The previous film from master of cinema Christopher Nolan, Tenet, his chopped-and-screwed take on the Bond thriller, was released amidst the height of the Pandemic, attempting to be the first film to usher audiences back in to theaters. When that film’s release didn’t quite go as planned, Nolan left his longtime studio home at WB and jumped ship over to Universal. While his past handful of films have pushed the limits of filmmaking technology and offered original, distinct visions in the shape of tentpole Hollywood blockbusters, his latest is his first character study in well over a decade. Inspired by the 2005 biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”, Nolan’s seemingly straightforward biopic is actually one of the filmmaker’s most audacious and thematically challenging works yet.
Following a non-linear structure, as Nolan likes to do, Oppenheimer chronicles the life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) from his tenure teaching at the University of California, Berkeley and his personal woes, from his affair with psychologist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) to his marriage to wife Kitty (Emily Blunt), his position in charge of the Manhattan Project and eventually his persecution by his government over his leftist views.
Although the threat of destruction lingers behind every frame, Oppenheimer is partly a war picture with no on-screen violence. A film of the war between theory and actuality, ego and legacy, this is Nolan’s most grounded film, one that crackles with fiery dialogue as it bounces back-and-forth between bureaucratic hearings and classroom debates regarding the construction of the deadliest weapon ever created by man. The final reel is largely dedicated to the Senate confirmation hearings for the nomination of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the Atomic Energy Commission chair who held deep resentment for Oppenheimer and was partly to blame for his public rejection circa the beginning of the Cold War; bouncing back-and-forth between Strauss’ vendetta against Oppenheimer and the witch hunt to revoke his security clearance
Nolan’s protagonists are all men haunted by their own destructive obsession, but Nolan places that idea at the very forefront of Oppenheimer. With remarkable cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan uses the large-format 65mm IMAX cameras to further put the audience behind the psyche of Oppenheimer. Even if Nolan comes up a bit short on the character’s personality, we witness the perpetual uncovering of the man’s psyche. After the Hiroshima & Nagasaki bombings, Oppenheimer becomes tortured by the fact his work was used to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. During the character’s “victory” speech after the bombings, Nolan implements some of his most abstract and chilling visual motifs since his early short film days. The way Nolan will utilize sound in often experimental fashion, creates a heightened sense of existential terror. During this speech, we hear large bursts of rumbling, as if the Earth is about to entirely combust, that are also matched with the thunderous sound of both stomping and applause. Composer Ludwig Goransson’s violin-heavy score a marvelous piece of work, amplifying the urgency coursing through the film’s veins while aiding in the film’s intoxicating soundscape.
A political thriller not dissimilar to Oliver Stone’s JFK, Nolan may not have the loose screw that Stone has, compared to the rampant coked-out paranoia of Stone’s 1991 masterpiece. However, what Nolan does have is a methodical attention to detail. Despite the 180 minute runtime, Oppenheimer never lets up on the sheer intensity of its stakes. Despite obviously knowing the outcome, the intricate details of Nolan’s vision are what separate the filmmaker from most in his line of work. The utterly breathless Trinity Test sequence sees Nolan ratcheting up tension not often felt in modern cinema.
The editing consistently upends our perception on specific events offering slightly differing accounts of the same events. The use of newly-created black & white 65mm IMAX film stock is used as an objective perspective, similar to Nolan’s technique in Memento. It’s the remarkable intimacy that we get with the actors that creates another level of immersion, further propelling us into the nuances of the characters, namely Cillian Murphy’s turn as Oppenheimer.
Cillian Murphy, a longtime Nolan muse, is nothing short of brilliant here. Working a tight close-up like very few actors can, we can see the subtle devastation of a man weighing his own morality in his life’s work. It’s a fascinating performance, one that will surely reveal more and more with each viewing. Robert Downey Jr. is tremendous in his best non-Marvel role in over a decade. Finally able to emerge from his Tony Stark persona, Downey showcases why he is one of our very best actors working today. His seething animosity for Oppenheimer is skillfully portrayed, never feeling one-note, but with a sense of melancholy behind the jealous rage.
Nolan enlists quite the array of supporting players, one of the most packed ensembles in recent years. Matt Damon is enthralling as the intense General Leslie Groves, the Military supervisor at Los Alamos. Emily Blunt is far from the concerned housewife role the character may initially come across as, with her portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer shown with a sense of ferocity, getting more to do as the film moves along. We also get a near-ending sea of bit players with everyone from Kenneth Branagh to Josh Hartnett and Benny Safdie — in a robust Hungarian accent, to Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, Matthew Modine, Jason Clarke, Dane Dehaan, Olivia Thirlby, Alden Ehrenreich and, yes, even Josh Peck.
Oppenheimer is another seismic piece of cinema from Christopher Nolan. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a man of many contradictions; so is Nolan’s film. It’s an intimate character study through the gargantuan lens of 70mm IMAX. A three-hour epic about the father of the atomic bomb with the tension and perspective of a hitchcockian thriller. A densely layered and methodically conceived film of morality and ego. This is a stirring cinematic event that will leave you absolutely shaken.
Oppenheimer opens in theaters, July 21st.