates a level of undulating tension of what's to come despite most people in the cinema knowing full well what happened all those decades ago.  OPPENHEIMER has a structure in the sense that it's about three specific periods in the titular man's life and then uses a jigsaw-like approach of flashbacks and flashforwards to put those pieces together to create a whole.  There is an overall framing device - an Atomic Energy Commission hearing in the mid-50s that led to Oppenheimer being stripped of his American security clearance - but the over-arching story concerns the creation of the Manhattan Project and everything that built up to the "Trinity Test" in July of 1944.  The third period in question is about a former colleague of his in Lewis Straus (Robert Downey Jr.), who participated in the 1959 Senate confirmation hearings and was the one-time director of the AEO that was primarily responsible for Oppenheimer's sad and cruel fall from grace.    

So, yeah, there's a lot happening in OPPENHEIMER, but the fact that Nolan is able to command our attention and get into the headspaces of all of the film's key power players (and they are many) is to his esteemed credit.  When we meet Oppenheimer, he's largely seen as being one of the foremost minds in his field, which led to him being actively sought out by the U.S. government and military to partake in a race against time battle to harness the power of the atom in weapons form before Nazi Germany could.  We see both him and his military handler in General Leslie Groves (a crackerjack Matt Damon) meet and convince the best scientific minds of their era to pack themselves and their respective families up and move to a highly guarded and top secret base in Los Alamos to engineer, create, and then successful test a nuclear bomb...and hopefully not destroy the entire planet in the process.  There is one darkly humorous exchange between Oppenheimer and Groves, when the former explains that there's an almost zero per cent chance that the detonation of the atomic bomb will lead to a never-ending chain reaction that would ignite the atmosphere and systematically blow up the planet; a zero per cent chance would have been preferred by the general.  



It wasn't always easy for both Oppenheimer and his team on the Manhattan Project.  They were all under constant strain from the military to keep compartmentalizing everything that was happening there, which would put severe stresses on the scientists' personal lives.  Oppenheimer's relationship with his loyal wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) soldiers on despite his multiple adulterous flings with his lover, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). When his family life wasn't spiraling out of control, Oppenheimer was bombarded with borderline unreachable timelines to get the atomic bomb built, ready, and tested for use. Everything culminates in the aforementioned Trinity Test, which proves to be remarkably suspenseful in spite of the outcome being well known.  Nolan's recreation of this test is a bravura piece of practical filmmaking artifice (no CG was apparently used at all to recreate this infamous event), and when the bomb does go off with an eerie and blinding glow and ear-splitting boom and shockwave, we see the onlookers staring awestruck (and probably more than a bit intimidated) by what they've accomplished. At a project rally later with all of the Manhattan Project contributors, everyone seems jubilant in a pep rally-like manner, kind of akin to when the home team has scored a victory over their opponent.  Oppenheimer looks initially thrilled and is momentarily taken in by this miraculous feat, but deep down he is traumatized beyond belief.

The rest is well established history.  The U.S. under President Truman would launch not one, but two devastatingly brutal atomic bomb drops on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which decimated both cities and killed hundreds of thousands of people.  Japan would later surrender to the U.S., leading to WWII ending.  Oppenheimer didn't celebrate this as a success, but rather as a dire warning of what the world could come to if nuclear weapons (and bigger ones) became a reality for other nations post-war.  In a chilling scene, he visits Truman's office (played by a nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman) and pleads with the Commander and Chief about the perils of nuclear proliferation.  He also tells the president that he feels so guilty about overseeing the atomic bomb that he has "blood on his hands" after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Truman very quickly boots him from the Oval Office and tells his staff never to let this "cry baby" into the White House again.  It got worse for Oppenheimer.  Whereas the government once made great use of his talents to build a bomb, members from within then tried to discredit him during the height of McCarthyism because of his cozy ties to communist sympathizers and movements (with his ex-lover in Jean being one of them).  This was primarily orchestrated by his former friend and ally in Straus, who wanted to falsely burn Oppenheimer for his own greedy political gain.  

Oppenheimer's career as a physicist and government worker was essentially over.  He had no political influence after being stripped of his security clearance and would end up serving as a lecturer for most of the rest of his life until a decade-plus later when a new government in power helped pave the way for his rehabilitation in the public and political eye.  By that time, Oppenheimer was a frail fragment of his former self and died in his early 60s.  One of the vicious ironies that's brought to the forefront in OPPENHEIMER is how he and his team made - through years of mentally and physically taxing research and development - a weapon that would help his country secure victory over Japan, but this same weapon led to certain powers-that-be at home essentially dishonoring the reputation of the Manhattan Project leader.  Oppenheimer is warned about all of this years before by friends and colleagues like Albert Einstein (Tim Conti) and Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), but the wheels of progress (and the desire of the U.S. to launch a demoralizing blow to Japan) moved too fast and couldn't be stopped once in motion.  There's a fascinating undercurrent here regarding how Einstein's great scientific breakthroughs paved the way for Oppenheimer's future work on the bomb in ways that he simply cannot support.   

I think that's the key to Nolan's masterstroke efforts here.  OPPENHEIMER is not so much wrapped up in large-scale historical spectacle (to which it's no slouch), but is rather more primarily intoxicated with its human-scale story.  This is a movie about people that made personal sacrifices and took unmentionable risks in pushing the scientific envelope.  Nolan wants us to understand how the power of the bomb - and its usage - affected both Oppenheimer and everyone around him.  This is a character and dialogue-heavy film in every facet.  So many scenes are modest and economical in showing people sharing ideas and talking their way through problems, sometimes with success and other times with failure.  And many of these people were not saints, especially Oppenheimer himself.  His affair with Jean nearly cost him his marriage and sanity during the Manhattan Project and would have a dreadful impact on Jean's life.  Kitty (played in a thanklessly empowered performance by Blunt) turned to alcoholism to take her mind off of the burden of the project and her husband's unfaithfulness (Nolan is sometimes criticized for not having well regarded female characters in his films, but he pays off Kitty's arc here as a strong willed survivor in her own right in two memorable scenes).  Then there are other figures that Oppenheimer locked horns with, like Edwin Teller (a superb Benny Safdie), who wants to build bigger and better hydrogen bombs, much to his leader's chagrin.  Oppenheimer's relationship with General Groves is also noteworthy.  Damon plays this military man with tough gumption and stubborn pride that seems steadfast in pushing Oppenheimer to get the bomb ready as fast as possible (and without much in the way of understanding that you can't rush something that - if not properly conceived - could literally end the world)

Perhaps the film's best performance beyond Murphy's tour de force and Oscar nomination worthy one is the surprisingly nuanced and understated work by Downey as his wolf in sheep's clothing that was Lewis Strauss, who was so driven by petty anger and jealous over Oppenheimer and his willingness to curtail post-war nuclear development that he's willing to publicly bury him if it means getting into Eisenhower's cabinet.  Oppenheimer slowly losing power post-war is juxtaposed with Straus' twisted attempts to climb the political ladder by any means necessary.  Considering that Downey has made a recent career out of playing one of the most famous silver screen MCU heroes ever, it's great here to see him sink his teeth into an unglamorous and villainous role.  It should be noted that Straus' 1959 Senate hearing scenes are shot in lush and gorgeous black and white and are told from his prerogative, but the remainder of the film is from Oppenheimer's perspective and uses color film.  

That's another one of Nolan's brilliant maneuvers here.  OPPENHEIMER plays and toys with various visual motifs and looks.  With the attuned eye of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shooting the film in the large scale 70mm IMAX format (and in B&W, a cinematic first), watching this film's visual and large screen formatted splendor (whether it be in the ominously sumptuous vistas of New Mexico or the intimately suffocating political hearings or - as alluded to earlier - painstakingly measured close-ups of panic stricken faces) was an endlessly awesome sight via one of the world's very few true IMAX screens capable of projecting this rare film stock (I was fortunate enough to screen the film in such a capable cinema - one of just thirty that exist).  When the film isn't segueing in and out of the past and present and via different aesthetic lenses, we get many brief instances of flash cuts to ethereal sights...like instances of flames, explosions, chain reactions of particles, and so forth, which I think emotionally embellishes what's happening in the minds of these characters and their collision course with Trinity.  Jennifer Lane's sinewy editing is also integral here in making all of the twists and turns of this story - both narratively and visually - somehow make coherent sense in the end

OPPENHEIMER's boldness can't be understated.  Very few filmmakers in the industry have the clout of Nolan, who are granted the resources and talents to make an avant garde and three hour color and B&W historical drama about scientists creating and unleashing one of the biggest horrors that the world has ever experienced and releasing it during the peak of the summer film season, a time when innocuously brainless blockbusters aim to get butts into seats.  We simply don't get films like OPPENHEIMER made in abundance anymore, and ones that are character and dialogue driven on top of digging psychologically deep into their personas and themes.  OPPENHEIMER is certainly a big and awe-inspiring spectacle, yes, when it comes to delivering its Trinity Test sequence (the proverbial money shot sequence), but I found myself more entrenched in what Nolan's film was trying to say about the father of the atomic bomb and what that did to him, those that worked around him, and the larger world around them all.  OPPENHEIMER wisely doesn't portray the atomic bomb drops on Japan, but it doesn't do so uncaringly.  The film omits this vantage point because this is a chronicle of American men in power that made choices that led to those deadly events.  In one of the film's most casually cruel moments, one military higher up decides not to nuke Kyoto because of its "cultural history and importance" to the Japanese, but mostly because it was a beautiful city that he and his wife once honeymooned in.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen instead.   

The film never sides with the necessity of whether or not bombing Japan was even necessary at this stage in WWII (the Nazis were all but poised to surrender and Japan was arguably on their knees as well).  OPPENHEIMER is fixated on the Manhattan Project director's agony in knowing what his soon-to-be unchecked creation spawned.  There are certainly sides to be taken that if Oppenheimer and America didn't build the bomb then the horrific historical what-if scenario of Hitler having one would have been too monstrous to contemplate.  Then, of course, there's credibility in the argument that the atomic bombings of Japan were about showing force and scaring future political enemies like the Soviets.  Regardless, OPPENHEIMER doesn't lazily sermonize a message to audiences.  Exiting the IMAX cinema, I was emotionally drained and more than a bit rattled.  Nolan's film is a stark reminder of the domino effect that Oppenheimer's work would have on the world that can still be felt today and at a time when we're more unstable in terms of nuclear weapons than at any other point in history.  Oppenheimer saw the future when no one else could, and that cost him in more ways than one.  And you can see it in his eyes in the film.  He had become the destroyer of worlds.  What a terrible burden to live with.   

As a vast and expansive study of a tortured and brilliant man during a tumultuous period in American history, OPPENHEIMER is equal parts fascinating and terrifying to watch.  And after a career littered with one impressive film after another that has seen him conquer multiple genres and subject matter, this might be Nolan's crowning achievement. 

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