Significant historical figures like J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the atomic bomb, rarely receive a big screen treatment like this. After years of anticipation, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has arrived, and it is a masterpiece, a monumental directorial achievement. Nolan does a lot but not on his own. Ludwig Göransson’s hypnotic score enhances the historical drama, as does cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s framing and Jennifer Lame’s precise editing. The movie builds upon each scene after the next and is brilliantly constructed because of these technical elements. Despite Nolan’s maximalist style, I could still see his art house instincts throughout. Even still, I was mesmerized by the big-budget spectacle through its 3-hour run time.
The acting was top-notch, featuring an impressive ensemble of actors. Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer was a revelation as a man holding the world’s weight on his shoulders with momentous intensity. Just the look on his face expresses it all without saying a word. It astonished me that Nolan pulled this performance out of him because Murphy’s work surprised me the most of every aspect of this movie, boosting it to a masterclass level.
Emily Blunt did so much with the limiting role of Kitty Oppenheimer, and I found that not a moment was wasted with her in it. I just wanted more, but glad she was here. Similarly, Robert Downey Jr. is riveting with every second of screen time and so much at stake. I was enthralled with his performance, and it was nice to see him tap into something we rarely see from him in his modern body of work. I’d even say this is one of Matt Damon’s better performances, which I think could be overlooked since Oppenheimer has so many strong performances.
There is so much at stake in Oppenheimer. Morally complex and densely written with bold ideas about scientific breakthroughs and mortality, and men in rooms talking about big important things. (No wonder filmmaker Paul Schrader claimed it to be one of the century’s greatest and most important films.) The screenplay, adapted from “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” impressively weaves different plot points throughout the movie.
My greatest appreciation for Oppenheimer is how Christopher Nolan plays with chronology by shifting in time between the different storylines presented. This aligns with the style we have come to know in Inception, Memento, and The Prestige. By the time the third hour brought everything together, I was happy to appreciate it as the strongest act.
While I could not view the film in its 70mm IMAX presentation crafted especially by Nolan, I had the opportunity to watch a crisp 35mm print of Oppenheimer at Denver’s Sie Film Center during the sold-out Thursday night sneak preview. I appreciated that so many individuals came together to watch a great auteur filmmaker subjugate his craft in what felt like a cinephile event. Directors whose name can be used to help open a movie theatrically are incredibly rare these days, so I am grateful that we have Nolan and this experience.