Director Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Oppenheimer,” is a cinematic tour de force. mily Blunt, who plays Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, commented in a press interview about Nolan’s “command of excellence.” While there are some flaws such as the picture being too long at three hours and of the Trinity explosion happening too early in the movie, these seem to be somehow minimized by the sheer grandeur of this project. In that way, it mirrors the complex process that was the Manhattan Project.
This is clearly a biopic. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film goes throughout the scientist’s life. The key focus is on the life-altering moment when Trinity was detonated.
As such, I do not feel the need to provide biographical background on Oppenheimer for the purposes of this review. These facts are readily available in the book or for those wanting a brief synopsis, an online encyclopedia or Wikipedia.
For me, the film seems more like a memoir than a biography. Indeed Nolan wrote a script for this project in first person.
The crucial difference in a memoir is that it relies on one’s recollections, however diminished or altered by time, rather than an outside observer recounting facts. There are several scenes in the film where we see what amount to intertitles of phenomenon presumably imagined and experienced by Oppenheimer. These include electrical currents, lightning, embers, floating particles, and oscillating waves. The effect is striking every time that it occurs.
The movie does an excellent job in showing the contradictions of Oppenheimer’s life. He was involved in leftist causes that made him suspect to lead the Manhattan Project. Yet he was a brilliant theoretician and a natural leader. He was loyal to his wife and had at least one affair. He had his security clearance revoked and then was honored by JFK and LBJ.
There is a great scene that appears twice in the film from different perspectives. In the first occurrence, we see Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) watching Albert Einstein (Tom Conti, in a brilliant minor role) and Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) converse but we do not hear the conversation.
In the second instance, we hear the conversation between the two scientists in their very brief tete-a-tete. It is a highlight of the picture.
Nolan designed the film to be shot in 70 mm. Seeing it as I did in an IMAX theater, one might wonder why a biopic rated such a venue. Yet there is something all-engrossing in seeing these large images that envelop you in the picture playing out on screen.
Sitting as I was in the upper right in the higher rows of the theater, I observed an audience completely rapt by the preparations to explode the Trinity bomb. You could have heard a pin drop. What struck me was that we all know that this explosion is going to be successful, so why the intense gaze? This is a true tribute to the storytelling skills of Nolan.
The work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema is Oscar-worthy. From the work on the intertitles to the black-and-white scenes, his skill is masterful.
Likewise Ludwig Goransson’s score is powerful in places and appropriately light in others. His ability to create a unique sonic landscape that mirrors what we are seeing in the intertitles is first-rate.
If Robert Downey, Jr., does not receive a Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, it will be a true injustice. His portrayal of Lewis Strauss and Strauss’s role in Oppenheimer’s life is breathtaking in its subtlety and range of emotions. Downey is at the top of his craft here in a career performance.
Murphy himself gives a very understated representation of the scientist throughout various stages of his life. He disappears into the character and so you almost don’t notice him despite his omnipresence in the story.
Of course I am sure that Nolan with his stellar reputation has no trouble attracting actors who want to work with him. Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, and Florence Pugh are a few of the fine cast in this work.
The central theme of the movie seems to be the moment in human history where we acquired the power to alter life on earth through mass destruction. If Trinity had failed, would the world be different? Another reality was the very slim chance that the explosion might ignite the entire atmosphere and annihilate life on Earth.
This theme seems particularly relevant as we approach another threshold for the human race. The seemingly-rapid rise of ChatGPT and AI in general is reworking the landscape of our lives. For the film and TV industries, it bodes major changes in the future. Like any scientific development, the question remains how do we handle it.
An item that might be considered a flaw is that certain characters come and go very quickly. You often don’t get to know much about them. Then they may reappear later and you have to remember who they are.
Yet many people were involved not only throughout Oppenheimer’s life, but in particular in the Manhattan Project. How do you convey the complexity of this enterprise if you do not have a complex film? Nolan tackles this head-on by showing the compartmentalization of the Project and by having bit characters who the viewer may or may not remember.
Nolan is one of the few directors who does not pander to his audience. He admirably trusts the viewer’s instincts to keep up. Another director who films in this manner is Jordan Peele. For example, in “Nope,” there is very little exposition or often explanation for what is going on.
Even placing the later, less-exciting years of Oppenheimer as the final third of the movie was not enough to detract significantly from the overall effect. These are the scenes where Downey excels and so that is compensation of its own kind.
The length is usually an issue for me. For once, I was never bored. I don’t know which scenes Nolan could have edited out from this masterpiece.
If you can see this in an IMAX theater, then do so. If you see it in a regular theater by itself or as part of the Barbenheimer experience, then enjoy its thought-provoking messages.
Five out of five stars
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is an IMAX®-shot epic thriller that thrusts audiences into the pulse-pounding paradox of the enigmatic man who must risk destroying the world in order to save it.
The film stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Emily Blunt as his wife, biologist and botanist Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer. Oscar® winner Matt Damon portrays General Leslie Groves Jr., director of the Manhattan Project, and Robert Downey, Jr. plays Lewis Strauss, a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
Academy Award® nominee Florence Pugh plays psychiatrist Jean Tatlock, Benny Safdie plays theoretical physicist Edward Teller, Michael Angarano plays Robert Serber and Josh Hartnett plays pioneering American nuclear scientist Ernest Lawrence.
Oppenheimer also stars Oscar® winner Rami Malek and reunites Nolan with eight-time Oscar® nominated actor, writer and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh.
The cast includes Dane DeHaan (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), Dylan Arnold (Halloween franchise), David Krumholtz (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Matthew Modine (The Dark Knight Rises).
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and the late Martin J. Sherwin.
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey, Jr., Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Michael Angarano, Josh Hartnett and Kenneth Branagh
Written and Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Genre: Epic Thriller
"Oppenheimer" is a cinematic tour de force
While there are some flaws such as the picture being too long at three hours and of the Trinity explosion happening too early in the movie, these seem to be somehow minimized by the sheer grandeur of this project. In that way, it mirrors the complex process that was the Manhattan Project.