Oppenheimer, the twelfth feature directed by Christopher Nolan, is only his second rooted in a historical event, following Dunkirk. I mention this right at the top to temper expectations on the admittedly huge IMAX-scaled production. There are no dreams to incept, no marvelous Batpods racing through downtown Chicago, or time itself going backward and forwards. Instead, the biggest special effect in this three-hour retelling of the creation of the atomic bomb and the man who became known as the “destroyer of worlds” are…. faces. Typically, that mug belongs to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy.) Yes, there is a ginormous explosion, too. Still, this is mainly about a small collective of scientists, military, politicians, and their families witnessing firsthand the spark that could have quite literally burned the entire world.
Spanning decades from the 40s to the 60s, the script by Nolan (based on the book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin) makes use of Nolan’s fascination with time and how it affects the perception of events. Hindsight is 20/20, and all that adds to the depth of the narrative. A chance to look upon one’s accomplishments and failures is the film’s thematic through line.
From a narrative point of view, Nolan uses such a structure to weave the Manhattan Project alongside two political hearings. Though both are not “trials” per se, the scenes act as a kind of Greek chorus for two men. The first focused on Oppenheimer, and the second, Secretary of Commerce, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). The timeline featuring Strauss (dubbed The Fusion) is set in the 60s and shot in black and white (a first for IMAX cameras). Oppenheimer’s section, a small-roomed inquiry (“The Fission”), is set in a cramped office with drab but tense brown, blue, and grey colors.
The best aspect of framing the film this way is how the cinematography by longtime Nolan collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema uses the IMAX canvas to internalize Oppenhiemer’s thoughts and feelings. It’s a big compliment that these “small but big” moments harken back to the granddaddy of big screen classics: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, even if Nolan’s epic doesn’t come close to measuring up by comparison. The faces of these people are electrifying and often terrifying.
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Unsurprisingly, the film’s best sections are filled with lectures on quantum mechanics, a brief cameo by Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), and everything that involves the Manhattan Project. Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, and Emily Blunt are all doing great work bouncing off Murphy’s caged charm as military engineer Leslie Groves, physicist Earnest Lawrence, and spouse Kitty Oppenheimer. We know the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be one of the worst tragedies in human history, yet seeing smart people in a race to beat the Nazi’s plan to create their own atomic bomb is no less thrilling. You never forget what the literal fallout with be, but one can’t help but be engaged as A-list talent bicker back and forth with just the slightest use of (much-needed) humor. In particular, Damon’s frankness provides a good amount of levity, which is a godsend.
Reportedly, every person in the film is based on actual figures from history. There are no composites like Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball. It’s a mostly effective way of presenting the actual events. When Oppenheimer is called to prove he was not a member/collaborator of the Communist Party, the small office being filled with the actual men (led by a sadly one-note performance from Jason Clarke as Roger Robb) that questioned him is effective at demonstrating how small Oppenheimer feels despite his accomplishments.
Less effective are the inquiries involving Strauss, which vacillate between a large hearing room to a small room with only Strauss and his aide (Alden Ehrenreich). Nolan doesn’t do much visually beyond the striking black-and-white look. For a talent like Nolan, these scenes feel run-of-the-mill television/film courtroom drama.
Other less-than-great moments include Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, a former lover of Oppenheimer. Too often, the women in Nolan’s films can be bland or stereotypical. (Yes, there are exceptions, like Jessica Chastain in Interstellar.) The scenes involving Tatlock and Oppenheimer’s doomed affair are just OK. Also, though I have no issue with using nudity in film, its presence here feels pointless. Nolan has never really been, um, sexy or, at the very least human with people’s sexuality, so it’s not so much a surprise as an expected letdown.
And what of the big bob-omb centerpiece? Shot practically sans CGI, the atomic explosion seen at the big Trinity test is undoubtedly the most realistic put on modern film. The explosion happens first, then all the sound and fury. It’s as far from the Michael Bayhem as can be. On an artistic level, it’s an accomplishment. Funny enough, this feels appropriate for J. Robert Oppenheimer: awesome in theory but questionable in execution. Another questionable move is the decision to have the big event happen about two-thirds through the film. Imagine Maya’s Seal Team killing Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty and then… an hour of chit-chat. Clearly, there’s a need to wrap up what exactly happened to everyone involved, yet a weird last act “twist” falls flat. Worse, there’s an effectively disturbing scene where Oppenheimer addresses his team and their families regarding their “success” that feels like the perfect note to end the film. Frustratingly, it is not.
Other nitpicks abound for a film that, at its heart, is embodied by a soulful performance by Murphy. We never like him in a traditional sense, but we do understand him. Ultimately, that’s far more important as an exploration of the man who created something that could end all life on Earth. For Nolan, the treatment of Oppenheimer is the most layered of his career.
And yet, at times, the deck seems too stacked. Jason Clarke’s aforementioned performance as Roger Robb is just one of many Nolan directed toward one-dimensional villainy. Thankfully, while I didn’t find Struass’ arc in the film compelling, Robert Downey Jr. delivers one of his best performances in years. He’s no Tony Stark by design.
Still, fifteen years after The Dark Knight, Nolan can’t help but have limited characters be vocal with pretty silly line readings. It turns out we’re still only so far away from “No more dead cops!” or Kenneth Branagh’s eye-roll-inducing “hope” speech from Dunkirk. Branagh does show up in Oppenheimer as little more than a cameo as physicist Neils Bohr, but one that works entirely based on the actor’s charisma.
Nolan has swung for the fences with his take on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer—a much better experience than his last attempt at Oscar bait, the dull Dunkirk. Oppenheimer, nevertheless, can’t quite ignite into the kind of IMAX experience one never forgets. Considering the subject matter, that’s a shame.