This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Christopher Nolan needs no introduction. He is one of cinema’s most beloved modern filmmakers, a true risk taker and visionary on all fronts. His stylistic approach is unmistakable regardless of whatever subject matter he may be exploring in his films. His twelfth feature, Oppenheimer, is no small feat. Based on the historical novel American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan’s film extensively covers the titular theoretical physicist’s scrutinized life, from the birthing of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico to the Trinity test to his public advocacy against the very weapon he fathered after witnessing its destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II. Nothing is glossed over. Oppenheimer is an immense film with an even larger magnitude than almost all of Nolan’s past works.
The story as we know it begins as J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) attends lectures around Europe from leading physicians, including Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer) – the Nazi physician working on their version of the atom bomb in the race against America and the allied forces. After returning to the United States, Oppenheimer sets up the first class for students to study nuclear physics. He quickly becomes a known figure and pioneer in his field, garnering the attention of the U.S. military who have already begun their quest for an all-powerful weapon to stop Hitler and end WWII. General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) assigns Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb. To bring peace to the world, destruction is seen as a necessary evil, which heavily weighs on Oppenheimer’s own sanity and well-being.
Christopher Nolan approaches Oppenheimer’s life with an unbiased lens. Even if we are naturally empathic towards the protagonist, Nolan’s script highlights all possible angles and serves as a deep dive into Oppenheimer’s psyche. Oppenheimer’s atomic experiments put much more at risk than just the lives of a few thousand people, they could potentially spark the end of life on Earth. Nolan forces us into the same sustained sense of existential dread that Oppenheimer himself is consumed by, waiting for the inevitable and theorizing about where it could all go wrong for its entire 3-hour runtime. These extreme levels of tension are amped up further by the interrogations after the war wherein Oppenheimer’s loyalty to America is put into question. Oppenheimer goes on to oppose the development of the hydrogen bomb after WWII, making him a threat to the powers that be who seek to control an even more destructive weapon.
The scenes of Oppenheimer’s interrogation interject throughout the film, as do black-and-white segments with the commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) at his own government hearing, fracturing any sort of straightforward narrative. Nolan crafts an introspective piece that is unlike any biopic or war epic we’ve seen before. In a similar vein as Dunkirk, the past, present and future all collide, eventually revealing the greater picture as Nolan smoothly rounds things out with an incredible, bone-chilling ending that is bound to leave many viewers speechless.
Mandalorian and Black Panther composer Ludwig Göransson reunites with Christopher Nolan here after scoring Tenet and crafts a pulsating musical backbone to Oppenheimer that is critical in creating an immersive experience. Every sonic queue and every instrument is utilized to get the most emotion out of the audience. Additionally, the sound design is a big upgrade from Tenet, overstimulating and awe-inducing til the very end. Adding to the grandeur is cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Nope, Interstellar) with his towering and impactful visuals. Practically every shot has a vivid purpose and is beautifully framed in IMAX 65mm and Panavision 65mm for more intimate scenes, as well as specially crafted black-and-white IMAX film for specific portions of the movie. Hoytema captures the sheer intensity of the operation at hand, while also taking time to lens the deeply complex emotions of Oppenheimer’s unwanted god complex.
Jennifer Lame (Hereditary, Marriage Story) will go down as one of the finest editors of the decade for her work here. Oppenheimer is paced at a breakneck speed, which is quite praiseworthy given all the nonlinear plot threads. The constant inter-splicing of Oppenheimer’s visions of atoms colliding is genius, fracturing his reality as it shapes into how it is now told in the history books. This opens up a pathway into the mind of the scientist but also acts as a tension builder given how each rapid shot represents a potential catastrophe to come. Lame’s razor-sharp editing makes this 3-hour-long film an utterly captivating watch, never slowing its rhythm or losing its tight grasp on the viewer’s undivided attention. Nolan gives Lame an all but impossible task and she executes it with sheer brilliance.
Getting into the star-studded cast, Oppenheimer is an expansive masterclass in acting. Leading the pack is a never-better Cillian Murphy who gives a career-defining performance as the titular character. He speaks with his eyes and more than often communicates all thoughts and devastating emotions – especially fear and anxiety – within the facial subtleties of his endless stare. Emily Blunt as his wife, Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, has her movie-stealing moment as well. Matt Damon is reliably excellent as Oppenheimer’s stern higher-up. Meanwhile, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock is a smaller presence but has some striking scenes. Jack Quaid, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, Matthew Modine, Rami Malek, Dane DeHaan, Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, David Dastmalchian, Olivia Thirlby, and more all get their individual share of moments to shine as well. One could go on all day as the list of actors goes on and on.
Christopher Nolan has indeed gathered a mighty ensemble to round out the film alongside Cillian Murphy’s enthralling take on Oppenheimer, but it’s Robert Downey Jr. who gives the film’s highest standout supporting performance as Lewis Strauss. Starring in almost entirely black-and-white scenes, Downey Jr. is repulsively brilliant in a role with some shocking twists, serving almost like an opposing narrative force to Murphy’s Oppenheimer. Even though the two rarely share the screen together, their oppositions are felt at every turn. And last but not least, veteran actor Tom Conti leaves a lasting impression as Albert Einstein, who shows up more than expected and has one of the most momentous and unforgettable scenes of the film.
It’s hard to fathom any film this year, or anytime soon, surpassing the impact and sheer gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Every brush stroke propels the story forward, it’s fascinatingly dense and incredibly stimulating. It’s a film that demands to be revisited across time, as a reminder of our past. This could be Nolan’s finest masterpiece yet.