REVIEW — “Oppenheimer”
In Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan crafts his most cinematic and intimate film: a haunting character study presented as an explosive historical epic.
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Nolan builds the tension by framing the narrative around two significant events in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy).
One is a humiliating and relentless McCarthy-era security clearance probe by the Atomic Energy Commission where Oppenheimer must justify his entire life’s decisions, the moral implications of his actions, and his alleged communist ties. The other bookend is a later Senate confirmation hearing that exposes details that ultimately exonerate the beleaguered Oppenheimer and reveal the conspiracy to discredit his legacy led by nemesis, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.)
The two settings, tilted Fission and Fusion, respectively, are distinguishable by a clever filmmaking technique. The probe is in color, while the hearing is in black and white. They each include flashbacks to defining moments in Oppenheimer’s life, from his days as a promising but defiant student, to his conflicting love affairs and the creation of the Manhattan Project.
The ticking clock of the arms race is arguably the film’s most exciting part. Oppenheimer is recruited by General Leslie Groves, Jr. (Matt Damon) to assemble a team of scientific superheroes to move to the desert and invent a war-ending weapon before the Nazis.
While the use of the atomic bomb in two devastating bombings in Hiroshima and Nagaski resulted in mass Japanese casualties, it prevented the continued loss of American lives by successfully ending the second World War. However, it also escalated and ignited colder wars that continue to this day.
As the titular character, the immensely impressive Murphy uses every tool in his arsenal to embody the brilliant but tortured Oppenheimer. It is undeniably a riveting, Oscar-worthy performance. Slim and stoic, the actor brings the character to life with subtle inflections and silent contemplation that display the inner torment of a man wrestling between his duty to his science, service to his country, and loyalty to his conscience. Such a terrible revelation of divine power was nearly too much for Oppenheimer to reconcile. Throughout the film, he is often so tightly wound and racked with guilt that he himself seems likely to erupt into a fiery explosion.
In an about face from her role as Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt plays Kitty, Oppenheimer’s no-nonsense wife and neglectful mother to his children. The star-studded supporting cast also includes dynamic turns from Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, David Krumholtz, Alden Ehrenreich, Casey Affleck, Michael Angarano, Josh Peck, Dylan Arnold, Matthew Modine, and Kenneth Branagh, among others.
However, it is Robert Downey, Jr. who steals the show. As Atomic Energy Commission chair and Oppenheimer frenemy Strauss, Downey, Jr. sets aside his likable personality to go for the gold in a role that will surely lock in a best supporting actor nomination, if not win. Never before have we seen a more vicious and vindictive performance from the megastar. At first empathetic, his subdued villainy sneaks up on you, turning into jealous rage by the film’s end.
Expertly directed by Nolan and exquisitely shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, the film is essentially a three hour long interrogation that steeps you in frustration from the exhaustingly biased and unjustified questioning that Oppenheimer was subjected to. The innovative auteurs paint a haunting picture of one of America’s most darkly defining legacies filmed in IMAX® 65mm and 65mm large-format film. The result is a mind blowing and haunting experience that should be seen in a loud room with a towering screen.
With all of the explosive theatrics of the birth of the atomic bomb, the film does not focus as much on the bomb as it does on the man behind it. In fact, the film finishes, not with a bang, but with a quiet moment between two theoretical geniuses, Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), reflecting on their prediction of a near zero percent change of global decimation when the button was pushed. The revelatory scene is more powerful than a mushroom cloud.
While history, thankfully, proved their estimation to not to be the case, Oppenheimer posits that, instead, it was a slow burn of man made destruction. The lasting final frame leaves audiences, and Oppenheimer, with the horrific realization that his work was death, and, while not instantaneous, it did indeed destroy the world. 4.5/5
Rated R with a running time of 3 hours, Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21, 2023.