In terms of who can relate, perhaps it’s only Atlas that could know as much as J. Robert Oppenheimer about what it’s like to have the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an epic biopic but not in the traditional sense. Much like how his Dunkirk functioned more as a suspense film than a war movie, this story focusing on the “father of the atomic bomb” has far more going for it as a character-based thriller than a retelling of the events surrounding the Manhattan Project. True to form for the director, in delivering such an ambitious project, the choices to utilize IMAX cameras, an ensemble cast, innovative filmmaking techniques, and more have resulted in a blockbuster experience with plenty on its mind.
Adapted by Nolan from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “American Prometheus,” the film focuses on the life of Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), a theoretical physicist. This includes his earlier years, where he worked as a professor at Berkeley and shared interests with many leftists and members of the American Communist Party. The bulk of the film, of course, follows his tenure as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during WWII. Cutting into all of this is what transpired during a notable security hearing in 1954 that explored Oppenheimer’s leanings, actions, and associations.
While plenty can be said about the build-up that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, the film’s structure, which incorporates the hearing, allows a degree of focus to emerge, along with a centering around what Nolan is trying to get at. For all the details shown that reveal the kind of person Oppenheimer was, let alone the craft on display to recreate major historical events, the film can still be boiled down to a “men in a room” thriller emphasizing the nature of the bureaucratic process, the failings of a political system, and the importance of science and what brilliant minds have to offer, as complicated as these people can be. For a film set during a pivotal point in world history, it’s unsurprising to see how relevant it all still feels.
From the outset, Nolan makes the viewer aware of his intentions with the narrative by color-coding the film. Scenes featuring color put Oppenheimer’s perspective of events on display. Now, it would be easy to say the scenes shot in black-and-white (using IMAX-sized black-and-white photographic film created for this movie) put the facts on display, but it’s actually more inventive than that. And even with an understanding that the history already took place, so there’s nothing to spoil, the way this film manages to lean into why the black-and-white sections are essential ties to the journey we find these characters on.
Either way, as interesting as it is to see Nolan constructing a narrative that feels more in line with Memento or The Prestige, his ability to deliver as a maximalist is fully on display. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema once again shows just how aligned he is with the director’s vision, as the efforts to show the vast areas of New Mexico are matched well with the far more constrictive rooms we see characters in, yet it’s all so engrossing. With a heavy emphasis on getting shots in camera, for all the work involved in bringing Los Alamos back to life (leading up to a practical recreation of the Trinity nuclear test), showing the effect filming in IMAX can have on intense close-ups in small spaces affords Nolan the chance to really get a lot out of the performers.
Given this talented ensemble cast, seeing such great work here is no surprise. As the titular character, Murphy, in a rare chance to serve as the lead, is truly excellent in this film. With no need to go back to a childhood flashback or provide too many belabored details about his upbringing, etc., Murphy conveys so much of the kind of person Oppenheimer is through subtle changes in expression, sections where he’s allowed to add charm into his analytical way of speaking, and line readings that register as conflicted, the more he’s pushed to define certain stances. It’s a wonderfully calculated performance.
Support from Matt Damon is as good as one expects. As Leslie Groves, the man who assigned Oppenheimer to the Manhattan Project, Damon projects as needed as a stern general who understands who he’s dealing with. Emily Blunt also offers fine support as Kitty Oppenheimer. For a film very much settled into its time and place (meaning almost exclusively white and male), Blunt takes the traits known about this wife character and does enough to make her presence and usefulness to the story being told understood.
Nearly every working character actor is also featured in this film, including Uncut Gems director Benny Safdie as Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, Josh Hartnett as nuclear physicist and Nobel Prize winner Ernest Lawrence, and many others. With that in mind, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who also deserves high praise. Coming into this film as if he’s washed off the sheen of headlining a massive franchise for over a decade and is ready to get dirty again, his work as Lewis Strauss is terrific. Rather than leaning into the idea of being the smartest man in the room who gets by on smarmy charm, Downey upends what has typified his career resurgence and aims for something more vulnerable, no matter what kind of face he puts on to hide it. Glad to see the actor tapping back in with something so nuanced.
At three hours, there’s a lot of movie here. The large cast can be explained by the lack of shortcuts Nolan takes by not featuring any composite characters. For all the effort put into showing the mind of Oppenheimer on the largest canvas possible, so much of this film is rooted in actual history that it’s hard not to admire something so sweeping in the same way one looks at films like The Right Stuff. That said, the notion of pushing in all the elements of a thriller speaks to the pacing of this film. Oppenheimer initially takes its time, but so much of the construction of this story relies on short scenes, allowing the audience to feel as though they are constantly on the move. Once it settles into deliberations concerning Oppenheimer’s activities, the added stress (and how that’s visualized) only ratchets up the intensity further as the atmosphere adjusts appropriately.
I suppose for a blockbuster film about the birth of the Atomic Age, one may expect intense discussions concerning the moral implications surrounding the use of an a-bomb, as opposed to lengthy debates detailing political alliances. That is a factor in this film and an important one. Multiple scenes featuring Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) do plenty to speak to this point. In a wise move, Nolan also appreciates how to layer in what a reserved figure like Oppenheimer would have to say and how he would react to such a quandary. As a result, how this film decides how to grapple with the responsibilities of being an architect of destruction allows one to leave with intriguing questions to ponder.
Oppenheimer is the result of a filmmaker who continues to find ways in which he can dare the audience to go along with his unique approaches to familiar territory. It would be one thing to deliver a straight-ahead take on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, yet here we are with a narrative that crosscuts an incredibly dangerous gamble with science with an intense study of what it takes to unravel one of the most significant developments in American history. Equipped with a stellar cast and terrific work from Nolan’s team, including composer Ludwig Göransson’s, who delivers a wonderful score, this film reaches exceptional heights when it fires on all cylinders. Made to be watched on the most enormous screen possible, Nolan has gone out of his way to show that, as Oppie said, “Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful.”