Written by: Adam Vaughn | July 20th, 2023
Oppenheimer (Christopher Nolan, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Director Christopher Nolan’s biopic, Oppenheimer, about the man responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb, is delivered through abstract visuals, creative cinematography, and stellar performances. The leads include Cillian Murphy (A Quiet Place Part II), Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns), Florence Pugh (The Wonder), and Matt Damon (Air). While Nolan has little excuse for his over three-hour runtime, overall Oppenheimer is majestic and powerful, and approaches the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer in a unique, effective, and almost chilling manner.
Nolan’s story, to its advantage, jumps in linear time, swapping between the 1954 interrogation of Oppenheimer by the Atomic Energy Commission to the physicist’s early student days. The film’s chronology is in perfect order, manifesting all the important moments in Oppenheimer’s life, such as his pursuit of nuclear fission, his relationship and eventual conflict with Lewis Strauss (Downey), and his complicated love life with wife Kitty (Blunt) and affair with Jean Tatlock (Pugh).
In Oppenheimer, Murphy gets one of his most shining moments yet. Not only does the actor fully embody J. Robert Oppenheimer in appearance, but Murphy’s performance shows the full gamut of the physicist’s personality, as well as the turmoil he felt creating a device that had the potential to destroy the planet. Additionally, Oppenheimer’s supporting helps fully depict the time period and era of a world about to be introduced to the most terrifying weapon ever created.
While Nolan’s previous films have relied on crisp but grounded cinematography, Oppenheimer at times takes a more abstract approach to its storytelling. Nolan splashes vivid and almost terrifying practical effects of fire, light, and other expressionistic visuals atop a literally explosive sound design to create an uneasy feeling, as the viewer creeps closer to the fateful Manhattan Project. The combination of non-linear editing and these effects form an almost dreamlike journey through Oppenheimer’s life and perspective.
But what Nolan also does is perfectly depict the social fallout of Oppenheimer’s invention unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Admittedly, I wish the viewers got to witness more of the horrific response and outcome of Hiroshima/Nagasaki from the Japanese point of view, as the single scene in Oppenheimer where the physicist witnesses film reels of death and destruction could have been taken to much more shocking heights. All the same, a huge part of the film’s narrative centers around how much fear and anger came from the United States itself, and how much scrutiny Oppenheimer and his scientific team had to undergo following the release of the atomic bomb.
While Oppenheimer is a near-perfect cinematic work, one has to note that the film’s runtime of over three hours makes it feel a bit drawn out, and there’s one main theme to blame. Nolan adds in the idea that Oppenheimer was constantly under fire for his affiliation with the Communist Party, during the time of McCarthyism. For me this drags the final acts out too much, and keeps the viewer from the film’s gripping conclusion.
While Nolan may not have paid close enough attention to his own cinematic pacing, with Oppenheimer he still proves to be one of Hollywood’s hottest directors. Through the combination of phenomenal acting, eerie and effective cinematography, and a tense narrative, this film may very well scare its viewer as it explains a real-life nightmare. While I personally have seen more captivating work from Christopher Nolan, it is very clear he is far from running out of steam.