With theatrical film releases smack dab in the middle of dying The Death of 1,000 Cuts, writer/director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Inception) takes his shot at jump-starting the industry with one Big, Important Piece of Cinema. While its lasting effect on the future of the traditional Hollywood film biz remains to be seen, the historical biopic Oppenheimer stands today as a monumental piece of filmmaking guaranteed to inspire confident talk of an “Oscar sweep.”
Like Stanley Kubrick and a handful of film auteurs before him, Nolan has now mastered the skill of combining cinematic art, narrative importance and audience engagement. Oppenheimer isn't simply a biographical drama about “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer. It's a macroscopic/microscopic exploration of mid-century scientific discovery and the repercussive fallout of exposing the inner working of the universe. It's also a cracklingly good, bracingly dark piece of summer movie entertainment.
Going in as an audience member, you'd be hard-pressed to believe a three-hour movie could maintain a level of tension as high as this one does. Nolan's script blows Oppenheimer's life apart into tiny fragments, allowing them to fall onto the screen in a way that follows only the barest of temporal timelines yet highlights just how these seemingly random moments connect to one another. For the most part, the film is split into two distinct elements. Nolan titles them, appropriately, “Fission” and “Fusion.” In the Fission parts, we get Oppenheimer's efforts to develop the Manhattan Project and beat the Nazis to the atomic bomb during the 1940s. In the Fusion sections—set in the postwar 1950s and shot helpfully in black and white—we bear witness as Oppenheimer battles Communist-baiting elements within the U.S. Government in a “What have you done for us lately?” follow-up.
As the lead character, Irish actor Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins, “Peaky Blinders”) gives a revelatory performance. Slimming himself down to rail-thin proportions and fully inhabiting the off-kilter intellectual skin of Robert Oppenheimer, he offers a pleasingly complex portrait of this pivotal-yet-mysterious historical figure. Oppenheimer was, on the one hand, cerebral, egotistical and standoffish. On the other hand, he was high-minded, insecure and—from the evidence at hand—a major ladies' man.
At this point in time, most of the historical information surrounding the Manhattan Project, the “secret city” of Los Alamos and the Trinity Test are fairly common knowledge. Oppenheimer never bogs down giving us rote information about Oppenheimer's past or delivering a procedural accounting of the atomic bomb's construction. Instead, it shows us the impact this inconceivably grand scientific project had on its creator and the people around him. There's the constant fear of spies, the sheer speed at which the project needs to be accomplished, the remote possibility that it could “ignite” the entire atmosphere and the moral weight of what this weapon will ultimately be used for.
The Fusion sections of the film, meanwhile, deal with Lewis Strauss (a devilishly good Robert Downey Jr.) and his attempts to get confirmed by the Senate as secretary of commerce. As a former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, his interactions with Oppenheimer are quite germane and lead to Oppenheimer having to sit in front of a very contentious board to re-up his security clearance. His past associations with Communist organizations are dredged up, and his loyalty to the United States is questioned.
Oppenheimer doesn't try to build its main character up as any kind of hero. He's a conflicted, complicated, thorny man caught in a crossroads of history. He knew before that bomb went off in White Sands what it presaged. And he spent a lot of his life—as several characters point out—trying to martyr himself, as if that might be a way to ease his heavy conscience.
In addition to his theoretical scientific pursuits, Oppenheimer had a wandering eye for the ladies, and his relationship with the younger psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) is vividly documented here. His troubled relationship with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) is also deftly explored. Despite the emotional nature of these tangled relationships, Oppenheimer never descends to the occasional “soap opera” elements of TBS' generally sharp-eyed ensemble drama “Manhattan” (similarly shot here in New Mexico). Throw in cameos by Matt Damon, Tony Goldwyn, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman and others and you've got an old-fashioned “all-star” cast.
Though the outcome of the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer's ultimate place in American history are foregone conclusion, Nolan's film wraps its narrative in a firestorm of building excitement and increasing pressure. This is aided immeasurably by some mind-blowing cinematography, a triphammer editing style and a truly powerful score courtesy of Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson. Few scenes last for more than a minute or two, impatiently hopping time and space in order to get a handle on this rapidly expanding story. The icing on the cake is the disorienting sound design which, at times, feels like its been ripped from an experimental horror film. If you've ever watched an Academy Award telecast and wondered what exactly sound design is, watch and listen to Oppenheimer and it will become abundantly clear.
Oppenheimer is a masterwork of American cinematic art, turning a controversial real-life figure into a character of epic mythological weight, a modern-day Prometheus cursed by time, environment and personal hubris for his boundless pursuit of universal knowledge.
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